This is a free excerpt from my book, You Wouldn’t Believe! 44 Strange and Wondrous Delmarva Tales. More info about that and my other books exploring the history, travel, and culture on the Eastern Shore and in Delaware here.
If Shakespeare had written tragedies in early 1900s America instead of early 1600s Britain, he would have had another character named Cordelia to write about. The plot he might have put together from the story of Cordelia Botkin would begin in a flash of flirtatious excitement that soon blossoms into passionate-but-illicit romance. Alas, the closing acts of that drama would sink relentlessly into betrayal, jealousy, fury, madness, and murder.
When Cordelia Botkin died in 1910, the official autopsy report attributed her demise to “softening of the brain due to melancholy.” She was serving a life sentence in prison at the time.
From Flirtation to Philandering
The story of this Cordelia’s downfall begins not on the Delmarva Peninsula, but on the West Coast. San Francisco was in its pre-earthquake glory days on the early 1890s day that found Cordelia relaxing on a bench in popular Golden Gate Park. A handsome young man pedaled toward her on a bicycle. Did she feel a shiver of sexual temptation when that bike broke down and the ride dismounted to do repairs?
She gestured, inviting him to come over and talk. Social norms were different then—launching a casual chat with a passing stranger was not “acceptable” behavior for an unattached woman. Who can say for sure what went through that bike rider’s mind? Perhaps he suspected, even hoped, where this reckless invitation might lead. That day marked the start of a romance that stretched through one year, then two, and into a third.
John Presley Dunning is not the hero of this drama. For starters, he was married. He was a bit of a con man as well. The native of Middletown, Del. worked as an itinerant journalist. Among his early jobs was a stint with the Wilmington News Journal. That’s where he met his bride, Elizabeth Pennington. She hailed from a prominent family. Her father, John B. Pennington, had served as attorney general and U.S. congressman. The Pennington’s impressive home in Dover stood right up against the “Dover Green,” then and now the heart of the state capitol complex.
Back to John Dunning. In addition to his local newspaper work, Dunning did time as a foreign correspondent. In 1889, he scored a gigantic scoop as the first journalist to confirm that a typhoon had ripped through the Pacific island of Samoa, destroying several U.S. and German warships and killing more than 200 sailors.
Only one telegraph office was running on the island in the wake of the storm. To prevent other reporters from getting their news of the tragedy out, Dunning paid premium emergency rates to clog up that telegraph line with an endless run of Bible verses.
I came across one report that said he paid an astonishing $8,000 in fees on that stunt, but it paid off. His name became known in national journalism circles. He soon got an offer to become the head honcho at the San Francisco office of the Associated Press newswire.
This is how the newlywed Dunnings came to settle in the City by the Bay. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Mary, before the couple celebrated their first anniversary.
If John Dunning had turned out to be a top-notch journalist, that telegraph stunt he pulled might seem in retrospect like an entertaining display of competitive ingenuity. But Dunning was not destined for greatness. He had a big-time gambling problem. He might have been a thief, too, as he lost that big AP job amid whispers about embezzling.
It gets worse: Dunning was a serial philanderer. More on that later, except to say that his wife grew sick and tired of the mess Dunning made of everything in San Francisco. Divorce was not really a viable option in those days. Elizabeth and little Mary moved back to Dover, settling in at her father’s house.
It was in this window that Dunning hopped on his bicycle and pedaled through Golden Gate Park. Like most philanderers through history, Dunning played the sob-story card. He told Cordelia that his wife didn’t understand him. She was too religious, he complained, and she kept trying to force him to abide by moral standards that were “too high for me.”
Cordelia responded with lies. She told Dunning she was a 29-year-old widow. She was 41, actually, and separated from her still-breathing husband.
With Elizabeth 3,000 miles away in Delaware, Dunning moved into Cordelia’s place. He didn’t have any money to speak of, but it seems he dipped into Cordelia’s savings and the lovers lost a lot of her money on horse races. They spent evenings in brazen extramarital socializing, barhopping, and theater-going to their heart’s content.
Someone in San Francisco played the role of tattletale. Several anonymous letters arrived at the Pennington house in Dover, informing Elizabeth about her husband’s betrayal with an unnamed woman. Elizabeth’s father intercepted most of those missives, trying to shield his daughter from further anguish. That John B. Pennington held onto those letters instead of throwing them away would become an important bit of evidence in sorting out the tragic events that soon unfolded.
That Deadly Box of Candy
The romance between Cordelia Botkin and John Presley Dunning hit the rocks after the Spanish American War broke out in the spring of 1898. The Associated Press needed all hands on deck, especially hands with foreign-correspondent experience. Dunning headed where the action was, hoping that the war would help get his career back on track. At first he wrote regularly to Cordelia.
But then the missives became fewer and further between. His tone grew colder. Eventually, Dunning broke the news to his lover that he planned to return to Dover and give his marriage to Eliza- beth another try.
