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First Case of Forensic Dentistry in American Justice

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Law
Wordcount: 2570 words Published: 26th Sep 2017

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Xavier Riaud

Story of the first identification in forensic dentistry endorsed by the American justice


In 1849, Webster killed Parkman. The latter’s body had never been found but his dental prostheses had. Webster was arrested and was prosecuted for the murder. The analysis of the dental prostheses carried out by Parkman’s personal dentist, positively identified the aforementioned prostheses and which immediately condemned Webster to death. This was the first case of identification in forensic dentistry which was endorsed by American courts.

Key Words : Forensic dentistry, history, justice.

Georges Parkman was born in 1790. He studied medicine at Harvard Medical College in 1813. He travelled in Europe in search of knowledge and improvement [4]. It was a profoundly humanistic medicine that he discovered with the pioneers of medicine who devoted as much time to their patients’ well-being as to therapeutics, strictly speaking. Upon his arrival home, he undertook to put into practice everything that he learned on the old continent. However, in Boston, he came up against the medical lobby which did not want to disrupt its habits. Disappointed, he decided to distance himself with the medical world and took over his father’s business when the latter died in 1835. Parkman made a fortune in real estate and pawnbroking. He became an influential citizen in the life of the city of Boston.

During almost 40 years, Parkman and Webster were colleagues at the Massachussetts Medical College. In 1849, Webster was a chemist professor who had been teaching there for 25 years. He got into debt with Parkman. He owed him the tidy sum of 2432 $.

On November 23 1849, it was said that Parkman had come to see his colleague in his laboratory. Nobody saw him again. It was Ephraïm Littlefield, the university attendant who found the remains of a body of stout build which was supposedly close to that of the businessman. On November 30, the police decided to carry out a search in Webster’s chemistry laboratory and discovered the remains of a human being’s dentures, gold and charred fragments. Webster was immediately arrested for murder.

The trial started on March 19 1850 and lasted 12 days. Webster was sentenced to death. He was hung on August 30 1850.

The victim’s identity was proved thanks to the body’s teeth. Indeed, during the trial, Parkman’s dentist, Dr Nathan C. Keep (1800-1875) and his assistant Dr Lester Noble, proved that two pieces of evidence, in this case a block of mineral teeth and a part of marked set, were the remains of dentures made and fitted by Keep himself [2]. Those two elements perfectly adapted to a plaster cast of the defunct’s mandible that the practitioner had kept in his office and on which could be read «Dr Geo Parkman 1846» written by Noble.

The dentures were fitted on November 4 1846. A few days later, the practitioner had to grind down the part of the dentures which was close to the tongue in order to give it more space. This grinding left traces which did not leave any doubts as far as Parkman’s death was concerned.

Here is Dr Nathan Cooley Keep’s deposition at John Webster’s trial [5].

I am a dental-surgeon and I have been practicing this occupation for thirty years in this city. (…)

I knew Dr Georges Parkman. I met him in 1825 when I was studying medicine with Dr John Randall. Dr Parkman was sick at that time and Dr Randall treated him. I also treated him several times at his place. In 1825, I became his favourite dentist and he often sought me for treatments or dental pieces of advise [5]. On December 3, Dr Lewis showed me mineral teeth while I had just returned home from a trip to Springfield. I immediately recognized the teeth that I had made for Parkman in 1846. (…)

Parkman’s mouth was very special, so much so regarding its shape and junction between the top and bottom of his lower jaw that I remembered it really well. I remember all its characteristics. The making of his dentures was definitely unusual.

