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 Botkin.
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 the courtroom.
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.