John Brown Penington was born on December 20, 1825 near New Castle, Delaware. He went on to be a successful Teacher, Lawyer and was elected to two terms as Delaware's U.S. Congressman. However the story of his life was destined to center around the murder of his two daughters by a little know woman named Cordelia Botkin of San Francisco, California.

     Congressman Penington and his wife Rebecca had four children, 2 sons and 2 daughters. Their youngest daughter, Mary "Elizabeth", had met and eventually married John P. Dunning who was a reporter for the Associated Press out of San Francisco. They moved to San Francisco and started their lives together. They soon had a baby, a daughter they named Mary after her mother.

     It was shortly after the birth of their daughter that 30 year old John Dunning met and started to have an indiscreet relationship with 41 year old Cordelia Botkin.

     It is unknown whether or not John's wife Elizabeth knew about this relationship however at about this same time Dunning also began betting heavily at the racetrack. He soon lost his position as day manager of the Associated Press San Francisco Bureau, amid whispers of embezzled office funds. Elizabeth Dunning hightailed it back to the security of her family home in Dover, Delaware and her errant husband, pockets empty, joined his new love.

     As it always is in the life of a reporter with the Associated Press John was soon sent on an assignment to cover the war in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

     But while he was overseas, trouble erupted in Dover, Delaware. Elizabeth received a series of anonymous letters telling of her husband's involvement with an "interesting and pretty woman" in San Francisco. They were followed by a box of chocolates --- Elizabeth had a well-known sweet tooth --- accompanied by an inexpensive cambric handkerchief and a note reading, "With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C."

     On the evening of August 9, 1898, after a dinner of trout and corn fritters, Elizabeth and her family went out to the porch to enjoy the summer evening. She passed around the candy, at the same time wondering who had sent it. The following day, the members of the party who had eaten filled bonbons became dreadfully ill; abstainers like her father John Pennington, who preferred his tobacco chaw to candy, and those who had eaten only hard chocolates remained healthy. Most of the stricken quickly recovered, but Elizabeth and her older sister, Ida Deane, died painfully a few days later. Until the end was near, their doctor believed they suffered from cholera morbus, a blanket term for the stomach ailments that were exceedingly common during the summers before refrigerators. At the last moment, too late to save them, he realized they were the victims of arsenic poisoning.

     Elizabeth's grieving family sent for Dunning, who arrived in great distress ten days later. He took one look at the anonymous letters and said, "Cordelia."

     The box of bonbons was traced to Haas & Sons Confectionery, in the Phelan Building at 810 Market Street in San Francisco and the handkerchief was found to bear a price stamp from the City of Paris (a department store on Union Square also in San Francisco). A clerk was discovered at Owl Drug Store (at 1002 Market Street San Francisco) who remembered he had sold some arsenic to a woman resembling Cordelia Botkin.

     The unrelenting coverage of the case by the press meant that the public knew what to expect when the trial finally began on December 6, 1898. A delegation of lawyers, doctors, and bereaved family members arrived by train from Delaware just as the trial began, looking bewildered by what they obviously regarded as the Wild West. In turn, cosmopolitan San Franciscans saw the eastern visitors as provincial and slightly addle-brained.

     Piece by piece, the prosecution laid out its evidence, including lengthy chemical and handwriting analyses. Fingerprint analysis, which might have provided proof otherwise lacking in the circumstantial case, was still a science in its infancy, inadmissible in court.

     Throughout the testimony, all eyes were on the defendant, who sat stoically still, always in black, always with a white lace handkerchief in her hand. A brief distraction occurred when John Dunning took the stand and the members of the audience had an opportunity to look over the man who had inspired such passion. He turned out to be the whiny sort, with a good cleft chin but narrow shoulders and a head of thinning hair. He inserted a moment of drama into the proceedings when he acknowledged that he had been intimate with many women during his stay in San Francisco, but no, he couldn't recall all of their names. Were there any whose names he could recall? Yes, there were three, besides Mrs. Botkin. But no, he would not reveal them. Dunning spent a couple of nights in the county jail before the defense withdrew its question.

     Mrs. Botkin took the stand, speaking first in a spirited tone that gave her listeners a hint that she might indeed be an intelligent, independent woman and then --- on the advice of counsel --- in a more docile manner. She carefully refuted the prosecution's assertions, offering a series of alibis to demonstrate that she could neither have purchased the chocolate nor mailed it. Furthermore, the arsenic, which she bought in June --- long before the crime was committed --- was powdered, not crystalline like the pieces found in the candy.

     No matter. The jury convicted her after four hours' deliberation, including time out for dinner. The verdict was a compromise: guilty of first degree murder, to be punished by life imprisonment. When the news flashed on the San Francisco Examiner bulletin board, the crowd cheered. And despite several appeals, Cordelia Botkin spent the rest of her life in San Quentin, dying of "softening of the brain, due to melancholy" on March 7, 1910.

( Some of the information in this article were taken from an article by Betsey Culp )

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Russ Pickett

Last update: 4/7/2007