1898 Murderess Nearly Escaped Justice

Cordelia Botkin almost got away with two murders she committed from across the country, thanks to the Constitution.

The Founders didn’t know everything. Specifically, they didn’t know Cordelia Botkin. And because they didn’t account for Botkin—who, in 1898, murdered two women in Delaware without setting foot in the state—the framers of the U.S. Constitution came up with some inadequate jargon called Article IV.  Article IV requires the extradition of anyone “who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state.” No flight, argued Botkin’s lawyers, meant no foul, and no extradition. Botkin died in prison. But getting her there took some public investment (read: spending) and determined prosecuting by high-level officials in two states. And the fact that the victims’ father was Delaware’s former attorney general certainly didn’t hurt. (Whether less prominent victims would have produced similar effort is a fair question.)

Born Cordelia Brown in Nebraska, the future murderer married Welcome A. Botkin in 1872 and bore a son, Beverly, the same year. Botkin, a bank teller who went on to become a prosperous grain broker, moved the family to Kansas City and, in the 1880s, to Stockton, Calif. By then, Cordelia seems to have grown tired of marriage. “She was not one to sit tamely at home and allow herself to collect moss,” wrote John R. Alstadt Jr., a retired Delaware State Police detective in his 2001 book on the crime, “With Love to Yourself and Baby.” Sometimes, she lived with relatives, sometimes with Beverly, sometimes alone—always in San Francisco. Her husband gave her an allowance, apparently adequate for her needs, and divorce was never an issue. “It appears,” observed Alstadt, “that Mr. Botkin was not unduly unhappy by Cordelia’s departures.” In 1895, Cordelia met John Dunning while sitting on a bench in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Dunning, chief of the local Associated Press bureau, had made his name as a reporter in 1889 with a sensational account of a cyclone that devastated Samoa. A Delaware native, he had been married for four years to Mary Elizabeth Penington of Dover. Her father, John B. Penington, had served as state attorney general from 1874-79 and in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1887-91.

The Dunnings had a young daughter, but the marriage was not happy. It might have been Mary Elizabeth; Dunning later described his wife as “extremely religious and could not get accustomed to conditions in San Francisco.” Or it might have been him; about this time, Dunning lost his AP job amid rumors of embezzlement and gambling. In any case, Dunning’s wife and child soon fled to her parents in Dover. He moved in with Botkin. Neither the affair nor Dunning’s unemployment lasted long. In April 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, and the AP hired Dunning back to cover the conflict in Puerto Rico and Cuba. By then, Dunning had decided that he missed his wife and daughter. He told Botkin that he would not be back. In August, Mary Elizabeth Dunning’s nephew, Harry, came home from the Dover post office with a box from San Francisco addressed to his aunt. Inside was candy, the perfect gift for a woman whose only known vice was sweets. An unsigned note read, “With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C.” Probably a friend, decided Mary Elizabeth Dunning. She passed around the box, but only she and her sister, Ida, ate deeply. Ida died first, on Aug. 11, and Mary Elizabeth the following day. Food poisoning was suspected; everyone who sampled the candy had also spent a night vomiting and purging. John Penington, however, shared his suspicions with the attending physician. The doctor personally took the remaining candy to Delaware College in Newark, where a chemistry professor found it laced with arsenic. Penington—“even in his grief, a force with which to be reckoned,” wrote Alstadt—also noticed a similarity between the handwriting on the box and some nasty, anonymous letters his daughter had received.

The state of Delaware offered a $2,000 reward. “This is the most horrible crime that has ever occurred in our state,” declared Delaware Gov. Ebe W. Tunnell. “The person who sent the box of poison candy is as bad, yes, is worse, than the miserable anarchist who throws a bomb into a crowd of innocent and unsuspecting people.” Despite the distance, the case was cracked with remarkable speed. The box was traced to Philadelphia, where the maker confirmed that its only San Francisco client was a certain candy company. A pharmacy clerk produced a record of selling arsenic to “Mrs. Bothin” at Botkin’s address. Still, there was the matter of a trial. Delaware wanted Botkin. But, as her lawyers pointed out, she had never been to Delaware, and, therefore, could not be a fugitive from Delaware. Legal scholars agreed. The governor of California agreed. So did the California Superior Court. But the crime was so sensational, and so many people of Penington’s social standing so outraged, that Botkin couldn’t simply be let off. So, California tried her itself, and Delaware paid to send all its witnesses cross-country to testify.  (Somewhere, the defense found a Delaware citizen willing to sue against this waste of taxpayer money, but that case was dismissed.) In December, Botkin was convicted and sentenced to life at San Quentin State Prison. It took years, but most states eventually amended their laws to permit extradition in such cases. Because, after all, the Founders didn’t know everything.


These newspaper clippings appear in the book, “With Love to Yourself and Baby,” by John R. Alstadt Jr.

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