Although poison itself has been used as an effective mode of killing for thousands of years, toxic substances have played a unique role in the lives of women throughout history as easily accessible and highly effective murder weapons. In this weekly series, I’ll provide you with an overview of all things poison (including how poisons have been cultivated and utilized through the ages) and introduce you to some of the most infamous women poisoners in history. The best part? All of this research was done with the help of my grandmother, a huge history buff and total true-crime fanatic.
Poison Profile #1: Arsenic and Cordelia Botkin
According to my grandmother, William Randolph Hearst made this 1890s murder case a sensation via his popular newspaper the San Francisco Examiner. As you read on, you’ll see that there was no need for Hearst to stoke the tabloid fires when it came to Cordelia Botkin’s murder trial— this juicy cover story was full of intrigue and revengeful mistress drama.
On February 12, 1891, a well-off Associated Press correspondent named John P. Dunning married Miss Mary Pennington, the daughter of Dover, Delaware congressman John Pennington. The couple moved to San Francisco and soon had a daughter named Elizabeth. One day, Dunning went for a stroll in Golden Gate Park and came across a woman sitting on a bench. They did some “light flirting” and the woman mentioned that she was the wife of Welcome A. Botkin, an employee of the Armour Packing Company and that she had a grown son named Beverly.
Cordelia Botkin (née Cordelia Brown) and Dunning began consistently seeing each other in secret. When Mrs. Dunning took her baby to her father’s home in Dover, Dunning stayed behind in California and moved into a boarding house that Cordelia was living in. Dunning allegedly told Cordelia that his wife loved candy and that she had a friend who lived in San Francisco named Mrs. Corbaley— seemingly benign information that later came back to bite him.
In March of 1898, Dunning accepted a position in Puerto Rico that required him to immediately leave San Francisco and relocate. When he told Cordelia that he was leaving, she begged him to stay and he ultimately snubbed her by saying that he was never returning to San Francisco again.
On August 9, 1898, a small package arrived in Dover for Mrs. John P. Dunning. At the time, Mrs. Dunning’s family consisted of Mrs. Dunning’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Pennington; her sister, Mrs. Deane; her brother-in-law Joshua Deane; and her sister’s children. On the night of August 9, Mrs. Dunning opened her new package and revealed a fancy candy box with a handkerchief, chocolates creams and a small slip of paper that read, “With lots of love to yourself and baby – Mrs. C.”
Mrs. Dunning didn’t question who had sent her the package. Instead, Mrs. Dunning, Mrs. Deane and her two children, and two women who were passing by ate some of the candy. All of them became gravely ill that night with awful stomach pains and vomiting, and Mrs. Deane and Mrs. Dunning died within one day of each other (August 11 and August 12, respectively). The autopsies revealed that the two women had died of arsenic poisoning.
Soon after his daughters died, Mr. Pennington realized that he had seen the handwriting used in the candy box note before and compared it to a letter that he had anonymously received several months prior. The letter came from San Francisco and alleged that Mr. Dunning was on intimate terms with a woman in the city. Upon arriving in Dover himself, Mr. Dunning immediately recognized that the handwriting belonged to Cordelia.
The San Francisco Chief of Police located Cordelia in Stockton, California where she was living with her husband and son. She was not only positively identified by candy store employees as the woman who bought the candy, but the clerks remembered that she had asked for a little extra room to be left in the box for another item. Mr. Dunning also turned in love letters that were written by Cordelia and the writing was a perfect match. Then, as if this wasn’t enough evidence stacked against her, Cordelia was also identified as the woman who purchased two ounces of arsenic around the time of the incident. Additionally, one woman reported that she had a conversation with Cordelia about the different effects of poison on the human system and was asked about whether or not it was necessary to sign one’s name when sending a registered package through the mail.
On October 28, 1898, Cordelia was indicted and the trial for Mrs. Dunning began that following December. On February 4, 1899, Cordelia was found guilty for murdering Mrs. Dunning with poison and was sentenced to life in prison. She was transferred to San Quentin in 1906 where she soon became mentally and physically unstable. She died on March 7, 1910 at just 56 years old.