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Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Historic Cordelia Botkin Poison Murder Case

     In 1895, 30-year-old John P. Dunning and his wife Elizabeth Mary, the daughter of ex-congressman John Pennington of Dover, Delaware, were living in San Francisco. In September of that year, John, while riding his bicycle, spotted an attractive woman sitting on a park bench not far from his home. A few days later, he and his new acquaintance, Cordelia Botkin, a married woman estranged from her husband in Stockton, California, started an affair. During the next two years, John Dunning was a frequent visitor to Botkin's house on Geary Street.

     While cheating on his wife, John Dunning began to drink and lose money at the racetrack. In early 1898, his employer, suspecting that Dunning had been embezzling company money, fired him. Because John could no long support his family, Elizabeth Dunning and her daughter returned to Dover to live with her parents. With his wife and daughter back in Delaware, John was free to move in with Cordelia Botkin who now resided at the Victoria Hotel on Hyde Street.

     Two months after he moved in with his mistress, Dunning landed a newspaper job covering the Spanish-American war. As a result, he would be traveling to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Before leaving San Francisco, Dunning broke the news to Cordelia that he missed his wife and daughter. The affair, he said, was over. Cordelia did not take this news very well. As far as she was concerned, the affair was not over, not by a long shot.

     Back in Dover, Delaware, in the summer of 1898, Mrs. Dunning began receiving anonymous letters mailed from San Francisco that referred to her husband's affair with an "interesting and pretty woman." The letters were signed, "A Friend." That August, someone in San Francisco sent Mrs. Dunning a Cambric handkerchief and a box of chocolates. The note accompanying the gift was signed, "With love to yourself and baby, Mrs. C."

     On August 9, 1898, after dinner at the Pennington home, Elizabeth passed the mystery box of bonbons to family and friends gathered that evening on the front porch. The group of four adults and three children included Mrs. Dunning's sister, Leila Deane and Mrs. Dunning's daughter Mary. Mrs. Dunning and her sister helped themselves to the chocolates, and later in the evening became violently ill.

     Eleven days after the candy arrived in the mail from San Francisco, Leila Deane died. The next day, Mrs. Dunning passed away. The presumed causes of their deaths: cholera morbus, a common ailment in the era before refrigeration. John Dunning, still overseas when he received the news, arrived back in Dover ten days later. When his father-in-law showed him the anonymous letters, including the note that had accompanied the candy, Dunning simply said, "Cordelia."

     Mr. Pennington, the father of the dead women, had the uneaten chocolates analyzed by a chemist who worked for the state. The chemist reported that some of the remaining bonbons had been spiked with arsenic. Mrs. Dunning and her sister had not been autopsied because the treating physician believed that the victims' prolonged vomiting had cleansed their bodies of the poison. Had the science of toxicology existed in 1898, a forensic pathologist would have known that although arsenic, a heavy metal poison, is excreted from the damaged cells, traces are sequestered in the victim's bones, fingernails, and hair follicles.

     The discovery of the poison in the candy prompted a coroner's inquest. When presented with the facts of the case, the coroner's jury ruled that the two women had been poisoned to death by arsenic-laced chocolate mailed from San Francisco.

     Although the deaths had occurred in Dover, the authorities in Delaware requested that the case be investigated by the San Francisco Police Department. The man who would conduct the investigation, I. W. Lees, had been appointed chief of police the previous year. Convinced that she would confess under pressure, Lees arrested Cordelia Botkin for the murders of the two Delaware women. When she vehemently maintained her innocence, Chief Lees was forced to make the case the hard way. He traced the arsenic to the Owl Drug Store on Market Street where a clerk said he had sold the poison to a woman meeting the suspect's description. Lees also questioned a Botkin acquaintance who told him that the suspect had expressed concern about having to sign her name when purchasing arsenic. The acquaintance had assured Botkin that she would not be required to sign for the purchase. Chief Lees also spoke to a physician who had been asked by Cordelia Botkin to describe the effects of various poisons on the human body.

     A search of Cordelia Botkin's room at the Victoria Hotel produced wrapping paper that matched the paper that had enclosed the box of poisoned chocolates. To identify the handwriting associated with the case, Chief Lees engaged the services of San Francisco's Daniel T. Ames, one of the most respected questioned document examiners in the country. When Ames analyzed and compared samples of Mrs. Botkin's handwriting with the questioned writings, he reported that Cordelia Botkin had written the letters, and had addressed the deadly package. Two other document examiners, Carl Eisenschimel and Theodore Kytka, after examining the evidence, agreed with Ames' conclusion.

     Amid intense media coverage, the Cordelia Botkin murder trial got underway in early December 1898. After the prosecution put on its case which featured the three questioned document examiners, the defense had no choice but to put the defendant on the stand. Botkin did not deny buying arsenic in June of that year, explaining that she had used the poison to clean a straw hat. Moreover, the arsenic she had purchased was powdered while the arsenic in the candy was crystalline. Following Botkin's direct testimony and cross-examination, the defense rested.

     After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Because the case against her was circumstantial, and juries didn't like to send women to the gallows, the jurors recommended a sentence of life in prison. Instead of serving her time in San Quentin, the judge sent her to the county jail in San Francisco where, in exchange for sexual favors, Cordelia would come and go as she pleased. A few months after sentencing her, the judge saw Cordelia shopping in downtown San Francisco.

     While Cordelia Botkin shopped in San Francisco, her attorney appealed her conviction on a procedural issue. An appellate court overturned the conviction which led to a second trial in 1904. Once again, on the strength of the handwriting evidence, a jury found her guilty. After the earthquake of 1906 destroyed the county jail, Botkin was sent to San Quentin. On March 7, at the age of 56, she died in prison of "softening of the brain due to melancholy."        

2 comments:

  1. I love it when you do these old cases! They are so interesting. I can imagine their turn of the century clothing and modes of transportation. Even these names, such as Cordelia are so evocative of days gone by. It is one of the better cases as far as circumstantial cases go.
    Such a loss to lose two daughters to this jealous and vindictive woman. I sense alittle of the borderline personality disorder might have existed with Miss Cordelia. Anyone know what "softening of the brain" might have referred to?

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  2. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

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