don’t let your husband go bike riding alone in San Francisco

Cordelia Botkin was the star of a sensational and lurid murder case in 1898

image found here

Thirty-year-old John P. Dunning had a good life with a comfortable marriage, a young daughter and a job with the Associated Press bureau in San Francisco. However in September 1895, John Dunning’s life would take a dramatic turn when, while taking a leisurely bicycle ride, he spotted an attractive woman sitting on a bench.

image found here

The estranged wife of  Welcome A Botkin, Cordelia Botkin was already 38 years old but still possessed a powerfully seductive charm. During the next two years, Dunning became 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. His wife and daughter returned to Delaware to live with family while Dunning moved in with Cordelia who now resided at the Victoria Hotel on Hyde Street.

Hyde St San Francisco found here

Cordelia was thrilled to be living under the same roof with her lover, but her joy was short-lived. Dunning received a reporting assignment to cover the Spanish-American War. Before leaving San Francisco, Dunning had bad news for Cordelia: he missed his wife and daughter. When he completed his assignment, he would rejoin his family in Delaware. The affair was over. Cordelia did not take the news very well. In her mind the affair was not over, not by a long shot.

image found here

Mrs. Dunning 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 note was accompanied by a Cambric handkerchief and a box of chocolates.

chocolate sushi found here

After dinner on August 9, 1898, Elizabeth passed the mystery box of bonbons around to family and friends. A few of those gathered that evening passed up the chocolate while Mrs. Dunning and her sister, Leila Deane, 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 Leila Deane died. The next day Mrs. Dunning passed away. Both women had suffered extremely painful and agonizing deaths. John Dunning, still overseas when he received the news, arrived back in Delaware ten days later. When he saw the anonymous letters, including the note that had come with the chocolates, he simply said, “Cordelia.”

NOT Cordelia Winterbottom found here

The uneaten chocolates were analyzed by a chemist who reported that they had been spiked with arsenic. Autopsies were not performed on the bodies because the physician in charge erroneously believed that the victims’ prolonged vomiting had cleansed their bodies of the poison. When presented with the basic facts of the case, a 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.

arsenic poisoning found here

Police officers, bearing the key evidence—the candy, the paper it had been wrapped in, and the anonymous writings—boarded a train for San Francisco. The leading investigator, I.W. Lees, had been appointed chief of the San Francisco Police Department the previous year. 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. 

image found here

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 where a clerk had sold arsenic, in June of 1898, to a woman meeting the description of Cordelia Botkin. Lees then questioned an acquaintance of the suspect who told him that Mrs. Botkin had expressed concern about having to sign her name when purchasing arsenic. Lees also spoke to a physician who had been asked by Cordelia to describe the effects of various poisons on the human body.

Owl Drug Store found here

Searching Mrs. Botkin’s room at the Victoria Hotel, he found 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. A sales clerk remembered the customer because the woman had wanted half a box as she planned to add her own, homemade chocolate. The clerk’s physical description of this customer matched that of Cordelia Botkin.

image found here

To identify the person who had addressed the mailed package, and penned the anonymous letters as well as the note that accompanied the candy, Lees questioned document examiner Daniel T. Ames, considered the preeminent handwriting man in the country. When Ames analyzed and compared samples of Mrs. Botkin’s handwriting with the questioned documents, he confidently announced that she, to the exclusion of all others, had written the questioned material. Two other document examiners brought into the case agreed with his findings

Bill Gates’ handwriting analysis found here

Amid intense media coverage, the Botkin trial began in early December. 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. 

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, explaining that she had used the poison to clean a straw hat. Following Botkin’s stint on the stand, the defense rested its case. 

hat cake found here

After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: guilty, on two counts of first-degree murder. 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 exchange 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, her lawyer appealed her conviction. The appellate court’s overturning of her murder convictions, led to a second, less sensational, trial. Once again, on the strength of the handwriting testimony, Cordelia was convicted and sentenced to life. Cordelia was transfered to San Quentin. On March 7, 1910, at the age of fifty-six, she died. The official cause of death: “Softening of the brain, due to melancholy.”

image found here

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40 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. softening of the brain due to melancholy ❓

    I hope medical diagnosis has advanced a bit since then ! 😆

    • Yes. now it’s due to depression.

