Hal Roth - August 2006
Old News from Delmarva
A Cross-Country Murder
Browsing through a February 11, 1899 edition of the Denton Journal, I stumbled across the following brief announcement: “Mrs. Cordelia Botkin was on Saturday last sentenced to life imprisonment for the poisoning of Mrs. John P. Dunning and Mrs. Joshua P. Deane, of Dover.”
My curiosity aroused, I began to search for details and was astounded to find reports of the case in dozens of old newspapers across the nation––from the New York Times to the Placerville Mountain Democrat in California.
On August 30, 1898 the following report appeared in the Nevada State Journal:
“A detective and lawyer from Delaware passed through yesterday bound for San Francisco to get Mrs. Botkin, who is accused of poisoning Mrs. J. P. Dunning and her sister, Mrs. Deane, with candy sent by mail from San Francisco. There will be a great legal battle over the extradition of Mrs. Botkin, who, it is alleged, is not a fugitive from justice from Delaware because she was never in that state.
“The evidence against Mrs. Botkin is strong. She was infatuated with Dunning and, it is supposed, sent her the poisoned candy to get her out of the way. It is said that she bought the candy in Stockton, put some home made stuff impregnated with arsenic in the box and sent the box by mail from San Francisco.”
I was hooked but also confused. If Botkin had been infatuated with Dunning, why would she want her out of the way? It took a little more searching to discover that Botkin was actually enamored with Mr. Dunning.
It apparently all began with a flirtation in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1892. John P. Dunning, a newspaperman, was riding his bicycle in the park one afternoon when he met a woman who identified herself as Mrs. Curtis and told Dunning that her husband was living in England.
The two soon became better acquainted, shall we say, and Dunning learned that the lady’s name was actually Cordelia Botkin, and that she lived in Stockton with her husband, Welcome A. Botkin, and their son, Beverly.
Dunning was married to Mary Elizabeth Pennington (sometimes referred to as Mary and sometimes as Elizabeth) of Dover, Delaware, the daughter of a former member of the United States House of Representatives. He was then living with his wife and baby daughter in San Francisco.
On February 15, 1898 an explosion sank the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor, and Dunning was ordered to Puerto Rico to cover developments in the ensuing war with Spain. He informed Mrs. Botkin that he was leaving and would not see her again.
In August 1898, after Mrs. Dunning had returned to Delaware with her daughter, she received a box of candy in the mail. A handkerchief was also enclosed and a note that said: “With love to yourself and baby. ––Mrs. C.”
When Mary Dunning opened the candy box, she was seated on the porch of her father’s home in Dover, where family and guests had repaired after dinner. Mrs. Dunning, her sister, her sister’s two children and two women guests each sampled the contents of the box. That night all became violently ill. Dunning’s sister, Mrs. Deane, died on August 11, and Mary Dunning lost her battle on August 12. The others recovered.
Autopsies disclosed that Dunning and Deane had been the victims of arsenic poisoning, and a chemical analysis revealed that the uneaten candy was heavily dosed with that chemical. Handwriting on the package and note was compared to an anonymous letter sent to Mrs. Dunning from San Francisco several months earlier, in which her husband’s name was mentioned. The script was identical.
Mr. Dunning was summoned home and identified the handwriting as that of Mrs. Botkin. He recalled having mentioned to her that his wife was fond of sweets and that one of her most intimate friends in San Francisco was Mrs. Corably, accounting for the signature “C” on the note.
A Dover detective was dispatched to San Francisco with the candy box and letter, and the San Francisco police department launched an investigation. Considering the comparatively primitive nature of criminal investigation in 1898, evidence incriminating Cordelia Botkin was quickly accumulated.
Two clerks in a candy store identified Botkin as the woman who had purchased an assortment of chocolate creams on July 31 and asked that they be placed in an unmarked box.
John Dunning produced letters written to him by Botkin, and an expert witness testified that the handwriting on the letters was identical with that on the candy box wrappings and enclosed note.
The store tag had not been removed from the handkerchief, and it forged another link in the chain of evidence when saleswoman Grace Harris distinctly recalled a conversation she had with Botkin.
Frank Grey, a drugstore clerk, positively identified Mrs. Botkin as a woman who had purchased two ounces of arsenic from him for the alleged purpose of bleaching straw hats. Although he had recommended more suitable preparations for that purpose, he attested, Botkin insisted on arsenic.
The box of candy had been mailed from the post office nearest to the San Francisco Ferry on August 4. Clerk John Dunnigan remembered it because of the similarity of the addressee’s name to his own. A record showing that Botkin had embarked from the ferry docks for St. Helena on the same day corroborated her presence in that part of the city.
Mrs. Almura Rudolf testified to a conversation she had with Mrs. Botkin a week before the package had been mailed, during which Botkin discussed the effects of various poisons and had inquired if it was necessary to sign one’s name when sending registered mail.
To complete the chain, employees of a San Francisco hotel, where Mrs. Botkin had briefly stayed, testified to finding a torn piece of gilded seal in her room after she departed. A portion of the candy box seal was missing.