When M. Parkman ordered his new teeth, he asked me how long it would take before he would receive them. I asked him why. He answered that the university of medicine was about to open and that for this particular occasion, there would be a ceremony during which he would be asked to deliver a speech.(…)

That left me little time but I did my best to meet the deadlines. The distinctive identity of his mouth was so marked that I had to use all my knowledge of the matter. (…)

As usual, I started by taking prints of the patient’s mouth. I got a perfect reproduction of his mouth by applying soft wax on a piece of iron to lower the jaw, then by pressing all this against his jaw until the wax was cold. The mould was thus ready. I oiled it and poured plaster inside. 10 minutes later, the plaster was hard and it allowed me to obtain a perfect reproduction of the dental arcades. The mould of the mandible showed four natural teeth and three residual roots.

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The next step was the making of metallic plates which fitted his gums on which I fixed new teeth. First, I made transitional plates that I tried myself. They were generally made in copper or in another soft metal by carrying out a metallic print that I applied with pressure thanks to plaster moulds. The copper which served to the making of those plates was placed between the moulds and sufficient pressure had to be carried out to acquire the negative of the plaster mould. Those plates were transposed in the mouth to have a try. If they fitted well, that meant that the mould was good and that the gold plates of the final devices could be made. (…)

Dr Parkman had no natural tooth by the jawbone [5]. (…)

Once the plates were tried, the gold plates were made and fitted in the patient’s mouth.

As I had reproduced the two jaws separately, one should position them together in order to make sure whether they corresponded.

For that purpose, I applied wax on the teeth and made the patient bite into it. Plaster was poured on the prints of the bitten part and thus, the moulds could be set up. (…)

The meshing of the two jaws was very particular. The escape of the jawbone and the projection of the mandible was highly significant which resulted into an abnormally long chin.

Then, teeth with the proper length were fixed on gold plates. These teeth as well as the fake gum were made in clay and were placed in moulds for them to cook and to set. (…) The shape of Parkman’s mouth made it very difficult.

As for the device of the jawbone, the teeth were made in only one block which was cut into three parts at the level of the canines before the cooking. (…)

Those three blocks adapted to only one plate. It was likewise for the upper part. The two sets were linked together with spiral springs allowing the patient to open and close his mouth and which kept the dentures from moving. The teeth were fixed to them thanks to platinum pins. Following an incident, my assistant and I had to start all over again. We only finished 30 minutes before the ceremony.

The hearing was asked to be adjourned following a fire alert in the prosecuter’s office. Very soon, the hearing resumed.

Not being sure that I had finished everything, I asked Dr Parkman to come back [5]. He complained of the fact that he did not have enough space for his tongue. I filed the inside of the dentures near the tongue in order to gain space. I also removed the pink of the gums and the enamel inside the teeth causing insignificant aesthetic damage.

Very regularly, I saw my patient again to carry out the care and the needed repairing. The last time I saw him dated back to two weeks before his disappearance. He had broken a spring and had called late at night so that I could repair it. It was around 10 (…). I spent half an hour to recondition everything. It was the last I had seen him in my office.

I left the town on November 28 and came back the following Monday. It was then that I heard about his disappearance. Upon my return, Dr Lewis showed me those three pieces of mineral teeth (referring to the fragments found in the oven) [5].

At first glance, I noticed the similarity with the work I had done for Dr Parkman. The most recognizable part was the right mandibular block. I recognized its shape and outline which oddly looked like that I had worked on for such a long time.

Several other parts had been severely damaged by the fire. Therefore, I naturally fell back on the conception models of the said dentures. Comparing the best preserved piece, I did not have doubts anymore. It was definitely my patient.

There was at least enough matter to be able to determine where the fragments came from. This one came from the upper right jaw, that one from the left and the third one from the central part of the same jaw. The lower left jaw was almost complete. The part which was hooked on it seemed to be the right part by deduction. This last piece came from the same dentures and the other parts corresponded to the remaining free space. Only a piece remained unidentified. It could have been the small piece of the front of the mandible. Thus, I identified the position of 5 pieces out of 6. Only one unknown piece remained. That gave us the 6 parts of the dentures. I also found the platinum teeth still hooked on the teeth.

I also found gold fragments and tiny portions of bones more or less caught in the teeth.

