Bleak House

Where the oldest profession rocked the oldest house

hooperPhoto: Cambridge Historical Society

T

he secret of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House isn’t just that it’s the oldest house in Cambridge. Nor does it have one of those brainy, intellectual histories that proliferate on this side of the Charles. Nope; this house was purportedly run at one time as a tavern of ill repute. The house was built in 1685 by Dr. Richard Hooper, who promptly died, leaving his widow to make ends meet. It wasn’t long before she was being reprimanded by the selectmen for entertaining “questionable guests.” The house is now a museum of Cambridge history, which includes, among other things, the Bible of Dr. John Webster, the most notorious murderer in 19th-century Boston, who confessed to killing Dr. George Parkman over a gambling debt after parts of Parkman’s body turned up in his Harvard Medical School office. Slices of the house’s floors and ceilings have been ingeniously cut away and hinged for a closer look at their original construction.

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Dr. John Webster, whose family Bible is in the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, was a lackluster lecturer at Harvard Medical School who was deeply in debt to the wealthy but tightfisted Dr. George Parkman. In a case that shocked the Brahmin establishment of which both men were part, he murdered Parkman, sawed off his head and began to burn his body in a furnace at the medical school, where the bones were discovered by a custodian.