Death Is Like a Box of Arsenic-Laced Chocolates: The Woman Who Poisoned Her Ex-Lover’s Wife

Fatim Hemraj
Cordelia BotkinCriminal Genealogy

31-year-old John Dunning seemed to have it all, a dedicated wife named Mary Elizabeth, a beautiful healthy baby girl and a highly respected well-paying job as a journalist with the Associated Press. There was only one problem: John had a severe case of the dreaded wandering eye. Despite having already said his vows, John was anything but a one-woman man.

While riding his bike near San Francisco’s infamous Golden Gate Bridge one afternoon in September of 1895, John came across a woman sitting on a park bench and struck up a flirty conversation.

The woman was 41-year-old Cordelia Botkin, the daughter of a slave owner turned farmer from Stockton, California. Recently separated from her husband of 13 years Welcome Botkin, Cordelia had left both him and their son Beverly for a new life as a single woman in San Francisco.

Only days following their initial meeting in the park, John and Cordelia began a ravenous sexual affair. Cordelia wasn’t exactly a sight for sore eyes but she did have something else which caught John’s eye: money.

Cordelia received a monthly stipend from her estranged husband and it was with his money she introduced John to the seedier side of San Francisco: late-night parties, booze, gambling and everything in between.

In 1898, John’s debauched lifestyle resulted in his unemployment when the Associated Press discovered he had been embezzling funds to repay his drunken gambling bets. Soon thereafter, Mary learned of her husband’s steamy 3-year affair with Cordelia.

Mary was a religious woman and the daughter of a respected former congressman. She was appalled her dear husband had proven to be nothing but a serial adulterer; not only was John cheating on her, but he was also cheating on his mistress with a slew of other women.

Humiliated, Mary fled to her home state of Delaware with their young daughter and moved in with her parents, her older sister Ida, Ida’s husband and their two children.
John P. DunningFlickr

John, the once highly esteemed journalist, was now known only as a thief, a drunk and an adulterer. Despite his woes, John still had one thing to be thankful for: the ever so supportive Cordelia.

John moved into Cordelia’s room at the Victoria Hotel where they joyfully ate and drank on her husband’s dime. Cordelia was ecstatic, it was what she had wanted all along: John to her herself. But, her bliss would be short-lived.

Two months later John was rehired by the Associated Press and was asked to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Of course, he happily accepted.

On March 8, 1898, Cordelia accompanied John to the railroad station. She wiped away her tears as she hugged John goodbye: she would be counting the minutes till his return.

It was then John told her he wouldn't be returning to San Francisco at all; unbeknownst to Cordelia, he had secretly reconciled with his wife and it was her bed he would be returning to following the end of his assignment.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned; if John thought the affair was over, he had another thing coming. Cordelia was not a woman to be crossed.

Cordelia recalled John had once mentioned his wife’s love for sweets. It was this information Cordelia would use to ensure her ex-lover had no wife to go back home to.

In July of 1898, Mary began receiving obnoxious letters detailing her husband’s torrid love affair with “an interesting and pretty woman.” The letters were signed, “A good friend.”

On August 9, 1898, Mary received news a package awaited her at the local post office. She summoned her nephew to fetch the parcel. Inside was a delectable box of chocolate bonbons lined with a beautiful crisp white handkerchief and a note which read, “With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C.”

Mary questioned the identity of the sender for a brief moment but thought perhaps it was from her dear friend Mrs. Corbaly. She was delighted to receive such a lovely gift and later that night after dinner, she shared the treats with her family on the front porch.

Within hours, Mary, her sister Ida and Ida’s two children became violently ill. Both the children recovered having only eaten a piece or two, however, Mary and Ida had consumed most of the bonbons and would not be so lucky.

A doctor rushed to the home and diagnosed the sisters with Cholera Morbus, a gastrointestinal illness fairly common at the time.

After eleven agonizing days of cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, 44-year-old Ida passed away. 35-year-old Mary succumbed only a day later.

Mary’s father informed John of his wife’s sudden demise via telegram and he returned to Delaware ten days later. When his father-in-law handed him the note from ‘Mrs. C’ and the letters Mary had previously received, John took one look at the handwriting and said, “Cordelia.”

The uneaten chocolates were sent to a chemist who discovered they had been laced with arsenic. Both the paper used to wrap the bonbons and the handkerchief were traced back to a confectionary and a department store in San Francisco.

Clerks at both stores recalled selling the items to a woman who matched Cordelia’s description and the post office clerk recognized Cordelia as the woman who had mailed the ill-fated package. The most damning piece of circumstantial evidence was witness testimony from a clerk at a drug store who recalled selling two ounces of arsenic to Cordelia on July 31.

John handed love letters written to him by his ex-mistress over to the police. A handwriting expert matched them to the letters and the note from the mysterious ‘Mrs. C.’

Cordelia was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. On New Years' Eve 1898, she was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

While in prison, Cordelia mourned the deaths of her husband, their child, her ex-lover, her mother and her sister. She died from melancholy at San Quentin State Prison on March 7, 1910, at the age of 56.

Sources: Historical Crime Detective, Murderpedia, Jim Fisher

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