“Blood and Ivy: The 1849 Murder that Scandalized Harvard” by Paul Collins, W.W. Norton & Company, 345 pages, $26.95.
The murder of an eminent Boston physician and subsequent trial of one of his colleagues proved just as riveting to 19th century Americans as the case involving O.J. Simpson, which would take place more than a century later. The victim, Dr. George Parkman, had originally donated the land for the Harvard Medical College where the accused murderer, Dr. John Webster, served as professor of chemistry.
Author Paul Collins has suspensefully chronicled this forgotten crime in “Blood and Ivy” by using vintage newspaper articles and the transcripts from the trial. Divulging the gruesome particulars of the crime and the jury’s verdict would detract from the page-turning enjoyment of Collins’ labor so no spoiler alert will be necessary.
Although true crime stories are a television staple, the reviewer has never been a fan of the genre which seems to appeal to our baser instincts and, at times, approaches ghoulish voyeurism. Nevertheless, this book deserves mention with classics like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Bugliosi and Gentry’s “Helter Skelter” in its stylish presentation of the lurid deed.
Literary figures abound in Collins’s tale. Longfellow was acquainted with both Parkman and Webster and Oliver Wendell Holmes was dean of Harvard Medical College, the scene of the crime. The book begins and ends with Charles Dickens, whose fascination with the case led to his final, unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”.
Webster’s trial brings up the issues of “presumed innocence” and “reasonable doubt” which could have sprung from recent headlines. The earliest uses of dental records, handwriting analysis and forensic medicine were also parts of the sensational trial.
In summary, the book’s mixture of history and crime drama should appeal to readers who might otherwise spend an evening watching CSI or the History Channel.