In 1895, Cordelia Botkin met John Preston
Dunning while he was bicycling in San Francisco's Golden Gate
Park. Although she was then 41, nine years his senior, and both of
them were married, John Dunning was smitten with her. Dunning was
a highly-regarded reporter for the Associated Press, having
completed overseas assignments in Samoa and Chile. He had been
promoted to superintendent of the Associated Press's Western
Division bureau in San Francisco.
Dunning had been stationed in Samoa in 1889,
when the island had been the scene of a naval confrontation
between the United States, Great Britain, and the Imperial Germany
over the reigning monarch in Samoa. There was a division of
sentiment by the local chiefs between at least three possible
successors. There was a strong possibility of a war breaking out,
but typhoon hit the island, sinking most of the German and
American warships. The sole British ship, H.M.S. Calliope,
managed to get to sea and ride out the storm.
Dunning's account of the naval disaster and its
consequences was considered first rate reporting at that time and
was frequently reprinted.
In 1896, Dunning's religious wife, Mary
Elizabeth (Penington) Dunning, obviously upset by her husband's
marital indiscretions, left him and returned with their little
daughter to Dover, Delaware, to the home of her father, former
Congressman John B. Penington. By then Botkin had become Dunning's
lover and constant companion. Botkin was estranged from her own
husband, a grain broker in Stockton, California, but he supported
her with regular remittances. Dunning, a heavy drinker, was fired
by the Associated Press when it was discovered he had embezzled
$4,000 in office funds to pay his gambling debts. He was next let
go by newspapers in Salt Lake City and San Francisco because of
his habitual drunkenness, and moved into Botkin's hotel.
The affair lasted almost three years, but ended
when Dunning was re-hired in March 1898 as the agency's lead
reporter for what would become the Spanish-American War. When he
left San Francisco, he told the weeping Botkin that he would not
return. He reconciled with his wife before leaving for Cuba, where
he helped save survivors of the Spanish battleships that were sunk
at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba on 2 July 1898. Unfortunately
for him, his own work as a reporter was overshadowed by the more
impressive reports sent from Cuba by Stephen Crane and Richard
Cordelia Botkin sent anonymous letters to Mrs.
Dunning detailing her husband's affairs. On August 9, 1898, Mrs.
Dunning opened a box of candies addressed to her and her sister in
Dover, Delaware. It was only "With love to yourself and baby."
"Passionately fond of candy," according to her husband, Dunning
took at least three pieces herself and shared the rest with others
on the porch of her father's home. After two days of agony, the
35-year-old Mrs. Dunning and her older sister, 44-year-old Ida
Harriet Deane, died from arsenic poisoning. Four others who had
sampled the chocolates survived. Elizabeth Dunning's father noted
familiar handwriting on both the note and saw that it matched the
taunting letters he had kept in a drawer. Police traced the candy
to a shop in San Francisco, and from there, to the bitter Mrs.
Cordelia Botkin was tried before Judge Carroll
Cook, who ruled on the first case involving a crime committed in
two different states, a decision which was never reviewed by the
United States Supreme Court.
Cordelia Botkin denied her guilt, but she was
convicted of murder in December 1898, and was convicted again at a
retrial in 1904. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. She died
in 1910 in San Quentin State Prison. John Dunning, his career
destroyed by the revelations during the trial, had died two years
previously in Philadelphia.
31-year-old John P. Dunning had the kind
lifestyle that many people dream of. He was a well-regarded war
correspondent and had a devoted wife, Mary, who was the daughter
of former congressman John B. Pennington of Dover Delaware.
In 1891 the couple moved to San Francisco where
Dunning took a position as the Bureau Chief of Associated Press'
Western Division. A year later the couple welcomed the birth of
In the summer of 1895, Dunning was riding his
bike to work through Golden Gate Park when it broke down near a
bench where the woman who would tragically alter his future was
sitting enjoying the morning sun. As he fixed his bike the two
struck up a conversation and although she was 10 years his senior
Dunning soon found himself captivated by her ill disguised, raw
sensuality and they were soon embroiled in a torrid affair. She
was Cordelia Botkin, wife of wealthy businessman, Welcome A.
Botkin from Stockton California. Although they were separated,
Cordelia's husband still supported her financially with a monthly
stipend. Cordelia introduced Dunning to the seedy side of San
Francisco and before long he was caught up in a sordid lifestyle
of drinking, partying, and gambling.
