“…the great Machiavelli of handwriting experts in America was engaged by the defendant.”
--the prosecutor at the Molineux trial
On the day before Christmas, 1898, thirty-five-year-old Harry Cornish, the physical director of Manhattan’s swank Knickerbocker Athletic Club, received in the mail from an anonymous sender, a blue tiffany pasteboard box containing a silver toothpick holder enclosed around a small, blue bottle of Bromo Seltzer. Thinking that the package was a Christmas gift from someone who had forgotten to include a card, Cornish saved the portion of the mailing paper that bore the following handwritten address:
Mr. Harry Cornish
Club, Madison Avenue
New York City
Harry Cornish lived as a tenant in an apartment house at 61 West Eighty Sixth Street that was owned and occupied by his landlord, Mrs. Katherine J. Adams. On December 28, 1898, Mrs. Adams awoke with a severe headache, and with a wet towel wrapped around her head, went about her household chores. The towel caught Cornish’s attention on his way to fetching the morning paper. To alleviate her headache, Cornish retrieved the remedy he had received anonymously in the mail. Shortly after consuming the Bromo Seltzer mixed in a glass of water, Mrs. Adams doubled up in pain, grabbed her stomach, staggered into the bathroom, and collapsed. A few minutes later she was dead. Cornish, as well as Mrs. Adam’s daughter Florence, had taken sips from the glass which caused them nothing more than temporary stomach pains.
The physician who came to the apartment, upon examining the body and learning that Mrs. Adams had died almost immediately after consuming the headache remedy, suspected that the woman had been poisoned. The doctor said he would turn the Bromo Seltzer bottle over to the coroner’s physician for analysis.
The next day, Harry Cornish reported the circumstances of his landlord’s sudden and violent death to John H. McIntyre, an assistant prosecutor in the New York City District Attorney’s office. McIntyre notified the police department from where Captain of Detectives George McClusky assigned the case to Detective Sergeant Arthur A. Carey, an experienced investigator who had been in the homicide bureau six years.
Mrs. Adam’s autopsy revealed, in her throat and stomach, traces of cyanide of potassium. For a more detailed analysis of the poison, the coroner’s physician sent the digestive organs to the noted New York City toxicologist, Dr. Rudolph Witthaus. Witthaus, fifty-three, had studied chemistry and medicine at Columbia University. He had been a professor of chemistry and physiology at New York University for twenty years, and had testified in dozens of criminal trials. Although he was considered one of the most educated and cultured men in the city, Witthaus, who was a bit of a cynic and didn’t suffer fools lightly, was given to fits of rage when those around him didn’t live up to his standards. This made him a difficult and unpopular man to work for.2
When the press learned of the unusual circumstances surrounding Mrs. Adam’s violent and mysterious death, the case became headline news in New York City and across the country. Early reportage of the death featured the publication of a photograph of the handwritten address on the Bromo Seltzer parcel. When the secretary of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club saw that picture, he thought he recognized the handwriting as belonging to a former member of the club. That man was Roland B. Molineux, a muscular and handsome thirty-year-old who was a bit of a snob, and quite vain about his athletic prowess. He was the national amateur horizontal bar champion, a title that was, at the turn-of-the-century, quite important in the athletic world. Because Molineux had recently written several angry letters to the club, the secretary had become familiar with his handwriting and spelling, which included his misspelling of forty as “fourty” as it had been written on the fatal package. Detective Carey, who had considered Harry Cornish as a possible suspect, now switched his attention to Roland Molineux.
Molineux’s father, Edward Leslie Molineux, was a former Union general in the Civil War, a power in the local Republican party, and the president of one of the largest dye manufacturers in the United States. As a result, Roland Molineux had grown up in a wealthy and prominent family. Young Molineux had followed his father into the dye business by studying chemistry, and then working as the superintendent of a dry color factory in Newark, New Jersey. But as a playboy and man about town, work was not a high priority with Molineux. Still, Molineux’s background in chemistry, as far as Detective Carey was concerned, made him a good suspect in a homicide case involving poison.
Henry Cornish, born and raised in Boston, was divorced from his wife who had caught him with another woman. He had worked as physical director at athletic clubs in Boston and Chicago where he had made a name for himself by turning out excellent athletes, and by managing the athletic games at the World’s Fair in 1893. Because he was impulsive, blunt, and had no feel for compromise, Harry Cornish was not well-liked by members of the Knickerbocker Club.
Molineux and Cornish had first clashed in April, 1897 after Cornish defeated Molineux in a weight-lifting competition. This had motivated Molineux , not well-liked himself, to attempt to talk the board of directors into dismissing Cornish. The physical director responded by writing letters to other members of the club in which he described Molineux as a third-rate athlete, accusing him of selling illicit rum and patronizing prostitutes. This infuriated Molineux who threatened to resign from the club if Cornish was not removed from office. When the board of directors voted in December, 1897 to retain the physical director, Molineux, feeling betrayed, resigned his membership in the exclusive club. He did this a full year before Mrs. Adams drank the Bromo Seltzer and died.
Detective Carey had learned that the two-ounce bottle containing the effervescent salts was not a genuine Bromo Seltzer container. A real bottle of Bromo Seltzer was too large for the silver holder that had contained the poisoned headache remedy. Focusing on the bottle holder, Detective Carey located the jewelry store in Newark where it had been purchased. Records at the store revealed that the holder had been purchased on December 2l, a week before Mrs. Adam’s death. The sales woman said she remembered selling it to a man in his early thirties who had a full, red beard. Since Roland Molineux didn’t sport a beard, Detective Carey figured that either the sales clerk was mistaken or he was after the wrong man. While the detective doggedly pursued his leads, Molineux was being hounded by reporters demanding to know why he had not availed himself to the police. Did he have something to hide? Molineux told reporters he would be glad to submit to police questioning on the condition that his attorney be present during the interrogation.
1. This account of the Molineux case is based upon the following sources: Carey, Arthur A., Memoirs of a Murder Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Doren & Co., 1930 (pp 69-95); Klaus, Samuel, The Molineux Case. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929; Ames, Daniel T., Ames on Forgery: Its Detection and Illustrations. NY: Ames-Rollinson Co., 1900 (pp 216-39); Pearson, Edmund, Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1927 (pl25); Carvalho, Claire and Boyden Sparks, Crime in Ink. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929 (pp 31-48); Le Brun, George P. (as told to Edward Radin), It’s Time to Tell. NY: William Morrow, 1962 (pp 22-47); Smith, Edward H., Famous Poison Mysteries. NY: The Dial Press, 1925 (pp 69-83); Crouse, Russel, Murder Won’t Out. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1932 (“The Murder of Katherine Adams,” pp. 117-38).
2. Witthaus would publish his four-volume treatise, Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine and Toxicology (NY: Wood) from 1906 to 1911.