Saturday, June 25, 2022

Murder by Mail.

Mrs. Cordelia Botkin
On Tuesday, August 9, 1898, Mrs. Ida Deane held a dinner party for friends and family in Dover, Delaware. After dinner, they all retired to the front porch and passed around a box of chocolates provided by Ida’s sister, Mrs. Mary Dunning. Shortly after retiring, Mrs. Deane complained of feeling sick to the stomach. After the usual household remedies proved ineffective, the family sent for a doctor. Several others complained of stomach illness which grew steadily worse.

Ida Deane died on Thursday. By Friday, four other members of the party were dead, including Mary Dunning. The cause appeared to be some form of food poisoning, but only those who ate the candy were stricken, the rest experienced no illness. A chemist analyzed the chocolates and found that they contained a large amount of arsenic, with some grains as large as coffee grounds.

Mrs. Dunning received the candy in Tuesday’s mail, and she did not know who had sent it at the time. The package also included a  handkerchief and a note which read:

With love to yourself and your baby, Mrs. C

The postmark was smeared but appeared to say, San Francisco, California. This was a useful clue, as Mrs. Dunning had lived for a time in San Francisco.

Both Mary Dunning and Ida Deane were daughters of former congressman John B. Penington. He took charge of affairs for the family, and his prominence prompted serious investigation in Delaware and California. The Secret Service joined the search and the governor of Delaware offered a $2,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the sender of the poisoned candy.

The San Francisco police began their own investigation, but many in Delaware, including Ida’s husband, Joshua Deane, believed that the poison was added after the package arrived in Dover. Though Deane was thoroughly convinced that the crime was the work of someone closer to home, Penington had reason to believe that the poisoner was in San Francisco.

Mary Dunning’s husband, John P. Dunning, a reporter for the Associated Press, was in Puerto Rico at the time of the murder reporting on the war in Cuba. He left for Delaware as soon as possible. John and Mary Dunning had lived together in San Francisco, but there appeared to be stress in the marriage. He was away on overseas assignments for long periods. Around 1895, Mary returned to Delaware and lived with her parents.

After his wife left, John Dunning’s fortunes began to falter. He lost his position with Associated Press and began spending time at the racetrack, racking up severe losses. He had been seen in the company of three married women in San Francisco—Mrs. Seely, Mrs. Abrogast, & Mrs. Botkin. He was particularly close to Mrs. Cordelia Botkin, a former vaudeville actress, estranged from her husband. She often accompanied Dunning to the racetrack and gave him a room in her house. His fortunes reversed again. He had regained his position at Associated Press and planned to return to his wife after covering the war in Cuba.

When Dunning arrived in Dover from Puerto Rico, he had a long meeting with his father-in-law and brother-in-law and later with the Attorney General. Dunning would not talk to the press, but newspapers reported that he identified the handwriting on the note as Cordelia Botkin’s, confirming what the state’s handwriting experts contended.

John Pennington had a collection of anonymous letters that had been sent to Mary Dunning informing her of her husband’s connection with Cordelia Botkin. One theory of the murder said that Botkin was angry that Dunning planned to return to his wife. Another theory said that two women were in love with Dunning; one killed Dunnings’s wife and threw suspicion on the other.

The San Francisco police uncovered a web of circumstantial evidence against Cordelia Botkin. Drug store clerks said they had sold her arsenic. Clerks at Haas’ candy store identified Mrs. Botkin as a woman who bought candy there. The poisoned chocolates were Haas’ put into a box of candy from Wave Confections. The clerk at Wave remembered the unusual transaction of adding her own candy to their box and identified Mrs. Botkin as the customer. A clerk at the City of Paris store remembered selling Mrs. Botkin a handkerchief similar to the one in the package.

Mrs. Botkin at her second trial.
The grand jury in Delaware indicted Cordelia Botkin for murder in Dover, and Delaware authorities attempted to have her extradited for trial. However, they had trouble drafting a request that the governor of California could agree to, and her attorneys questioned the right of California to extradite her to a state where she had never set foot. Finally, they indicted her for trial in San Francisco.

Her trial for the murder of Mary Dunning began on December 5, 1899, and lasted a month and a half. The jury found Cordelia Botkin guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced her to life in San Quentin Penitentiary.

Botkin continued to profess innocence and immediately began an appeal. The appeal process took four years and ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court granting her a new trial due to errors in the judge’s instructions to the jury.

She was tried again in March 1904 and was, once again, found guilty. It was reported that nine members of the jury at first favored hanging before ultimately agreeing to a life sentence.

“Botkin Defense Maligns Living and Dead to Account for Poison,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 24, 1904.
“Botkin Extradition Papers,” Oregonian, October 2, 1898.
“Death in Candy,” Middletown transcript, August 13, 1898.
“Death of Mrs. J.P. Dunning,” The Wilmington daily Republican, August 13, 1898.
“The Dover Case,” Evening journal, August 22, 1898.
“Family Poisoned by Candy,” Evening journal, August 12, 1898.
“Grand Jury Acts in Botkin Case,” St. Louis Republic, October 29, 1898.
“Law's Net for Two Women,” The Wilmington daily Republican, August 23, 1898.
“Life Imprisonment,” Paducah sun, April 8, 1904.
“Mr. Dunning Gives No Clue,” The Wilmington daily Republican, August 22, 1898.
“Mrs. Botkin Plans a Desperate Defense,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 26, 1898.
“Mrs. Botkin Will fight for Liberty,” Oakland Tribune, August 26, 1898.
“Mrs. Botkins' Arrest,” Evening journal, August 24, 1898.
“Mrs. Dunning Dead,” Evening journal, August 13, 1898.
“A Mysterious Letter,” Evening journal, August 18, 1898.
“New Trial for Mrs. Botkin,” Jersey Journal, August 17, 1900.
“Reward For Poisoner,” Evening journal, August 19, 1898.
“Sentenced for Life,” Daily Ardmoreite, February 7, 1899.
“State Has a Clue,” The Wilmington daily Republican, August 20, 1898.
“Women are Watched,” The Wilmington daily Republican, August 24, 1898.


Kat says:
June 26, 2022 at 3:55 PM

I believe after reading further notes on this case the husband should have been looked at closer and then as well as now woman had a stigma attached to them as eval harlots if spotted in the company of married men but the men were not looked at in the same way so how could an already tainted vaudeville actress be judged fairly. The press should have bannered the trial even though whole case " The Tainted Deaths " .Kat

Post a Comment