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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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the man who never was

Armand Peltzer was an Antwerp engineer when he fell in love with Julie Bernays, the wife of a local lawyer. He decided to eliminate the husband using his younger brother Leon in an ingenious way.

The Lawyer by Arcimboldo

Leon, after some financial indiscretions in Argentina, was living under an assumed name in New York where he worked as a linen goods salesman. Armand contacted Leon and arranged a meeting in Paris.

The Peltzer brothers met on November 16, 1881, and Armand explained his scheme to Leon who agreed to cooperate. The basic plot was simple. The crime would be committed by a person who did not exist. Therefore, after the murder, the police would have no one to look for.


Leon changed his appearance, complexion, dress, and took on the guise of one Henry Vaughan, a millionaire preparing to establish a fleet of ships crossing from Amsterdam to Sydney. Having converted himself into a fictitious tycoon, Leon visited Bremen, Amsterdam, Brussels, working out of the most expensive hotels and becoming known to the world’s foremost navigation firms.

Amsterdam 1880

Finally, Leon wrote to the lawyer Bernays–under the signature of the fictional Vaughan–explaining that he had been recommended as an attorney who might represent the new steamship line in Brussels. Bernays readily agreed to an appointment in Brussels to talk business. Leon, now a bewhiskered and bespectacled dandy, admitted Bernays to his flat, and led him to a chair. Then he drew out a noiseless pistol and shot Bernays through the back of the head. The murder was accomplished.

Jim Dandy

After the killing, Leon burned his wig and false beard, disposed of his glasses, washed off his makeup, and departed from the flat forever. Vaughan, the murderer, vanished into thin air. A man named Leon Peltzer, recently on a visit from New York, could not be suspected. And certainly his brother, Armand Peltzer, who had been going about his business in Antwerp, could not have even the vaguest connection with the violent crime. The deed had been done by an unknown hand. The slayer was nonexistent.


There was only one flaw with the crime imperfect, and that stemmed from vanity. In Switzerland Leon Peltzer perused the newspapers daily for word of the discovery of the victim’s body. When 10 days had passed without the corpse being found, the impatient Leon wrote a letter to the Belgian police directing them to the body. He explained Bernays’s death had been the result of a “horrible accident.” He had been visiting Bernays on business, had shown him a revolver, and somehow it had gone off by accident, killing him. Frightened and fearful because he was a foreigner, he fled. The letter was signed “Henry Vaughan.”

world’s smallest revolver found here

The Belgian police began an intensive investigation. They also posted a 25,000-franc reward for information leading to the apprehension of Henry Vaughan, and they circulated specimens of his handwriting.

It was Leon’s penmanship that was his undoing.  In writing his Henry Vaughan letter, he had neglected to change or disguise his Leon-style handwriting. A local chemist saw the photocopy specimen of Henry Vaughan’s handwriting–and thought he recognized it. Leon was traced, and found to be unable to account for his movements when “Vaughan” seemed to have legitimately existed. Eventually both brothers were tried and convicted of murder, receiving life sentences though Armand, the mastermind, maintained his innocence to the end.

John Wayne Gacy’s handwriting found here

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 8:36 am  Comments (37)  
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