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The Molineux Case - Page 4 of 4

Molineux’s attorney, George Gordon Battle, immediately filed an appeal based upon these issues: Judge Goff, by not allowing the defense attorney to cross-examine any of the prosecution’s handwriting experts, had denied his client a fair trial. The judge, biased in favor of the prosecution, had also allowed Osborne to link the deaths of Katherine Adams and Henry Barnet without any direct, solid evidence connecting the defendant to the Barnet case. In fact, there wasn’t any real evidence that Barnet’s death had been a homicide. These errors, in Battle’s opinion, constituted grounds for a new trial.

As it turned out, Battle was right. In 1902, after serving two years in prison at Sing Sing in Ossening, New York, Molineux was granted a new trial. In the second trial, presided over by a different judge, Judge John D. Lambert, most of the questioned document evidence was excluded. Lambert did allow expert testimony regarding the handwriting on the Bromo Seltzer package. There was no mention in the second trial of Henry Barnet, and this time, David Carvalho got his day in court. The prosecution had also lost the testimony of Molineux’s cleaning lady, the woman who had testified that Molineux had been in possession of stationery like the stationery used to request the Bromo Seltzer and the Kutnow Powder. Molineux’s new attorney, Frank S. Black, the former governor of New York, besides David Carvalho, put on a witness who substantiated Molinuex’s alibi at the time the fatal package was mailed to Mrs. Adams.

This important alibi witness, a Professor Vulte of Columbia University, testified that the defendant had come to visit him at the school on the afternoon of December 23, 1898. The witnessed remembered the occasion because it was the last day before the Christmas break. Molineux had left Columbia that day at four-forty-five, which would not have given him enough time to be at the general post office in Park Row.

Following Professor Vulte to the stand came Mrs. Anna C. Stephenson, a surprise witness for the defense. The small, elderly woman, married to an ex-New York City cop, happened to be near the Park Row Post Office at five o’clock on December 23. Standing at the corner of Broadway and Vesey Streets, she saw a man take a package out of his pocket and look at it nervously. This caused the witness to look at the bundle in question, which, according to her sworn testimony, was addressed to Harry Cornish at the Knickerbocker Athletic Club. It was this package the man dropped into the mail chute, a man who was not the defendant.

On cross-examination John Osborne was able to establish that the witness’s eyes were so bad she could barely read a newspaper headline. But since she had witnessed the event four years earlier, her eyes may have been better. It is doubtful that anyone in the courtroom took her testimony seriously. That was not the case, however, regarding the professor’s testimony.

This time the defense decided to put Roland Molineux on the stand. During the first trial this would have been a dramatic event, but the press had lost interest in the case, and his testimony barely made the back pages of a few city papers.

Appearing confident and composed, Molineux denied any connection to the poisoned Bromo Seltzer, renting the mail boxes, or ever owning robin’s egg blue stationery with the interlocking crescents. He was not the one who had addressed the fatal package, and would not know how to make cyanide of mercury. On cross-examination, Osborne was unable to shake the defendant. The prosecutor did make a point out of the fact that cyanide of mercury was a poison easily obtained from many places.

On November l2, 1902, after deliberating only four minutes, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, an event ignored by the press, the same people who, a few years earlier, had played a role in his conviction.

Although a free man, Molineux’s life went downhill fast. In 1903, his wife Blanche rushed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota—the Reno of its day—for a quickie divorce, citing “mental cruelty.” Shortly thereafter she married a wealthy New York City lawyer. In 1905 Blanche attempted a career in Vaudeville under the name “Blanche Chesebrough Molineux,” but when Molineux threatened to sue over the use of his name, her plans were dashed.

In 1902, Molineux published a thin book of fiction called, The Room with the Little Door, the room being a cell on death row. Twelve years later he wrote a play called, The Man Inside, a dramatization of the life of a reformed criminal. The play was produced and appeared briefly in a midtown Manhattan theater.

In 1913, Molineux became a mental patient at a sanitarium in Babylon, Long Island. A few months later he escaped and was caught running around town, naked. Examined by a battery of alienists (now called psychiatrists), he was diagnosed as insane and committed to the State Mental Hospital at King’s Park, Long Island. Four years later, in 19l7, while still a mental patient, he died. He was fifty-one.

Molineux’s appeal and subsequent acquittal, along with the fact that David Carvalho’s testimony at the second trial had helped set him free, took some of the luster off the Molineux affair as a landmark case in the history of questioned documents. At the time, Carvalho’s lone expert dissent angered Daniel T. Ames and the other handwriting men who had weighed in with the prosecution. Disagreements among forensic experts in high-profile cases hurt the cause of forensic science, particularly in the early years when many courts would not allow this kind of testimony. Today, unfortunately, given the influx of graphologists into the field, battling handwriting experts is not uncommon, and is still bad for forensic science. In his book, Ames on Forgery: Its Detection and Illustrations, Ames attacked Carvalho’s credentials by detailing several cases in which his testimony conflicted with the outcome of the trial. Referring to Carvalho, he writes: “It has been from the appearance of such witnesses in courts that expert testimony has been unduly disparaged by the bench, the bar, and the press.

Although Molineux was considered innocent by the noted crime writer, Edmund Pearson, and other writers in the genre, the handwriting evidence, given the integrity and qualifications of the prosecution’s experts, suggests otherwise. There are, however, aspects of the Molineux case that remain a mystery. For example, the exact circumstances surrounding the death of Henry Barnet will never be known. Did Molineux really kill him by spiking the Kutnow Powder? This is perhaps a question that could have been answered a decade later when the field of forensic toxicology came into being. The Molineux case is forgotten now, but in its time, it was the crime of the century—in fact—the crime of two centuries.

10. Ames, p. 234. In his memoir, Crime in Ink (as told to by Boyden Sparks, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), Carvalho defends his position in the Molineux case.
11. Another book favorable to the notion that Molineux was innocent is: LeBrun, George P. (as told to Edward Radin), It’s Time to Tell. NY: William Morrow, 1962 (pp. 22-47).

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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