Sometimes having a sweet tooth can send you to an early grave. Be careful when accepting food from strangers. In 1898, two sisters mysteriously died after eating candy that had come through the mail. However, finding the killer was easier said than done.
On February 12, 1891, John P Dunning married Miss Mary Elizabeth Pennington of Dover, Delaware. Soon after their marriage, they moved to San Francisco, and a year later, they were blessed with a bouncing baby girl they named after the mother.
While John was taking a stroll in the park, he met a lady named Cordelia Adelaide (Brown)Botkin, sitting on the park bench, and felt attracted to her. It seems the attraction was both ways as they started flirting and slowly fell in love.
They openly exposed their love affair, and quickly people started talking. It was not long until it reached the ears of Mary Elizabeth, John's wife.
Failing to bear the shame and pain of seeing her husband with another woman, Mary took her daughter and moved back with her parents in Delaware(a bit far from John)to continue with her life.
On the other side of town, things were not going pretty well for John. He had joined Cordelia's party animal life which demanded money to be spent. His gambling and alcoholism addiction had also skyrocketed, and he became bankrupt and fell into massive debt. Now debt collectors were on his neck, and he did not have anything of value to sell and pay up. The only thing he could think of was stealing money from where he was working, gambling it with the hope of winning, paying off his debts, and putting back what he had stolen without anyone noticing. Little did he know it was going to be the end of him.
He went ahead with his plan and stole $4000. Nevertheless, it was not long until the company found out and fired him.
As most side chicks do, they start to lose interest once money is gone, and Cordelia was no exception. She stayed, but things were no longer the same between her and John. John was now emotionally left alone to pick up the broken pieces of his life and put them together.
Luckily on March 8, 1898 (Spanish American War), he was offered a job as a war reporter with the Associated Press, and he needed to depart for Puerto Rico immediately. This job opportunity somehow became an eye-opener for John to stop his party animal life, delete Cordelia for good, fix himself up and try to win his wife back.
He approached Miss Botkin to give her both news-the good one for the job and the bad one; he was leaving her for good. As expected, the news did not go down well for Cordelia. She cried and begged him to stay, but John's mind was made up, and there was no turning back. After a few days, he left for Cuba, and Cordelia was left behind; she refused to accept that things were over between them and fell into depression.
Instead of searching for positive ways to escape this state, Cordelia channelled her depression into anger and evil thoughts. She began thinking that if she could not have him, no one else would.
Back in Delaware, Mary Elizabeth(John's wife) was having a hard time moving on. For nearly five months, she was constantly blasted by warning letters from San Francisco about John and his affair. Strangely, most of these letters advised her not to take John back if he came asking for another chance. One of them read,
"Your husband is constantly with this interesting and pretty woman who by the way is an English woman; she is now divorcing from her husband, to be with Mr Dunning."
Now the question is, who was writing these letters?
On August 9, 1898, there was a knock at the door, and when she went to see who it was, she was only greeted by a white bonbons chocolate box wrapped in brown paper with a pink satin ribbon🎀. "Passionately fond of candy," according to her husband, Mary unwrapped the present, and there was a letter that read "with love to yourself and baby, Miss C.
Without suspecting her husband's mistress, Mary thought one of her best friends back in San Francisco named Miss Corbelo had sent the candy.
After the family dinner, she grabbed the chocolates, took three pieces for herself, and distributed the rest to the family and neighbouring friends that had joined them. Everybody grabbed one piece each except for Mary's sister, who took a couple.
However, her mom and dad refused the chocolates. It was not long until everyone who had a piece started puking, sweating, and constantly queuing outside the toilet. Now, the father concerned called a doctor who confirmed that everyone had food poisoning.
At first, they thought it was the dinner they had, but Mary's father was smart enough to recall that only those who ate chocolates got sick.
After two days of agony, others recovered, but Mary and her sister lost the battle. It was then that an inspection of the chocolates was conducted, and they found them stuffed with arsenic.
John received the devastating news back in Puerto Rico and immediately boarded a ship back to America. When he arrived, a crowd of reporters awaited him at the dock.
"Who poisoned your wife?" they called out as he made his way down the gangplank.
Upon interacting with his father-in-law, he learned of the mysterious letters and asked to see them. Luckily, Mary had kept them in a chest of drawers on her bedside cabinet. They opened them and compared the writing to the note inside the chocolate box, and Mr Dunning had no doubt it was his ex-mistress, Cordelia Botkin's handwriting.
The Delaware police quickly alerted the San Francisco chief of police, and the search for Cordelia began.
They quickly located her 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 half box of candy, but the clerks remembered that she had asked for a little extra room to be left in the box to add her homemade ones. Cordelia was also identified by Frank Grey, the employer at the drug store, as the woman who purchased two ounces of arsenic around the incident.
Additionally, one woman reported that she had a conversation with Cordelia about the effects of different poisons on the human system.
The evidence was presented to the Grand Jury, and on October 28, 1898, Cordelia was indicted, and the trial for Mrs Dunning and her sister began that following December. She was found guilty for both charges on December 30, 1898, and sentenced to life imprisonment on February 4 the following year.
Cordelia's husband filed for divorce after her sentencing. He did not want to be associated with her after what she had done.
Life in prison was short-lived and miserable for Miss Botkin. In 1908, she learned Dunning had sadly passed away in Philadelphia, and it seemed his death took a toll on her, and she refused to eat for days.
On March 7, 1910, Cordelia was pronounced dead, and the official cause of death was listed as "softening of the brain due to melancholia."
Her gravesite is at Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg.
This story was originally written and posted by me on Medium