Mary Elizabeth Dunning had suffered the
ultimate humiliation. Her husband was openly cavorting with a
woman of obviously loose morals. To add to this he had been fired
from his position at Associated Press when it was suspected that
he had embezzled company funds in order to pay his gambling debts.
And due to his heavy drinking he was unable to maintain
employment. Fed up, Mary Elizabeth packed up herself and her
daughter and moved back to Delaware with her parents.
Still caught up in the clutches of Cordelia,
Dunning moved into same hotel where she was staying and for the
time being was content to let Cordelia support the both of them
with her husband's money.
During one of their conversations the subject
of Dunning's wife arose and he let it slip about her love of candy
and that she had a close friend in San Francisco named Mrs
Eventually Dunning grew tired of his life of
debauchery and jumped at the chance when Associated Press offered
to rehire him as a war correspondent to cover the Spanish-American
war in Cuba. He informed Cordelia of his plans and turned a deaf
ear to her impassioned pleadings for him to stay with her. Dunning
also informed her that he had no intentions of returning to San
Francisco and upon completing his assignment he would be returning
to Delaware in the hopes of reuniting with his wife and child.
Mary Elizabeth received letters signed "A
Friend" postmarked San Francisco. They informed her that her
husband was still constantly seen in the company of an attractive
woman and warned Mary Elizabeth not to reconcile with her husband.
She turned the letters over to her father for safe keeping.
On August 9, 1898, a small package arrived at
the Dover, Delaware addressed to Mary Elizabeth Dunning. Inside
the box was chocolate bonbons resting atop a lacy handkerchief
with the price tag still attached. The note enclosed with the
package read, "With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C."
Later that evening after dining on trout and
corn fritters, the family retired to the veranda in a effort to
cool off from the summer heat. Thinking the chocolates were from
her friend, Mrs. Corbaley, from San Francisco, Mary Elizabeth had
no reservations about indulging in her love of chocolate or
passing the box around for her family to share. Mary Elizabeth's
parents passed but her older sister, her daughter, her niece and
two young neighbors who had stopped by to visit.
Hours later all six of the unfortunate people
who ate the candy experienced stomach pains and vomiting. The
physician who came to examine them diagnosed their illness as
cholera morbus, a common ailment due to lack of refrigeration.
He claimed it was probably from the corn fritters they had eaten
at dinner. The problem with that theory was the two neighbors had
not eaten the fritters. Nonetheless everyone eventually recovered
with the exception of Mary Elizabeth and her sister. Having eaten
the bulk of the candy they progressed to severe stomach spasms and
their father called in a specialist who's grim suspicion spelled
doom for the two women. He feared that they had been poisoned and
by then it was too late to save them. Mary Elizabeth and her
sister died a day later.
Mr Pennington began to suspect that his
daughters had been poisoned by the candy and he had the uneaten
candy analyzed. The chemist reported that a few of the chocolates
had indeed been tainted with arsenic.
Mary Elizabeth's father dispatched a telegram
posthaste to John Dunning informing him of the death of his
beloved wife. When he reached the home of Mr. Pennington, Mary's
father, he was immediately shown the letters and handwritten note
that accompanied the box of chocolate. It took only one brief
glance for him to instantly recognise the handwriting. There was
no doubt as to the identity of the writer in his mind. He broke
down and told Mr. Pennington the details of the sordid affair with
The Dover Police were contacted who then
referred the case to San Francisco since the candies were sent
from there. The remaining candy, the paper it was wrapped in and
the handkerchief were sent to San Francisco in the custody of
San Francisco Police Chief Isaiah W. Less
spearheaded the case against Cordelia and immediately set to work
building the evidence against her. The sensational story was soon
front page news and the Examiner "assisted" the police with the
investigation. The paper that was used to wrap the candy was
traced back to the George Haas confectionery where the clerk
recalled selling the chocolate bonbons to a woman fitting
Cordelia's physical description. The price tag on the handkerchief
led directly to the City of Paris department store. A clerk who
remembered selling arsenic to a woman who resembled Cordelia was
eventually located at the Owl Drug store. Finally Less had the
note that accompanied the chocolates and the anonymous letters
sent to Mary Elizabeth analyzed by a handwriting expert who
conclusively matched them to samples of Cordelia's writings.