That brings us to Aug. 9, 1898. The menu for dinner that night at the Pennington house in Dover included fried trout and corn fritters. Afterward, Elizabeth’s 14-year-old nephew Harry Pennington went to get the mail. He returned with a wrapped box labeled “Bonbons.” They were a gift for Elizabeth. The postmark was San Francisco. Inside was a note: “With love to yourself and the baby.” It was signed “Mrs. C.” Elizabeth assumed they were from “Mrs. Corbaly,” a friend from her San Francisco days.
Elizabeth dug into those chocolates. So did several other family members and visiting friends. Everyone who ate chocolate got sick. There was lots of vomiting. The patients complained bitterly of heat, but their skin was cold to the touch. Two days later, Elizabeth’s sister, Leila Deane, died. Elizabeth died on the third day. Everyone else recovered.
The family’s doctor said a batch of corn fritters gone bad was to blame. But as a lawyer who had prosecuted his share of crimes, John B. Pennington didn’t buy that theory. He sent samples of the chocolates to his friend Theodore R. Worf, the state chemist and a professor at Delaware College (which would eventually become the University of Delaware). Worf found arsenic grains in the mix. Autopsies later showed that both women had ingested enough arsenic “to have killed a horse.”
One of the investigators assigned to the case, Bernard J. McVey, went looking for clues from experienced shippers in the chocolate game. A Wilmington candy shop suggested he get in touch with another business in Philadelphia that manufactured candy boxes. The shipping department in that business pointed the finger at Haas & Sons Confectionary in San Francisco. Clerks at that store recalled a little bit about a woman who’d bought those chocolates and shipped them to Delaware.
Meanwhile, the bereaved-if-unfaithful husband of Elizabeth Dunning had departed the war zone and returned to San Francisco. There, he told police that the handwriting on the note that arrived with the chocolates matched that of his paramour, Cordelia Botkin.
The Media Goes Bananas
Do you hate getting a jury summons, or a call to testify in court? Well, imagine how the Delawareans involved in this case felt when the governor of California refused to extradite Cordelia Botkin to Delaware and insisted the trial unfold in San Francisco.
To give testimony, they were legally obliged to ride trains across the county and spend weeks living out of a hotel. California spent $3,000 on transportation, lodging, and living expenses for six Delaware witnesses. The hotels involved did not yet have high-speed internet connections.
The trial lasted a month. The jury deliberated for two hours. They found Botkin guilty.
What a month it was in the media! The San Francisco Examiner was owned during the 1890s by William Randolph Hearst, a name linked in the annals of newspapering with the brand of over-the-top sensationalism known as “yellow journalism.” Hearst’s papers chased controversy, not news. They hired reporters whose mission was selling newspapers, not getting facts straight.
Hearst got filthy rich with that approach. He was the model for Citizen Kane in the famous Orson Welles film. Newspapers all over the country soon followed Hearst’s lead, filling their pages with screaming headlines and shameless innuendo.
Sex, infidelity, murder, jealousy—the Botkin story was tailor-made for the yellow journalism era. When the San Francisco Chronicle published an array of sketches and photographs of Botkin, they did so with this snide comment:
They indicate plainly the woman’s excessive vanity and her fondness for posing.
When word broke about the chocolates coming from that Haas confectionary, so many journalists descended on the place that staff members went into hiding. A similar mad rush followed the news that a handkerchief in the chocolate box had been traced to the City of Paris department store.
The public couldn’t get enough stories about the case. Overflow crowds arrived outside the courthouse every morning, hoping to land a seat in the courtroom. On one rainy day, clouds of steam formed in the courtroom from the dampness of soaked clothing. The interest seemed especially intense on the distaff side of the gender aisle:
Never before has there been such a fluttering of petticoats in court.
On the day of closing arguments, more than 500 people were turned away from the jam-packed courtroom. The Examiner set up a giant bulletin board on the streets outside the courtroom where they posted snippet summaries of what was going on inside.
John Presley Dunning had a bad time of it on the witness stand. He tried oh-so-hard to play the role of grieving husband, but it’s hard to pull that off while fielding questions about your history of infidelity. The ladies in attendance who might have expected magnetism and sex appeal in Cordelia’s philandering lover were disappointed by his whiny voice and thinning hair.
Asked by defense lawyers if he had been intimate with women other than Botkin during his time in San Francisco, Dunning said yes. Asked how many, he said, “Many.” Pressed, he said there were too many to remember. Pressed further, he confessed to extramarital escapades with at least six women. Asked to name them, he said he couldn’t remember. Pushed, he said he could recall three names, but insisted that he was too much of a gentleman to reveal names.
Dunning spent a couple of nights in jail for refusing to give those names, but the defense attorneys eventually agreed to just drop the question.
Cordelia took the stand, too. In one journalists’ judgment, she was “long on looks and feminine charm, short on gray matter.” She offered up a series of alibis when it came to buying arsenic and sending the chocolate, but the jury didn’t buy them for a second. She told the court that she had taken morphine on the day the chocolates were mailed and stayed alone in her room all day, as she was “thoroughly unfit” to be seen in public.
Lots of legal maneuvering unfolded in the wake of the quick guilty verdict, but none of it mattered. A court overturned the verdict over questions about jury tampering, but Botkin was convicted again after a second trial. Her lawyers tried to get her a third trial, but they failed. Cordelia Botkin was sentenced to life in jail.
