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The Gentleman in the Purple Waistcoat

Every research project has its Holy Grail - that elusive piece of evidence that makes everything else fall into place. In a recent fortuitous scene in AAS's reading room, a couple of researchers found their Holy Grail (or in this case, they literally found their Bliss) in the form of a portrait.

Husband and wife research team, James and Lois Cowan, are writing a book on the sensational murder of Dr. George Parkman on the night of November 23, 1849. Harvard Professor John W. Webster was accused of the murder, arrested, and hanged -- all within a 6-month time span. That's nineteenth-century justice for you! However, the Cowans have an alternative theory of the crime. We can't reveal the who-done-it here: you'll have to wait for the book (The Gentleman in the Purple Waistcoat is due to be published in spring 2009).

The tricky part is that for their theory to be correct, the Cowan's had a difficult task before them. At the trial, several witnesses claimed to have seen Dr. Parkman hours after the time Prof. Webster had allegedly murdered him. However, the prosecution argued that these witnesses had seen another man, George Bliss, whom the prosecution claimed looked very similar to Dr. Parkman. To help prove their alternative account of the crime, the Cowans came to AAS in desperate need of a picture of George Bliss -- preferably one showing he looked quite different than Dr. Parkman!

Here is where AAS's members, staff, fellows, and unparalleled collections proved invaluable. AAS member Fairman Cowan (James Cowan's uncle) tipped the couple off that they would find valuable material at AAS. In addition to a manuscript collection that included Prof. Webster's letters and unpublished grand-jury transcripts, we were also able to track down catalogs of Prof. Webster's library and his art collection which were auctioned off after his death. The sale was not advertised under Webster's name, which means it could not be tracked down with the standard reference sources. Thanks to a tip from AAS's Curator of Books, David Whitesell, I was able to find two catalogs which were only identified as having belonged to Prof. Webster in a manuscript attribution, presumably added by an early AAS Librarian who attended the auction. Such evidence would not be preserved or available in other research libraries.

The highlight of the day, though, occurred following many fruitless searches of AAS's collections of state documents and collective biographies in an attempt to locate a picture of the Springfield, Mass. politician George Bliss. My eye just happened to catch on the name Bliss emblazoned on the spine of a book waiting to be returned to the shelves. It turns out AAS fellow Dan Cohen was working on identifying Massachusetts state senators and he had found a portrait of George Bliss earlier that morning! The intersection of the Cowans' and Dan Cohen's projects, in the form of this portrait of George Bliss, demonstrates both the collegiality and the serendipity of archival research at AAS.

With Bliss's portrait in hand, the Cowan's have contacted a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who works with the FBI specializing in facial structure to get a professional opinion on whether George Bliss and George Parkman would be likely to be confused. Decide for yourself: do these two men look similar enough to confuse eyewitnesses, or did the prosecution overstate the resemblance?

George Bliss

Here is the portrait of George Bliss found in Charles Wells Chapin's Sketches of the Old Inhabitants and Other Citizens of Old Springfield (Springfield, Mass., 1893), p. 61.

Gentleman with the 
Purple Waistcoat card
The image of George Parkman on the Cowan's book advertisement appeared in the New York Daily Globe's Trial of Professor John W. Webster, for the murder of Dr. George Parkman (Boston, 1850), p. 77.


Or you can grab a copy of The Gentleman in the Purple Waistcoat when the book comes out and read all about it then.

- Elizabeth Watts Pope, Reference Librarian

Additional Information

Vignettes @ AAS Index

AAS reading room As a printing term, vignettes are illustrations unenclosed by a formal border. Here we present stories from inside the library to illustrate the serendipity that can occur under our generous dome. AAS's unparalleled collections, staff members and readers together make AAS the premier "Research Spa" for studying early American history in print.