In October, 1898, Chief Less appeared before
the grand jury, confident that he had a strong, albeit
circumstantial case. The only potential problem was the fact that
an autopsy had not been performed on the two women so there was no
proof that they had died from arsenic poisoning. In response the
grand jury returned with an indictment for two counts of
first-degree murder against Mrs. Cordelia Botkin.
Her trial began in December, 1898 before Judge
Carroll Cook. Given the strength of the prosecutions case, the
defense had no choice but to put Cordelia on the stand. She
admitted that she bought the arsenic in June but hers was powdered
not the crystalline type that was found in the candy. Furthermore
she claimed she had bought the arsenic to bleach a straw hat. She
also produced alibis to prove that she did not purchase the candy
or mail the package. However her alibis could not be
After four hours of the deliberation the jury
found Cordelia guilty and recommended life in prison. As
recommended Cordelia was confined to the Branch County Prison to
serve her life sentence. One Sunday a few months after being sent
to prison Judge Cook spotted Cordelia shopping in downtown San
Francisco. He immediately launched an investigation and uncovered
evidence that Cordelia had exchanged sexual favors for lavish
comforts in jail and the freedom to leave the prison grounds.
Meanwhile Cordelia's lawyer appealed her
conviction and was able to have it overturned based on a
procedural error. Her second trial commenced in 1904 and on August
2, 1904 she was again sentenced to life in prison.
Cordelia Botkin was transferred to San Quentin
State Prison where she remained until her death on March 7, 1910.
The official cause of death was "softening of the brain due to
melancholy." She was 56 years old.
A splendid little murder
Cordelia Botkin. Mrs. Botkin. Hardly a
household name for San Franciscans in December 1898. But her face
stares, dark-eyed, round-cheeked, out of nearly every issue of the
Chronicle and the Examiner published in December
1898. Residents of the city a hundred years ago eagerly absorbed
every detail of this woman's private life just as their
20th-century counterparts voraciously devour news of Monica
Lewinsky's comings and goings. Hers, too, was a titillating story
of sexual indiscretion, augmented by the testosterone-charged
excitement of a splendid little war. Perhaps the parallels stop
there. But perhaps there are other lines that diverge, only to
meet again, now, in an exquisite full circle.
The occasion for Mrs. Botkin's quickly sketched
portraits, which adorned the pages of every local newspaper, was
her trial for murder in Police Court, Judge Carroll Cook
presiding. The facts were well known, for William Randolph
Hearst's Examiner had made the case its own, in the same
way that Hearst's newspaper empire had thrown itself into the
events leading up to the Spanish-American War. To enflame passions
against Spain's barbarism in the Caribbean among Americans
unimaginatively content to tend their own gardens, Hearst sent
artist Frederic Remington to Cuba in search of visual kindling. In
a now-famous exchange, Remington requested permission to return
home because "there will be no war"; Hearst replied, "You furnish
the pictures. I'll furnish the war." And to heat up public
interest in two Delaware murders with a San Francisco angle, the
Examiner sent a reporter with the wonderfully Dickensian
name of Lizzie Livernash to inveigle her way into the confidence
of the prime suspect --- Cordelia Botkin.
But let me tell you the story. It began when a
bicycle broke down in Golden Gate Park in September 1895. As the
cyclist, a journalist named John P. Dunning, stopped to tend to
his wheel, he noticed two women sitting on a bench nearby. One of
them was Cordelia Botkin. Despite 19th-century taboos on
associations between men and women who had not been formally
introduced, the two fell into an easy conversation. One thing led
to another, and they became intimate.
When the particulars of their relationship
emerged later, the public expressed shock and disapproval. It
turned out that the 41-year-old Mrs. Botkin lived in San
Francisco, either alone or in the company of her son Beverly,
apparently a plump dissolute fellow in his early 20s. She enjoyed
a comfortable separate existence from her husband, Welcome A.
Botkin, who resided officially in Stockton but paid frequent
consoling visits to a San Francisco landlady named Clara Arbogast.
(The names are not important, but they are far too delicious to
omit.) Mr. Dunning, who was about 30, also had a family --- a wife
named Mary Elizabeth and a little girl, named Mary for her mother.
But alas, his menage was not a happy one, he confessed, because
his wife, the daughter of a Delaware farmer-turned-Congressman,
was "extremely religious and could not get accustomed to
conditions in San Francisco."
Or maybe it was her husband who caused her
discomfort. About the time that Dunning landed literally at Mrs.
