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Commonwealth v. Webster

Supreme Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk and Nantucket

March, 1850, Decided

No Number in Original


 [*301]  Shaw, C. J. The witness was asked whether he had a personal knowledge of the defendant's handwriting; and stated that he had. His experience qualifies him to say this. Papers have passed under his notice, in a business or official capacity, which have given him a long and familiar acquaintance with the defendant's handwriting. He seems, therefore, competent to give an opinion in regard to it, independent of any skill of his own as a penman, or as a judge of penmanship.

] In regard to the term "handwriting," we think that it should include, generally, whatever the party has written with his hand, and not merely his [**10]  common and usual style of chirography. This question of proof of handwriting most commonly arises and is discussed in cases of forgery. But there are other cases, in which the evidence of experts is applied to handwriting; as, in prosecutions for threatening letters, or for arson. There the question is generally made, that they are not genuine, on the part of the person purporting to send them, but simulated and disguised; and the proof shows that the writer did not seek to imitate a hand, but to depart, as far as possible, from his own. The evidence has always been considered admissible in these instances.

The witness then testified that he thought the letters were in the defendant's handwriting, and was permitted by the court, against the objection of the defendant's counsel, to state his reasons for his opinion.

He further testified that, in his opinion, one of the letters, as well as an erasure on the envelope of one of the others, could not have been written with a pen, or done with a brush.

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59 Mass. 295 *; 1850 Mass. LEXIS 8 **; 5 Cush. 295

Commonwealth vs. John W. Webster.

Prior History:  [**1]  The defendant, professor of chemistry, in the medical college, in Boston, attached to the university at Cambridge, was indicted in the municipal court at the January term, 1850, for the murder of Dr. George Parkman, at Boston, on the 23d of November, 1849. The indictment having been transmitted to this court, as required by the Rev. Sts. c.136, § 20, the defendant was tried at the present term before the Chief Justice, and Justices Wilde, Dewey, and Metcalf.

The indictment contained four counts, the first of which alleged the crime to have been committed by stabbing with a knife, the second by a blow on the head with a hammer; and the third by striking, kicking, beating, and throwing on the ground. The fourth court was as follows: -- "That the said John W. Webster, at Boston aforesaid, in the county aforesaid, in a certain building, known as the medical college, there situate, on the twenty-third day of November last past, in and upon the said George Parkman, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault; and him, the said George Parkman, in some way and manner, and by some means, instruments, and weapons, to the jurors unknown, did then and there [**2]  feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought, deprive of life; so that he, the said George Parkman, then and there died; and so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do say, that the said John W. Webster, him, the said George Parkman, in the manner and by the means aforesaid, to them the said jurors unknown, then and there, feloniously, wilfully, and of this malice aforethought, did kill and murder; against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth aforesaid, and contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided."


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