The Return of the Temptress
While testifying in court, Cordelia Botkin tried to present herself as shy and polite. Once in jail, she seems to have jumped right back into her preferred role of seductress. One day in April 1900 Judge Carroll Cook was riding one of San Francisco’s streetcars along Guerrero Street when he was stunned to see a familiar face.
Convicted murderess Cordelia Botkin was dressed to the nines and riding that car in the company of a man who appeared to be her date.
The judge launched a formal inquiry. The Delaware newspapers went ballistic with outraged headlines. Here is what eventually got revealed:
• Botkin received an array of special privileges from her jail guards. She was allowed to dress in her glamorous clothes. She was given the freedom to stroll outside the prison building and visit the facility’s gardens whenever she liked. She ate her meals privately, away from the general prison population.
• She went on multiple field trips into San Francisco. The county sheriff claimed that these field trips were supervised affairs with a guard always nearby, but Judge Cook had not seen a guard on the streetcar, and no one seems to have believed that sheriff for a second.
• The guy Judge Cook had seen Botkin with on the street-car was indeed a date. Smitten with the murderess, this man had attended every day of her trial. He then got in touch with her in jail, and the lovebirds soon arranged a rendezvous despite her life sentence.
• Two prison guards had gotten into a furious fistfight over Botkin. One guard had threatened to expose the fact that the other was having an affair with Botkin. The smitten guard, Frank McFarland, beat that other man nearly to death. Media reports claimed that McFarland walked away from that fight calm as could be, whistling a ragtime tune.
One newspaper dubbed Botkin “the siren of the branch county jail.”
The walls started to close in on Botkin as all this came to light. Her special privileges were revoked. Her lawyers said there were no more appeals to file. The parole board offered no hope. Her only son passed away, suddenly. Botkin sank into depression.
The warden at her prison said:
For some time she had said that she wanted to die.
Two nurses were assigned to make sure that the prisoner ate some food and took her medicines every day. She passed away in March of 1910. That was two years after the death of her one-time paramour, William Dunning. He was 44 years old and living in Philadelphia at the time of his passing. I have not been able to find much of anything about Dunning’s life and activities in the years after the murders.
When reporting on the death of Cordelia Botkin, the Evening Times newspaper of Alameda, Calif. was not in a kindly mood:
Whatever beauty [she] may have possessed … had long since departed.
• Thank you for spending time with this excerpt from You Wouldn’t Believe! 44 Strange and Wondrous Delmarva Tales. Written by Jim Duffy, this story was posted by Claudia Colaprete on Jan. 13, 2023 for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. All rights reserved.
Postscripts: Murder by Mail Oddities
• Postscript #1: Paying Respects
If you are visiting Dover and want to pay your respects to the victims here, Elizabeth Pennington Dunning and her sister are buried in the old Presbyterian cemetery in Dover. That graveyard is near the Dover Green, at 316 Governors Avenue. The home where the Penningtons lived is now known as the “Paton House.” The Delaware State Housing Authority has offices there. I believe that some of the walking tours put together by the First State Heritage Park feature this site in the itinerary.
• Postscript #2: A Small Town Takes Care of Its Own
This next postscript is too strange not to share. Though born in Missouri, Cordelia Botkin had spent nearly all of her life in California. As we’ve seen, the sensational story of her crimes landed her on the front pages of newspapers around the country.
Upon her death in 1910, the Daily Press of Sheboygan, Wisc. included this tidbit, which I share despite (or, perhaps, because of) its hard-to-believe quality:
Mrs. Botkin’s father and mother did not know that she had died in prison. They did not know that she had ever seen the inside of a prison anywhere, and they never heard of the Botkin case, which was one of the most famous criminal cases ever tried on the Pacific Coast.
There is a little paper in the village where Mrs. Botkin’s old father and mother lived, and the paper printed every day accounts of the trial when it was going on. But they called it the Dunning case and [referred to] Mrs. Botkin [always] as “the accused,” and the old man and the old woman read the paper and talked the famous murder case over together and never even dreamed that “the accused” was their own daughter. And all the little village took hold of hands and formed around the old people a cordon of silence, and woe to anyone who dared to try to break through. We are prone to think of heaven as a place far removed from everything we know here on this earth. But, oh that little village out there, nestling in the green, green hills of smiling California! I wonder if the angels do not look down upon it and smile.
Botkin is buried at Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg, Calif.
• Postscript #3: Murder by Mail Tidbits
The Delaware newspaperman Joe Martin had an interesting observation about the Botkin case. In the 1950s, he had a regular column called Ramblin’ Round with Joe Martin in the Wilmington Morning News. He wondered aloud in one column about whether Cordelia Botkin had invented an entirely new method of killing—murder by mail.
That turns out to be not quite true. In 1891, a Rhode Island physician named Thomas Thatcher Graves sent some arsenic-laced whiskey to a rich heiress who had made Graves a beneficiary in her will. Botkin was the second-ever murderer by mail, so she missed that spot in the record book. But still: Her case is right near the starting point of a grisly little timeline that runs up to the Unabomber killings and anthrax mailings of more recent vintage.