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Review: ‘Blood amp; Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard,’ by Paul Collins

July 13, 2018

When Dr. George Parkman, Harvard Medical School alumnus and benefactor, went missing on the Friday before Thanksgiving 1849, his family and well-heeled friends were instantly alarmed. A pillar of the community and familiar presence on the streets of the college town of Cambridge and neighboring Boston, Parkman wasn’t the sort of man who verged from his daily habits, which typically included visiting his many properties, collecting rents and depositing the proceeds in his bank.

When he didn’t come home that Friday, his wife went to the Cambridge authorities and the hunt for George Parkman became an instant mystery and deep social upset to the entire Harvard community. When the dismembered and charred remains of his body turned up in the septic system of the same Medical College building that he’d recently funded, the question of “Where is Parkman?” turned quickly into “Who done him in?”

Initial suspects, in the eyes of the Harvard world, included any one of the growing numbers of shiftless Irish immigrants who were then swelling the populace in Boston, across the Charles River. Attention soon shifted to the lowly janitor who discovered the body. Mouths fell deeply agape, however, when the finger slowly shifted to full point, and settled in the direction of one of the Harvard faculty’s own elite members.

In “Blood Ivy,” historian Paul Collins has written a page-turning account of one of the most famed murders of mid-19th-century America. Using a bountiful trove of resource material, including gavel-to-gavel coverage in the eight daily newspapers that existed in the Boston area at the time, as well as several different trial transcripts and the journal of trial observer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Collins offers a keen portrait of the social and cultural milieu in which this shocking murder and subsequent trial were played out.

In a community where a killer couldn’t swing a severed limb without smacking a famed Transcendentalist, distinguished scholar or proper Unitarian minister, the very idea of a gruesome homicide was unheard of. (In fact, this remains the only murder ever committed on the Harvard campus.)

Among the noteworthy figures who make cameo appearances in “Blood Ivy,” along with Longfellow, are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and even Charles Dickens. Dr. Henry Bigelow, the first surgeon to employ anesthesia in surgery, helped in the autopsy of poor Parkman. Trial judge Robert Shaw was the father-in-law of Herman Melville, and Parkman was himself uncle to the famed historian Francis Parkman and great-uncle to future Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw.

Anyone curious about how well-mannered psychopathy was acted out among the greens of 19th-century Cambridge will be rewarded by reading “Blood Ivy.”

Tim Brady is a writer and biographer in St. Paul. His latest book is “His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt Jr.”

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