      • I think sometimes my brain is soft.

  2. P.S. don’t know if the choice of words in your title was deliberate or not, but in UK ‘ride’ is a slang term meaning the same as ‘fuck’, ‘shag’, ‘screw’, ‘make love/have intercourse’ etc and ‘bike’ is a slang term for a ‘loose woman’, ‘whore’, ‘easy ride’.

    ‘bike riding’ then has a certain connotation that is very apt given the subject of your post 😆

    • Haha. I knew about “ride” from watching The Committments. And ‘town bike’ is a well known saying in NZ. So the answer is yes, the choice was deliberate. Good spotting.

  3. Never mind all the courtroom drama…I want one of those tuppence ha’penny contraptions!

    • And what would you do with it dinah?

      • Find a man with good strong legs and go riding? 😉

  4. Her brain was soft in the middle but the rest of her life was so hard.

    • Actually, she had it pretty easy until she lost her head to lust

  5. If we make the world’s terrorists sign when they purchase bombs we could stop a lot of this nonsense going on.

    • Purchase bombs or purchase the ingredients to make them?

  6. Depression in so many words !
    Wonder what became of Mr. Botkin.

    • Affer (below) knows more about him

  7. That’s the most romantic official cause of death I’ve ever heard of.
    (Thank God I’m a “glass half full” kind of person.)

    • Which one. Poisoning your lover’s wife or soft brains?

  8. And the moral of that story is, when receiving chocolates from persons unknown, control your slavering lust for a gobful of chocolate and send them straight to the local food analyst….

    • It would be cheaper to just bin them

      • A warning I was given repeatedly on Indian trains: do not accept gifts of food from people you don’t know!

  9. Aw…Poor Cordelia. I believe her story about cleaning the hat. I’m always buying arsenic to clean my shoes, and silly people accuse me of trying to poison people. Ridiculous.

    • Remind me not to eat at your house.

      • Remind me not to lick your shoes.

  10. I cycle a lot

    • *gasp* Does your wife know the dangers?

  11. “in exchange for sexual favors, Cordelia would come and go as she pleased.” … best of both worlds.

  12. She must have been a bit of a girl as Welcome A Botkin, her husband, spent all his money on her defence. He didn’t divorce her until 1902 and died, two years later, aged 65.

    • I read three separate articles about her and didn’t know that. Thanks Affer.

  13. I do like a jail with negotiable terms of incarceration.

    • Speak to your “post conviction placement specialist”

  14. Sure, she had her faults, but don’t overlook Cordelia’s amazing chocolate skills. She managed to make chocolates that were incredibly delicious even though they were laced with enough arsenic to kill a person, so just imagine what she could have done with non-arsenic-laced chocolate.

  15. What an incredibly stupid murderess. She did everything except stick a note to her forehead saying “yes, it was me.”

    Can I have a box of chocolate sushi, please?

  16. And the moral of that story is never break up with your illicit lover before you go off to war. At least not when she knows your wife’s address…

    Of course, the interested reader wants to know what might have happened when the straying husband returned from the war if his wife had NOT been murdered. Perhaps he might have suffered a similar, if possibly more violent, end? We will never know.

  17. Such a more civilised time, when you could purchase arsenic. Today, to get rid of troublesome persons, you have to resort to crude methods like making it appear a smoker in the house fell asleep and set fire to the rug, killing the whole family.
    Well, at least, that’s MY version of what’s gonna happen to my neighbors. That, or more problems with the troublesome brakes on their Suburban…… 😉

  18. that’s a fine bit of detective work! As queenwilly points out, she stopped short of confession only by a nose hair!

    i love the hat cake… quite fetching, and perhaps tasty, too!

  19. Excellent. I had not heard of her before. Surprisingly neither had Shirl and she’s usually a walking encyclopedia of ‘orrible murder!

  20. A lot of people have soft brains, but I didn’t know anybody died from it.

  21. If that hat cake’s edible, I’ll eat my hat! Yes, I’m munching away, amused that Mrs Botkin made me think of Nancy Botwin.

  22. In Holland, everybody bikes to work!

  23. Fascinating! It’s amazing how far criminal investigations and the judicial process have come in only a little more than a century. It used to be as simple as throwing people into a lake to see if they float, to determine their guilt. Ah, the good old days.

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