Botkin's feet, he also began betting heavily at the racetrack. He
soon lost his position as day manager of the Associated Press San
Francisco Bureau, amid whispers of embezzled office funds.
Elizabeth Dunning hightailed it back to the security of her family
home in Dover, and her errant husband, pockets empty, joined his
new love, first at 927 Geary (in a two-story house that
subsequently changed its number out of embarrassment) and then in
the Victoria Hotel, at 1105 Hyde, on the corner of Hyde and
California. Oh, the happy times --- or goings-on, depending on
your point of view --- that took place in Room 26 of the Victoria!
Visitors recalled seeing Jack Dunning sitting casually with a
glass of whiskey in his hand as he bantered with a bathrobe-clad
Cordelia. They also noticed, with raised eyebrows, the frequent
presence of a 31-year-old widow, Louise Seeley, a close friend of
Then suddenly, just when Dunning's finances
seemed at their lowest ebb, he received a posting to cover the war
in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Cordelia traveled with him by ferry to
the railroad station in Oakland and tearfully saw him off,
convinced that he would meet a horrible death at the hands of the
Spanish. In fact, as his letters describe, he rather enjoyed
himself, even cutting off a piece of an enemy scalp, which he kept
as a souvenir, until it went bad and smelled "anything but attar
But while he was overseas, trouble erupted in
Dover. Elizabeth received a series of anonymous letters telling of
her husband's involvement with an "interesting and
pretty woman" in San Francisco. They were followed by a box of
chocolates ---she had a well-known sweet tooth---accompanied by an
inexpensive cambric handkerchief and a note reading, "With love to
yourself and baby. Mrs. C."
On the evening of August 9, 1898, after a
dinner of trout and corn fritters, Elizabeth and her family went
out to the porch to enjoy the summer evening. She passed around
the candy, at the same time wondering who had sent it. The
following day, the members of the party who had eaten filled
bonbons became dreadfully ill; abstainers like the paterfamilias
John Pennington, who preferred his tobacco chaw to candy, and
those who had eaten only hard chocolates remained healthy. Most of
the stricken quickly recovered, but Elizabeth and her older
sister, Leila Deane, died painfully a few days later. Until the
end was near, their doctor believed they suffered from cholera
morbus, a blanket term for the stomach ailments that were
exceedingly common during the summers before refrigerators. At the
last moment, too late to save them, he realized they were the
victims of arsenic poisoning.
Poison. The classic weapon of a woman.
Elizabeth's grieving family sent for Dunning, who arrived in great
distress ten days later. He took one look at the anonymous letters
and said, "Cordelia."
Local newspapers in San Francisco quickly
caught wind of the case, and from then on it was difficult to tell
whether the Examiner or the Police Department was directing
the investigation. The box of bonbons was traced to Haas & Sons
Confectionery, in the flatiron-shaped Phelan Building at 810
Market, where an army of reporters soon drove the staff into
hiding. The handkerchief was found to bear a price stamp from the
City of Paris (a department store on Union Square which
subsequently traded its Gallic elegance for Texas chic, in the
form of Nieman Marcus). A clerk was discovered at Owl Drug Store
(at 1002 Market) who remembered he had sold some arsenic to a
woman resembling Cordelia Botkin. And best of all, "Mrs. Botkin,"
as the headlines styled her, was located at her sister's house in
Healdsburg. Hotshot reporter Lizzie Livernash sped to her side,
representing herself as a kindred spirit and persuading the
semi-hysterical fugitive to tell all. Or at least a lot, all of
which duly appeared in the pages of the Examiner.
The unrelenting coverage of the case by the
press meant that the public knew what to expect when the trial
finally began on December 6. Like the members of a TV audience
well-primed before the official statement of a president, the
people of San Francisco turned their attention toward the
courthouse, eager for a look at the new media-created celebrities
they had been reading about. Foreknowledge only whet their
appetite. Every day they packed into the courtroom, men stolid in
bulky topcoats, women knocking ornate hats askew as they vied for
front-row seats. One day it rained ---California was unusually
cold and dry that year--- and the intense body heat in the crowded
room forced clouds of steam from water-soaked clothing. On the
final days of the trial, when the attorneys were scheduled to give
their closing speeches, a line of more than 500 people stretched
away from the courthouse, the overflow that had been unable to
squeeze inside. For their benefit, and to make the rest of the
city a part of the ghoulish festivities, the Examiner
erected a public bulletin board, where it posted up-to-the-minute
reports of the trial's progress.