It was highly likely that the prostheses went in the oven when they were still in the defunct’s mouth. Mineral teeth thrown into the fire, but preserved in the mouth, are impregnated with humidity which quitely evaporates. If they had not been in his mouth and had been brutally thrown into the fire, they would have torn to shreds. Another fact which confirmed that they were in his mouth is that the springs would have propelled them everywhere had they not been confined. When we put the teeth back, the blocks were combined together like now.

To a question from a member of the jury, Dr Keep answered: “The handwriting featuring on Parkman’s moulds was written during the making of the dentures. Then, those moulds remained in my cellar. I mainly kept them in anticipation of resulting incidents during the making of the protheses [5].

His deposition finished this way:“Dr Parkman had no unitary teeth. As natural teeth, he only had a tooth and two roots on the left side and three teeth and a root on the right side. On the left, starting from the back, there first of all was two roots and a tooth (canine) and on the right, still starting from the back, the root (2nd premolar), then three teeth (1st premolar, canine, lateral incisive). (…)

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Nathan Keep was born on December 23 in Longmeadow, in Massachussetts [2]. Gifted with his hands, he soon got interested in dentistry after being a local jeweller’s apprentice. In 1821, he went to Boston. In 1827, he graduated from Harvard Medical School. He practiced dentistry during 40 years. He was praised for his skills. In 1843, he graduated from Baltimore College of Dental Surgery and received the honorary titles of doctor in dental surgery. Keep invented numerous dental instruments and was one of the first to make porcelain teeth. Keep was also the first doctor to have used ether anesthesia for deliveries, notably on April 7 1847 during the birth of Fanny Longfellow’s daughter.

He attended John Webster’s trial, Georges Parkman’s murderer. It was the first time that dental work served as evidence during a trial in the United States.

In 1867, the first announcement of the creation of the Harvard Dental School was published. Nathan became its first dean which seemed natural given the unweary steps the dentist took to see the school opening its doors. Keep’s dream came true and thus, Harvard became the first dental school of the world evolving within a university.

His decisions from an administrative point of view showed his admirable nature and his remarkable moral values.

Robert T. Freeman was a Black man. He was one of the sons of a slave family. He postulated without success to many dental schools in order to study, he arrived in Boston and asked to meet Dean Keep. On Keep’s recommendation, Harvard University decided that colour or birth could not be an issue anymore regarding students’ admission. Therefore, Robert T. Freeman was accepted at the age of 22 and graduated in 1869. He was the first African American student to graduate from a dental school.

Thus, Keep’s motto became “Justice and right above conveniences”. His action in Freeman’s case put forward his qualities as leader which significantly established an aura of morality and justice which still has an influence on the university [2].

Nathan Cooley Keep died in 1875. A statue pays tribute to his paramount role in the foundation of Harvard dental school. It is located in the gardens of the school.

Fig. 1 – Dr Nathan Cooley Keep (1800-1875) [3].

Fig. 2 – A plaster cast of Dr Georges Parkman’s mandible (1846) [3].


[1] – Campbell JM. Professor J. W. Webster eliminates Dr George Parkman. Dent. Mag. & Oral Topics June 1958; 75(2): 73-80.

[2] – No author. Nathan Cooley Keep. 2006: 1-2. Available from: http://www.answers.com

[3] – No Author. Harvard Medical School. 1867 & 1870.

Available from: www.countaway.harvard.edu

[4] – No Author. Murder at Harvard: people & events (Dr Georges Parkman (1790-1849)). 1999-2003: 1-2. Available from: http://www.pbs.org

[5] – No Author. American experience – Murder at Harvard – Primary sources: Identifying evidence: false teeth. 1999-2003 : 1-6. Available from: http://www.pbs.org

[6] – Riaud X. Les dentistes détectives de l’histoire [The dentists, detectives of history]. Paris: L’Harmattan, Collection Médecine à travers les siècles [Medicine throughout centuries collection]; 2007.


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