“With love to yourself and baby.”
-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 evidencethe candy, the paper it had been wrapped in, and the anonymous writingsboarded 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 books.2
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 body.
1. Sources for this account of the Botkin case include: Jackson, Joseph Henry (Ed.), San Francisco Murders. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947. (“The Gifts of Cordelia,” p. 121); Smith, Edmond S., Famous Poison Mysteries. New York: The Dial Press, 1927. (“Cordelia Botkin’s Candy,” p. 15); Barton, George, Famous Detective Mysteries. London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1927. (“The Mystery of the Gold Seal,” p. 88); Kobler, John, Some Like it Gory. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1940. (“The Unconquerable Mrs. Botkin,” p. 35; Ames, Daniel T., Ames on Forgery: Its Detection and Illustrations. San Francisco: Ames-Rollison Co., 1900 (reprinted by Patterson Smith, Montclair, New Jersey); Duke, Thomas S., Celebrated Criminal Cases of America. San Francisco: The James H. Barry Co., 1910. (“Mrs. Cordelia Botkin, Murderess,” p. 133); “A Splendid Little Murder,”( www.well.com/user/sffier/Botkin.html), 1998.
2. Dillon, D., “History of Criminalistics in the United States 1850-1930,” doctoral dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1977, p. 30.