Page 12 - 2017 Preservation Society Summer Gazette
P. 12

Solving a Mystery at Rosecliff
by Jim Donahue
Curator of Historic Landscapes
When a generous donor offered to fund the renovation of Rosecliff’s rose garden, I set about looking for more information on the site’s history. I knew the current building took its name from an earlier home built for noted 19th century historian and diplomat George Bancroft, whose avocation was his famous rose garden on the Cliff Walk. My hope was to research which roses Bancroft grew, with the intention of reintroducing them as part of the garden’s refresh. A trip to The Massachusetts Historical Society, where Bancroft’s papers are archived, uncovered a number of 1869-70 invoices from rose nurseries in the US and Europe. Bancroft ordered over 600 roses from France for his Newport garden in one shipment alone! But then I happened upon another document that piqued my interest.
Looking at the 1876 Newport Atlas, I was surprised to see another house occupying what is today Rosecliff’s sweeping front lawn. The name listed as the owner of that parcel, Eliza A. Parkman, was familiar. A noted 19th century rosarian named Francis Parkman suffered from ill health for much of his life, and was cared for by his sister and constant companion, Eliza. Could it be the same Parkman? The answer led to an amazing story.
The story of a debt, a Boston murder and a love of roses
It wasn’t that Eliza Parkman but it is the very same family. The parcel was owned by Francis Parkman’s Aunt Eliza and the story of how the widow Parkman and her two chil- dren ended up living on the front acreage of Rosecliff is tied to roses - and one of the most notorious murder trials of the 19th century.
In late1849, Francis Parkman’s uncle
Dr. George Parkman, scion of one of Boston’s most prominent families, sold
one of his many land holdings to his alma mater, Harvard, for construction of its new medical college. Enter Dr. John Webster, professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Harvard Medical College, and deeply in
debt to George Parkman for $2000 – equal
to almost $60,000 today. It seems Professor Webster was socializing in circles he could not afford on his academic salary. Just before Thanksgiving, Parkman visited Webster and demanded immediate payment of the debt, threatening to expose Webster and have him removed from the Harvard faculty. In a fit
of panic and rage, Webster fatally stabbed Parkman, dismembered his body and tried to burn it in the chemistry lab furnace, throwing the partially burned remains in his office privy and locking the door. A school janitor discovered the burned body parts, along with a partial set of dentures.
Dr. George Parkman, "The Pedestrian"
Webster's trial in 1850 was the first to rely
on criminal forensics, the identification of Parkman’s dentures and body parts providing circumstantial evidence leading to Webster’s conviction. Webster confessed to the crime before being hanged in August of that year.
The murder of a Boston blueblood by
a Harvard professor created a sensation,
and with the constant press attention Eliza Parkman and her children needed to get out of town.
George Bancroft started summering at his newly built cottage,’ Rose Clyffe’, in 1852. According to Preservation Society Curator Paul Miller, Bancroft sold his front acreage to local builder Abraham T. Peckham in September of that year, who in turn sold it to Eliza Parkman and built her a cottage
on the site. Of course, Bancroft would have known of the murder case a few years earli- er, but was more likely acquainted with the Parkman family from his years as Collector for the port of Boston. But it may be that Francis Parkman, Jr. was the link that landed his aunt and cousins in front of Rosecliff.
The 1849 publication of Francis Parkman’s best-selling history, The Oregon Trail, a narrative of his time living amongst the
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