A delegation of lawyers, doctors, and bereaved
family members arrived by train from Delaware just as the trial
began, looking bewildered by what they obviously regarded as the
Wild West. (There had been a brief jurisdictional dispute over
which state should host the trial, which California won on the
grounds that a person couldn't be extradited to a place where she
had never been.) In turn, cosmopolitan San Franciscans saw the
eastern visitors as provincial and slightly addle-brained.
Piece by piece, the prosecution laid out its
evidence, including lengthy chemical and handwriting analyses.
Fingerprint analysis, which might have provided proof otherwise
lacking in the circumstantial case, was still a science in its
infancy, inadmissible in court. Throughout the testimony, all eyes
were on the defendant, who sat stoically still, always in black,
always with a white lace handkerchief in her hand. A brief
distraction occurred when John Dunning took the stand and the
members of the audience had an opportunity to look over the man
who had inspired such passion. He turned out to be the whiny sort,
with a good cleft chin but narrow shoulders and a head of thinning
hair. He inserted a moment of drama into the proceedings when he
acknowledged that he had been intimate with many women during his
stay in San Francisco, but no, he couldn't recall all of their
names. Were there any whose names he could recall? Yes, there were
three, besides Mrs. Botkin. But no, he would not reveal them.
Dunning spent a couple of nights in the county jail before the
defense withdrew its question.
Mrs. Botkin took the stand, speaking first in a
spirited tone that gave her listeners a hint that she might indeed
be an intelligent, independent woman and then --- on the advice of
counsel--- in a more docile manner. She carefully refuted the
prosecution's assertions, offering a series of alibis to
demonstrate that she could neither have purchased the chocolate
nor mailed it. Furthermore, the arsenic, which she bought in June
---long before the crime was committed--- was powdered, not
crystalline like the pieces found in the candy.
No matter. The jury convicted her after four
hours' deliberation, including time out for dinner. The verdict
was a compromise: guilty of first degree murder, to be punished by
life imprisonment. When the news flashed on the Examiner
bulletin board, the crowd cheered. And despite several appeals,
Cordelia Botkin spent the rest of her life in San Quentin, dying
of "softening of the brain, due to melancholy" on March 7, 1910.
Once again, as in the splendid little war, a
newspaper had orchestrated events, building a readership by
molding popular opinion, creating consensus by sensation. William
Randolph Hearst's dream was to establish a national voice for the
press as a partner in the political process. For many decades,
that goal was thwarted by a succession of strong presidents. Until
Copyright Betsey Culp 1998
The Botkin Case1
By Jim Fisher
“With love to yourself and
-Cordelia Botkin in a note to the woman she would murder.
Thirty-year-old John P. Dunning, in the year 1895, had a good
life. He was married to a woman who was devoted to him, had a
healthy young daughter named Mary, and a good job as day manager
of the Associated Press bureau in San Francisco. His wife,
Elizabeth Mary, the daughter of ex-congressman John Pennington of
Dover, Delaware, was not only beautiful, but from a prominent
family. In September of 1895, John Dunning’s life would take a
dramatic turn when, while taking a leisurely bicycle ride not far
from his San Francisco home, he spotted an attractive woman
sitting on a bench. A few days later, Dunning and his new
acquaintance, Cordelia Botkin, a married woman estranged from her
Stockton, California husband, became more than friends. During the
next two years, Dunning was seen by neighbors as a frequent guest
at the Botkin house on Geary Street. Besides cheating on his wife,
and on occasion Cordelia Botkin, Dunning began to drink and lose
money at the racetrack. In early 1898, Dunning’s employer,
suspecting embezzlement of company funds, fired him. Because he
could no longer support his family, his wife and daughter they
returned to Dover to live with the Penningtons while Dunning
looked for another job in San Francisco. With his family back in
Delaware, Dunning was free to move in with Cordelia Botkin who now
resided at the Victoria Hotel on Hyde Street,
Cordelia was thrilled to be living under the same roof with her
lover, but her joy was short-lived. Two months after he had moved
into the Victoria Hotel, Dunning received a reporting assignment
to cover the Spanish-American War from Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Before leaving San Francisco, Dunning had more bad news for
Cordelia: he missed his wife and daughter. When he completed his
assignment overseas, he would be joining his family in Delaware.
The affair was over. Cordelia did not take the news very well. In
her mind, and she was quite strong-minded, the affair was not
over, not by a long shot.
