chapter  10
5 Pages

Bodies of evidence

ByVICTOR BUCHLI, GAVIN LUCAS

In 1849, the academic world of Harvard was thrown into turmoil by the murder of a prominent physician and benefactor George Parkman; as the case unravelled it appeared that a Professor Webster at Harvard Medical school had owed Parkman large sums of money and consequently Webster’s laboratory was searched, although it revealed nothing. Finally, a curious janitor broke into the lab’s privy where he found parts of a dismembered body and a subsequent police search of a small incinerator found the burnt fragments of skull and dentures. The whole weight of the medical school including Oliver Wendell Holmes was convened to study the remains and eventually, Webster was convicted and hanged the following year (Snow 1982: 102-5). This case has been ventured as one of the first instances of forensic anthropology, but it also serves to illustrate the key element in forensics: the corpus delicti, the body of the crime, whether this is an actual body or the traces of a crime.