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The Molineux Case - Page 3 of 4

Molineux’s attorney, George Gordon Battle, to weaken the prosecution’s handwriting evidence, hired his own expert, David N Carvalho. An employee of the New York City’s District Attorney’s office, Carvalho’s entrance into the case on behalf of the defense infuriated the prosecutor, John Osborne. Carvalho, a notorious self-promoter and headline grabber, had just received international notoriety in the famous Dreyfus case in France. Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew and captain in the French Army, had been accused of furnishing military secrets to Germany. He was tried and found guilty of treason in 1894 on the strength of Alphonse Bertillon’s testimony that Dreyfus was the writer of the bordereau. After that conviction had been set aside, he was re-tried early in 1899. Carvalho had testified as a defense handwriting expert in both trials. Notwithstanding Carvalho’s testimony that secrets passed to the Germans were not in Dreyfus’ hand, the defendant, on retrial, was again convicted of treason.4 Carvalho examined the handwriting evidence in the Molineux case, and declared that the defendant had not written any of the questioned documents. This would make him a key witness for the defense.

Detective Carey, aware that the case against Molineux was in some respects flimsy, had not ended his investigation with the indictment. A week before the opening day of the trial, Carey interviewed a young woman who had worked at the Newark dry color works under superintendent Molineux. Mary Melando had also made extra money cleaning her boss’s apartment. When shown the robin’s egg blue stationery with the interlocking crescents, the stationery used to request samples of Bromo Setlzer and Kutnow Powder under Cornish’s name, Melando said she had seen stationery just like it on Molineux’s desk.

On November l4, 1898, with reporters from all over the country in the courtroom, the Molineux trial got underway. Testimony was delayed twelve days before the opposing attorneys came to an agreement over the jury. The heart of the prosecution’s case, and the trial itself, consisted of the handwriting evidence. If the jury believed the prosecution’s experts, Molineux would be found guilty, if not, he’d go free. In his opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor John Osborne, a fiery southerner who was a good friend of the judge, said:

The experts will tell you the peculiarities of the handwriting—they will very plainly show you that there are enough characteristics left to prove that all three (the address on the poison package and the Cornish and Barnet letters) were written by the same man; and if I do not show all of this to be a fact, then this defendant will walk out of court a free man.5

Following the testimony of the Coroner’s physician, Doctor Witthaus; Detective Carey, and several of the people he had interviewed; Osborne put on the handwriting evidence which consisted of fourteen witnesses, nine of whom were questioned document examiners, the rest being people familiar with the defendant’s handwriting. Five bank tellers and the secretary of the Knickerbocker Club being in the latter category. Over the repeated objections of Molineux’s attorney regarding the credibility and reliability of handwriting expertise, Judge John Goff allowed the testimony on the grounds that the jury could determine, as a matter of fact, whether the experts were credible. Besides Daniel T. Ames, the most prominent document examiner, the other qualified experts included John F. Tyrrell from Milwaukee, and New York City’s Albert S. Osborn. Tyrrell and Osborn would become two of the eight prosecution experts in the Lindbergh trial in 1935, and Osborn, following the publication of four books on the subject, would become the father of the questioned document field. Also testifying as prosecution experts were: Dr. Persifer Frazer of Philadelphia; William E. Hagan of Troy, New York (the author of two early books on questioned documents); William J. Kinsley of New York City; Benjamin F. Kelly, also from New York City; Henry L. Tollman from Chicago; and Edwin B. Hay from Washington, D.C. This phase of the trial lasted weeks and featured more that fifty handwriting exhibits.6

During the trial, Molineux, impeccably dressed at the defense table, looked bored, and on occasion amused. Appearing unconcerned, he passed the time by smiling at his wife, and playing tick tach toe with himself on the backs of envelopes. He rarely spoke to his attorney, and paid little attention to what was being said on the witness stand.

At the close of the prosecution’s case, George Gordon Battle stood up and announced that “We believe that the prosecution has failed to establish its charge and we rest the defense upon the People’s case.”7 Realizing that his sole handwriting expert, David Carvalho, was no match against the impressive battery of prosecution witnesses, Battle had rested his case without putting on a single witness. He was pinning his hopes on an appeal, one that would be made possible if prosecutor Osborne, in his closing remarks, tried to connect Henry Barnet’s death to the Adams case. This would be, in his view, a procedural flaw that on appeal would lead to a new trial. Battle’s decision, however, had robbed document examiner David Carvalho of his moment in the Molineux case limelight.

With the evidence phase of the case behind them, it was time for the closing arguments. As the defense attorney had hoped, Osborne in his closing remarks, brought up the Barnet case:

You must remember that this defendant was married on November 29, 1898. You must remember that Barnet died on November 10, 1898….You must remember that the defendant testified at the inquest that he had been trying to marry this woman from a time running back to January 1898….The plain, cold facts are that this woman had refused him until Barnet was cold in his grave.

There have been times in this case when I began to think of poor old Mrs. Adams, stricken down, stricken down without an opportunity to make her peace with God, stricken down while she was in the performance of her family duty, leaving alone and unprotected her daughter and son; stricken down in the most cruel and the most brutal manner….Sometimes it seems to me in the nightmare that I can almost hear the voice of Mrs. Adams, calling me….And then Barnet, Barnet, in the vigor of his youth and manhood, stricken down in the same manner….And will a jury of my countrymen quail before the honest and just verdict? I think not.8

In his summation to the jury, Osborne also took a shot at David Carvalho: “Remember this—and don’t forget it—that the great Machiavelli of handwriting experts in America was engaged by the defendant.”9

On February 11, 1900, after three months and a cost to the state of $200,000, the longest and most expensive trial in history, the jury found Roland Molineux guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Katherine Adams. The Molineux case, however, beginning in one century and ending in another, was not over.

4. In 1910, the French courts, clearing Alfred Dreyfus of treason, set him free.
5. Ames, Daniel T., Ames on Forgery: Its Detection and Illustrations. NY: Ames-Rollinson Co., 1900
(p. 220).
6. All of the handwriting exhibits are shown in Ames on Forgery: Its Detection and Illustrations. Noted crime writer Edmund Pearson, in his 1927 book, Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co.), questions the validity of the prosecution’s handwriting case by ridiculing the professional qualifications of the experts. He writes: “The strong point for the prosecution lay in the evidence which was produced to show that the address of the package sent to Cornish was in the handwriting of Molineux. Fourteen handwriting experts, five of whom were bank employees, and were perhaps as impressive as any, agreed that the address on the bottle of Bromo-Seltzer was written by the prisoner.
7. Knappman, Edward (ed), Great American Trials. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1994 (p. 222).
8. Knappman, p. 222-23.
9. Ames, p. 234.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com