Back in Dover, Mrs. Dunning, in the summer of
1898, began receiving anonymous letters mailed from San Franciso,
letters referring to her husband’s affair with an “interesting and
pretty woman.” The letters were signed, “A Friend.” In August,
Mrs. Dunning received an anonymous note signed, “With love to
yourself and baby. Mrs. C.” The latter communication was
accompanied by a Cambric handkerchief and a box of chocolates.
On August 9, 1898, after dinner at the
Pennington house, 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. A few of
those gathered on the porch that evening passed up the chocolate
while Mrs. Dunning and her sister helped themselves to several
pieces. That night, everyone who ate the candy became sick. Mrs.
Dunning and her sister, having eaten so much of the chocolate,
became violently ill.
On August 20, eleven days after the candy
arrived in the mail, Leila Deane died. The next day Mrs. Dunning
passed away. Both women had suffered extremely painful and
agonizing deaths. The presumed cause 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 John Pennington showed him the
anonymous letters, including the note that had come with the
chocolates, Dunning simply said, “Cordelia.”
Mr. Pennington, suspecting that his daughters
had been poisoned by the candy, had the uneaten chocolates
analyzed by a chemist who worked for the state. The chemist
reported that some of the remaining chocolates had been spiked
with arsenic. Autopsies were not performed on the bodies because
the physician in charge believed that the victims’ prolonged
vomiting had cleansed their bodies of the poison. Had toxicology,
as a forensic science, existed in 1898, a toxicologist would have
known that although arsenic, a heavy metal poison, is excreted
from the damaged cells, traces are sequestered in the victim’s
bone, fingernails and head hair.
The discovery of the poison in the candy
prompted a coroner’s inquest. When presented with the basic facts
of the case, the coroner’s jury ruled that the two women had been
poisoned to death by the arsenic-laced candy which had been 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. A pair of Dover police
officers, bearing the key evidence—the candy, the paper it had
been wrapped in, and the anonymous writings—boarded a train for
San Francisco. The man who would be leading the investigation,
I.W. Lees, had been appointed chief of the San Francisco Police
Department the previous year. He had been, as captain of the
detective bureau, a high-profile investigator who had solved
several big cases. He was also an innovator, in 1854 Lees became
the first American police administrator to regularly photograph
arrestees. As a result, the San Francisco Police Department had a
large rogues gallery. Lees had used daguerreotype photography
until 1859, then had switched to the colloidin wet process,
allowing the permanent mounting of the photographs in record
Chief Lees, convinced that his prime suspect,
Cordelia Botkin, would break down and confess if arrested, found
her at her sister’s house in Heraldsburg and placed her under
arrest for the murders of Elizabeth Dunning and Leila Deane.
Because the suspect vehemently proclaimed her innocence, Lees was
forced to solve the case the hard way, by conducting a detailed,
painstaking investigation. He began by tracing the arsenic to the
Owl Drug Store on Market Street where a clerk had sold arsenic, in
June of 1898, to a woman meeting the description of Cordelia
Botkin. Lees also questioned an acquaintance of the suspect who
told him that Mrs. Botkin had expressed concern about having to
sign her name when purchasing arsenic. Botkin also told this woman
she was worried about having to sign her name at the post office
when sending registered mail. The acquaintance had assured
Cordelia that she would not have to sign her name on either
occasion. Lees also spoke to a physician who had been asked by
Cordelia to describe the effects of various poisons on the human
When Lees searched Mrs. Botkin’s room at the
Victoria Hotel, he found the wrapping paper, bearing a gold seal
and a company trademark, that had enclosed the chocolates in the
candy box. From this he learned that the bonbons had been
purchased from the Haas Candy store in San Francisco. A sales
clerk at the store remembered the customer who had purchased the
candy because the woman had wanted half a box because she planned
to add in her own, homemade chocolate. The clerk’s physical
description of this customer fit the description of Cordelia
To identify the person who had addressed the
mailed package, and penned the anonymous letters as well as the
note that accompanied the candy, Chief Lees, in questioned
document examiner Daniel T. Ames, didn’t have far to look. The San
Francisco based expert was considered the preeminent handwriting
man in the country.3 When Ames analyzed and compared
samples of Mrs. Botkin’s conceded, course-of-business handwriting
with the writings in the questioned documents brought to San
Francisco from Dover, he confidently announced that Cordelia
Botkin, to the exclusion of all others, had written the questioned
material. Two other document examiners brought into the case, Carl
Eisenschimel and Theodore Kytka, agreed with Ames that Cordelia
Botkin had written the letters as well as the address on the
package of chocolates.