A brief newspaper article with the dateline “San Francisco, August 29” reported that Cordelia Botkin, age forty-two, had been arrested on two charges of murder.
Attempts were made by Delaware to extradite Botkin for trial in Dover, but a headline in Boise, Idaho on August 30 declared: “CALIFORNIANS WANT THE NOTORIETY,”
“No effort is being spared by the local authorities to make the detention of Mrs. Cordelia Botkin effective. Tonight an attempt will be made to have Mrs. Botkin indicted by the grand jury. This will give California jurisdiction in the case if extradition proceedings fail.”
During the following month a board of superior judges upheld the conviction of Botkin’s attorney, George A. Knight, that the State of California alone had jurisdiction in the case, and the California Supreme Court affirmed their decision. Botkin would be tried in The Golden State and not in Delaware.
The trial opened on December 12, 1898 and was reported in newspapers across the nation. This is what the Reno, Nevada, Weekly Gazette and Stockman had to say in its December 15 edition:
“San Francisco, December 12––The taking of evidence in the trial of Mrs. Cordelia Botkin for the murder of Mrs. John P. Dunning commenced in Judge Carroll Cook’s court today. Witnesses are being summoned and the case will doubtless proceed rapidly to its termination.
“Harry C. Pennington, a brother of Mrs. John P. Dunning and Mrs. Joshua Deane, who were the only persons killed by eating the poisoned candy, gave his testimony in the case today. He told of the receipt of the box of poisoned candy at the Dover Post Office and its delivery to Mr. John P. Dunning while she was sitting on the porch of the Pennington residence with a group of relatives and friends, the opening of the box and partaking of the sweets by those in the gathering, and the subsequent illness and fatal termination in the cases of Mrs. Dunning and Mrs. Deane.
“San Francisco, December 13––The trial of Mrs. Cordelia Botkin was resumed today. The first witness called was Hon. John B. Pennington, father of the dead women. Nothing of a startling nature was adduced. Dr. Bishop, who attended Mrs. Dunning, testified to the symptoms and his treatment of the patient. Attorney Knight for the defense endeavored by every possible means to tangle the witness but was practically unsuccessful. The attorney wished to have the doctor admit that the symptoms of the poisoned people were similar to those suffered by people who had eaten diseased fish.
“San Francisco, December 14––The Botkin case attracted a large crowd to Judge Cook’s court today in spite of the stormy weather. Dr. Price, a chemist of this city who analyzed seven pieces of the candy sent to Mrs. Dunning, testified that he found enough arsenic to kill nine people. Dr. Wolf, the chemist of Dover, Del., who also examined some of the candy, was called to the stand and gave further testimony in regard to his discoveries. Frank Gray, druggist of this city, who claims to have sold arsenic to Mrs. Botkin, will be the most important witness called today.”
The Gazette and Stockman’s prediction of a speedy trial proved to be accurate, and the jury consumed little time in declaring Botkin guilty as charged. She was sentenced to life in prison, but the drama was far from over.
A year before the Botkin prosecution, a house cleaner named Albert Hoff had been tried for the murder of Mary Clute. In his charge to the jury in that case, Judge Cook had said: “Circumstantial evidence has the advantage over direct evidence because it is not likely to be fabricated.” The California Supreme Court later declared Cook’s charge to be in error, and since the same charge had been given in the Botkin case, Attorney Knight appealed for a retrial.
On June 26, 1901 the following item appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country:
“The case of Mrs. Cordelia Botkin, under life sentence for the murder of Mrs. Elizabeth Dunning, was yesterday called in the superior court for the purpose of fixing a date for the new trial recently granted by the state supreme court.
“It is intimated that Mrs. Bodkin’s attorneys will try to throw the case into the United States Court through an application for the release of their client on a writ of habeas corpus.”
The next widely distributed news release appeared on February 24, 1902:
“With the reconvening of the Supreme Court today, interest is revived in the celebrated Botkin murder case of San Francisco, as it is announced that the attorney general of California will this week make a motion before the court to dismiss the appeal in the habeas corpus feature of the case. Representative Coombs of California, on behalf of Mrs. Botkin, will consent to this in order that proceedings for a new trial may begin in California.”
Reminiscing twenty years after the trial, journalist John Considine made the following comment in the Oakland Tribune Magazine:
“Pending this decision, Mrs. Botkin was supposed to be confined in the branch county jail. During this period, Trial Judge Cook, going by streetcar one Sunday to visit the grave of his recently deceased wife, was astounded to see Mrs. Bodkin apparently unguarded in the same car. As the car approached the county jail, she signaled for a stop and alighted. The judge’s gaze followed the murderess until she disappeared from view. An investigation begun by Cook the next day disclosed the fact that she had vamped the guards at the jail so effectually that she was surrounded by comforts denied to other prisoners. It was inferred that on her trip to the city and the return there from, she had been accompanied by one of the guards, who discreetly remained in another part of the car.
