Murders

How Mrs. Botkin Murdered Two Women In Delaware Without Ever Going There

Cordelia Botkin, illustration from the San Francisco Call.

Cordelia Botkin, illustration from the San Francisco Call.

Cordelia Brown was born in Nebraska and married Welcome A. Botkin in 1872 (yes, that was his real name). They had a son, Beverly, the same year. Botkin was a bank teller who later became a successful grain broker and as his career changed he moved his family out to California.

Cordelia, however, wasn’t built to be a docile housewife.

The front door of a candy shop.

Unhappy with her marriage, her husband paid her an allowance and she moved to San Francisco. Divorce wasn’t necessary and Welcome didn’t seem to mind his wife’s absence.

That all changed in 1895 when Cordelia met John Dunning at Golden Gate Park.

Dunning was chief of the local Associated Press bureau. He had been married for four years to Mary Elizabeth Penington, a well-connected young woman whose father served as the state attorney general in Delaware and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Drawn portraits of John Dunning and Mary Elizabeth

Dunning and Mary Elizabeth, The San Francisco Call

The Dunnings had a daughter but their marriage was also unhappy. It didn’t help that John had lost his AP job when rumors of embezzlement, heavy drinking, and a gambling problem surfaced.

Mary Elizabeth took their daughter and moved back home. John stayed in California and moved in with Cordelia.

Glass jars filled with candy line book shelves.

It wasn’t long before John was gainfully employed again. When the U.S. declared war on Spain, he was hired by the AP to cover the conflict in Puerto Rico and Cuba. He made another decision too: he was going back to his wife and daughter. He told Cordelia not to expect him back.

That summer, John’s wife Mary Elizabeth received a box in the mail from San Francisco. Inside were chocolate covered bonbons and a note that read: “With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C.”

Mary Elizabeth, who had a sweet tooth, figured it was from a friend and shared the box with her family. She and her sister Ida consumed the most chocolates out of everyone.

Ida died first and then Mary Elizabeth the next day. Everyone who had eaten the candy spent the night sick. Food poisoning was suspected.

The attending physician took the rest of the candy to a chemistry professor at Delaware College who tested the candy. He found it laced with arsenic.

Police were particularly efficient in collecting evidence for their case. They traced the box to a candy company in Philadelphia, who confirmed that it had one San Francisco client. And a pharmacy clerk had a record of selling arsenic to Cordelia. At the time she claimed to have purchased it for bleaching straw.

Authorities also matched the handwritten note to the anonymous nasty letters Mary Elizabeth had been receiving. The state of Delaware posted a $2,000 reward for Cordelia’s arrest.

Two handwritten letters from Cordelia, matching her handwriting to the anonymous nasty letter.

The handwritten evidence against Cordelia, The San Francisco Call.

Delaware wanted Cordelia for trial but she had never been to the state and could not be considered a fugitive.

That’s when Mrs. Botkin’s lawyers invoked the Constitution to almost get away with murder.

Article IV required that anyone who fled from justice and was found in another state be extradited. Cordelia’s lawyers argued that because she did not flee there could be no extradition.

Cordelia's mugshot. She is wearing a lace dress, heart necklace and her hair is messy. She is stony faced.

Cordelia’s mugshot, Delaware Public Archives.

California courts agreed and tried her themselves. Delaware paid to send all of its witnesses across the country to testify. After costly prosecuting by officials in both states, Botkin finally found herself in prison.

When the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 happened, she was moved to San Quentin State Prison where she later died.

It would take years for most states to amend their laws to extradite in these kinds of cases. A good lesson of why the Constitution cannot always be followed to its original letter.

A drawing of Cordelia from the newspaper. She poses with her hands behind her heads and with a smile.

Cordelia drawn from one of her many photographs, The San Francisco Call

A very interesting, um…different take on the case but still nicely done:

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6