John Preston Dunning did not believe in living a quiet life.
He’d spent years as a foreign war correspondent for the Associated Press and had recently returned to San Francisco to run the West Coast bureau. When he wasn’t working, he was gambling. And when he wasn’t gambling, he was cheating — often and openly — on his wife Mary.
Dunning was insatiable. So perhaps it is no surprise that when his bicycle broke down on a ride through Golden Gate Park in 1895, he engineered the mishap to his advantage.
Sitting on a nearby bench was a woman who caught his eye: 41-year-old Cordelia Botkin. He struck up a conversation with her as he fixed his bicycle, flirting unabashedly with the married woman 10 years his senior. By the time he’d made his repairs, he had secured a date with Cordelia. It was the first of many.
Cordelia, it would seem, had no qualms with other women; Dunning called her “Ada,” a reference to “a former love whom he said she resembled.” Poor Mary Dunning, however, could bear no such indignity. Shortly after her husband took up with Cordelia, Mary left San Francisco to move back to Delaware with her father, a former US congressman. Dunning moved in with Cordelia, whose husband — the magnificently named Welcome A. Botkin — lived in Stockton and seemed perfectly content with their arrangement.
Paradise was short-lived. Dunning sank deep into alcoholism and gambled away thousands of dollars he didn’t have. He was fired when the Associated Press discovered he’d embezzled over $4,000 from the bureau to cover his gambling debts.
But war gave Dunning a second chance. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the AP rehired Dunning to cover the conflict. Cordelia accompanied Dunning to the train station in Oakland where they said their farewells. And there, Dunning told her the news: He would not be returning to San Francisco. After the war, he was going back to Delaware to be with his wife and their daughter.
Dunning had broken off affairs with many women. But he had misjudged Cordelia, and his mistake was a fatal one.
Dunning teased his wife Mary for being “passionately fond of candy,” a childlike characteristic that paired naturally with the woman’s trusting naivete. Despite her husband’s indiscretions, in their years apart, she continued to exchange loving letters with him on a daily basis.
“Nothing seemed too trivial for him to tell her, and his letters to her were complete pictures of his life, surrounding and relationship,” the Chronicle reported. “But he omitted mention of the one great thing that might have proved of most thrilling interest to her.”
Cordelia was also writing letters to Mary Dunning, but they had a much different tone.
Your husband “is constantly with this interesting and pretty woman who by the way is an English woman,” Cordelia wrote anonymously to Mary. “She is now divorcing from her husband all owing to the marked intimacy with Mr. Dunning.”
The next letter came with a gift. Mary was sitting on the porch enjoying a warm August afternoon with her sister Ida and their children when the mail arrived that day. Inside the brown paper-wrapped package was an elegant white box wrapped in pink satin ribbon. Across the top, the word “Bonbons” was written in fine gold script. The note that came with it said: “With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C.” Mary opened the box to find little rows of chocolate creams, oblong bon-bons and chocolate drops covered in sugary sprinkles. She ate three, her sister ate two, and they put the remaining chocolates away for later.
Within hours, both women fell violently ill. It took two days of agony before both women died. An inspection of the chocolates found them stuffed with arsenic.
Dunning received the devastating news in Puerto Rico and immediately boarded a ship back to America. When he arrived, a throng of reporters awaited him at the dock.
“Who poisoned your wife?” they called out as he made his way down the gangplank.
Dunning stopped, surely aware of the role he had to now play. So many times, he had been the one asking questions, desperate for a scoop. Now, he was the scoop.
Dunning admitted he was intimate with three different women back in San Francisco. But one, his gut told him, was more devoted than the rest. He feared only one person could have committed this crime: Cordelia Botkin.
Delaware police sent word to their counterparts in San Francisco, asking them to find and apprehend Cordelia before she had a chance to flee. Cordelia had no plans of fleeing, however. Police found her at home with her husband in Stockton, preparing for her “second or third” outfit change of the day.
When she was presented with the arrest warrant, she sank to the sofa with a moan of anguish. “The chagrin is past. The horror is over,” she said. “I have suffered all the humiliation. I am ready.”
Police allowed her to pack a trunk of clothes for her jail stay (so heavy that it took two deputies to carry it), and she was escorted out of her home on the arm of the chief of police.
The next day, the newsboys of San Francisco sold out of papers as the city rushed to learn the latest details of the case, just the second murder by mail in American history.
At first, the evidence against Cordelia seemed thin. Dunning claimed her handwriting matched both letters in Mary’s possession, including the fatal note that came with the chocolates. But police had difficulty determining where the chocolates were manufactured and sold. And a recent change to how San Francisco sorted its mail made it impossible to find the package’s origins.
Then, there was the issue of jurisdiction. Delaware authorities wanted the trial held where the murder occurred, but Cordelia’s lawyers argued because their client had never set foot in the state, she must stay in California for the trial. They won, and the trial of the century began on Sept. 6.
The court of public opinion had already ruled on Cordelia, though. Days before, the Chronicle had run a spread of photos that set the city atwitter.
“The photographs indicate plainly the woman’s excessive vanity and her fondness for posing,” the paper wrote.
She entertained frequent guests in jail, too, and spent her solitary hours “finding diversion in the vanities of womankind, which she possesses in an exaggerated degree.” Rumors even spread that Cordelia had been seen outside of her cell, enjoying a day of shopping and fresh air. The 1947 book ‘San Francisco Murders’ suggested that Cordelia was given a long leash because of the “unspecified” favors she was showering on her guards.
Her first day in court, Cordelia seemed at ease.
“She smiled as she talked,” the Chronicle reported, “and occasionally showed the handsome teeth of which she is extremely proud.”
Her smile faded quickly on Sept. 12, though, when the prosecution dropped a bombshell: They found paper, string and the seal of the candy box in her apartment at the Hotel Victoria. The evidence was clear, they argued. Cordelia had cut off the string so she could open the box, doctor the chocolates with arsenic and then seal it all back up.
From that point, there was little doubt about the woman’s guilt. On Dec. 30, 1898, the jury left the courtroom at 5:05 PM to deliberate. They returned four hours later with a guilty verdict. Cordelia was sentenced to life in the women’s ward at San Quentin.
Life in prison was short and miserable for Cordelia. In 1908, she learned Dunning had died, penniless and drunk, in Philadelphia. She became despondent and the warden noted she refused to eat.
Cordelia died in prison on March 7, 1910. The official cause of death was listed as “softening of the brain due to melancholia.”
Cordelia is buried alone in Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg, her gravestone a solitary reminder of the old admonition: Never take candy from a stranger.