“Judge Cook, however, was unable to elicit an admission from anyone connected with the jail that Mrs. Botkin had ever been beyond its precincts, and the woman, with characteristic effrontery, strove to wrest the incident to her advantage, claiming that it was her double whom Judge Cook had seen, and that this double was probably the person who bought the poison, handkerchief and candy.”
For reasons I have not been able to determine from my newspaper sources, the retrial did not occur until 1904.
“San Francisco, March 31, 1904––Superior Court Judge Cook announced from the bench that an attempt had been made to tamper with the jurors in the trial of Mrs. Botkin for the Dunning murder. He discharged the jury and will begin the trial anew.
“Judge Cook acted on information that four jurors had been bribed to favor the prisoner, Mrs. Cordelia Botkin… and attempt was made to bribe a fifth one.”
The following account of Botkin’s sentencing after the second trial appeared in the Oakland Tribune on August 22:
“Judge Carroll Cook this morning sentenced Mrs. Cordelia Botkin to spend the remainder of her natural life in the penitentiary at San Quentin for the murder of Mary Elizabeth Dunning. He did so after rendering a decision and opinion on a motion for a new trial, in the course of which he declared that if he could have his way, the condemned murderess would hang for her crime.
“Mrs. Botkin received her sentence without any show of emotion. Not a tear came to her eyes. She had intended to make a statement, but so quickly did Judge Cook race from asking if there was any legal cause why sentence should not be pronounced to ordering the imposition of the punishment, that she did not have the opportunity.
“There was a distinctive feature about her attitude as she heard spoken the words that are to send her away from everything that human beings naturally desire and crave so long as she shall live. It was the part that her eyes played. She seemed to beseech the stern judicial officer to have mercy. There was pathos and appeal in her gaze, but Judge Cook did not notice it and continued uttering the legal phraseology that closed his connection with the famous case that has been discussed from one coast to the other.
“When Judge Cook had concluded, Mrs. Botkin smiled pleasantly and bowed, as much as to say ‘Thank you.’
“In his opinion, Judge Cook said that the counsel for Mrs. Botkin claimed in their briefs that public sentiment was so strong in the case that it may have affected the jury and therefore the court should grant a new trial, because of what the attorneys asserted was an ‘insufficiency of evidence to justify conviction.’ Because this point was raised, the judge said he felt compelled to give his opinion of the evidence.
“‘I of course know that public sentiment is adverse to the defendant,’ Judge Cook said. ‘Had I any doubt as to the defendant’s guilt I would not hesitate to grant her a new trial, even though the jury had found her guilty and the entire community so considered her; but this case has been twice tried, and I have heard all of the evidence given on both trials. On each of such trials she has had the benefit of every protection with which the law clothes those charged with crime. On both trials, wherever there was a doubt in my mind as to the ruling to be made, I resolved that doubt in favor of the accused, so that I might feel, if she was convicted, that there would be no ground upon which it might be claimed that her conviction was due to public sentiment. Twenty-four jurors have declared her guilty after trials in which everything but strictly legal evidence was excluded.
“‘On both of these trials she was ably defended by two counsel whose standing at the bar of this state is unquestioned and whose eloquence in pleading for her could be surpassed by none. From her first conviction an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of this state, and no ruling on that trial was questioned by the appellate tribunal; on the contrary, the rulings were unanimously affirmed; but a new trial was granted because of language quoted in the court’s charge from the Durant case, which had just been affirmed by the Supreme Court, but which––so far as the court’s charge is concerned––was overruled by the decision on the appeal of this case.
“‘At both trials the eloquence and ability of her counsel so operated on the two juries which tried her that she was saved from suffering the death penalty, which unquestionably would have been imposed had her punishment rested with the court.
“‘I feel that the defendant has had two absolutely fair trials, and being satisfied that both juries by which she has been tried were fully justified from the evidence in finding her guilty of murder of the first degree, I can find no reason for disturbing the verdict rendered.’”
On February 12, 1910 the Oakland Tribune ran an article that reads in part:
“Mrs. Cordelia Bodkin, serving a life sentence at San Quentin, has applied to the Board of Prison Directors for parole. Her case was considered today at the regular meeting of the board.
“Since the death of her son, Beverly, and her sister, Mrs. Botkin has grieved so much that she is a hopeless invalid.
“An effort is being made to take her to spend her remaining days with her aged mother and faithful sister, Miss Dora Brown.
“Dunning, for love of whom Mrs. Botkin committed the deed, is dead, as well as all members of Mrs. Botkin’s family. Mrs. Botkin has been in various prisons for more than twelve years, and the once handsome woman is now a broken hearted, crushed wreck of femininity, too weak to leave her bed.”
Four weeks afterward, a brief notation appeared in the Denton Journal: “Mrs. Cordelia Botkin, serving a life sentence at San Quentin, Cal., died on Monday, March 7.”
A journalist for the Oakland Tribune quoted the cause on her death certificate as “softening of the brain induced by melancholy.”
You can reach Hal Roth at email@example.com