Chief Lees believed he had a strong, albeit
circumstantial, case. There was one problem, however, one hole in
his proof. Not all of the candy in the box had been spiked with
arsenic, and since autopsies had not been performed on the dead
sisters, there was no direct proof that they had died from arsenic
poisoning. Still, to draw any other conclusion from these facts
would not have been reasonable. In October, 1898, Lees presented
his case to the grand jury which returned an indictment charging
Cordelia Botkin with two counts of murder in the first-degree.
Amid intense media coverage, the Botkin trial
began in early December. On the first day of the proceedings, five
hundred spectators were lined-up outside the courthouse door.
Having pled not guilty, Cordelia Botkin, sat stiffly at the
defense table dressed in black , holding a white lace
handkerchief. She showed no emotion when the prosecution put John
Dunning, a narrow-shouldered man with thinning hair, on the stand.
Dunning admitted having an affair with the defendant as well as
three other women in San Francisco. When, on cross examination, he
was asked to identify the other three women, he refused. When
Dunning refused the judge’s order to reveal their names, he was
held in contempt and hauled off to jail. A few hours later, when
the defense attorney withdrew the question, Dunning was back in
In the wake of the impressive testimony of
Daniel Ames and the other two document examiners, the burden of
guilt shifted to the defense, that is, unless Cordelia Botkin
could prove she wasn’t the writer of the questioned documents, she
would be convicted. Ames and the other two handwriting experts had
used impressive courtroom exhibits in the form of word charts
highlighting the similarities in the questioned and known sets of
writing. At the close of the questioned document phase of the
case, the prosecution rested.
Given the persuasiveness of the prosecution’s
evidence, the defense had no choice but to put Cordelia Botkin on
the stand, a move that thrilled the press and the millions of
people following the case. Cordelia did not deny that she had
purchased arsenic in June, 1898, explaining that she had used the
poison to clean a straw hat. Moreover, the arsenic she had
purchased was powdered, and the arsenic in the candy was
crystalline. On the dates the candy was purchased, and the package
mailed, the defendant produced alibi evidence that was not
substantiated with back-up testimony. Following Botkin’s stint on
the stand, the defense rested its case. The jury would have to
choose whether they believed the defendant, or the prosecution’s
three expert handwriting witnesses.
After four hours of deliberation, the jury
returned its verdict: guilty, on two counts of first-degree
murder. The jurors, impressed by the prosecution’s handwriting
evidence, had spent most of their time in the jury room arguing
over whether to recommend the death sentence, or life in prison.
In the end, the jury decided to recommend life. Perhaps, because
she was an attractive woman, and the case against her was
circumstantial, the jury chose to spare the defendant’s life. In
1898, had a man confessed to killing two people this way, he would
have surely been hanged.
Cordelia could have been sent to San Quentin
Prison to serve her sentence, but the judge, worried what would
happen to her there, sent her to the county jail in San Francisco
where, in exchanged 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 shopped downtown, her lawyer
appealed her conviction on a procedural issue. The appellate
court’s overturning of her murder convictions, led, in 1904, to a
second, less sensational, trial. Once again, on the strength of
the handwriting testimony, Cordelia was convicted and sentenced to
life. Two years later, after the great earthquake destroyed the
county jail where she was serving her sentence, Cordelia was
transfered to San Quentin. In 1908, she applied for parole on the
basis of bad health, a motion that was denied. On March 7, 1910,
at the age of fifty-six, she died. The official cause of death:
“Softening of the brain, due to melancholy.”
The Botkin case caught the attention of the
press because of the lurid behavior of the principals, and the
unusual way the murder was carried out. However, historically, it
was a forensic science landmark. The case helped launch the
fledgling science of questioned document examination at a time
when most courts did not recognize handwriting specialists as
forensic experts. The case also propelled the career of Daniel T.
Ames who, in 1900, published his text, Ames on Forgery: Its
Detection and Illustrations, America’s first authoritative
work on the subject. (Ames, in his book, left out some of his
identification techniques to protect himself from competitors in
the field.) Two years after the publication of his book, Ames
would testify in the famous Patrick-Rice case, a murder involving
a lot of money, and a forged will.