31-year-old John P. Dunning had the kind lifestyle that many people dream of. He was a well-regarded war correspondent and had a devoted wife, Mary, who was the daughter of former congressman John B. Pennington of Dover Delaware.
In 1891 the couple moved to San Francisco where Dunning took a position as the Bureau Chief of Associated Press' Western Division. A year later the couple welcomed the birth of their daughter.
In the summer of 1895, Dunning was riding his bike to work through Golden Gate Park when it broke down near a bench where the woman who would tragically alter his future was sitting enjoying the morning sun. As he fixed his bike the two struck up a conversation and although she was 10 years his senior Dunning soon found himself captivated by her ill disguised, raw sensuality and they were soon embroiled in a torrid affair. She was Cordelia Botkin, wife of wealthy businessman, Welcome A. Botkin from Stockton California. Although they were separated, Cordelia's husband still supported her financially with a monthly stipend. Cordelia introduced Dunning to the seedy side of San Francisco and before long he was caught up in a sordid lifestyle of drinking, partying, and gambling.
Mary Elizabeth Dunning had suffered the ultimate humiliation. Her husband was openly cavorting with a woman of obviously loose morals. To add to this he had been fired from his position at Associated Press when it was suspected that he had embezzled company funds in order to pay his gambling debts. And due to his heavy drinking he was unable to maintain employment. Fed up, Mary Elizabeth packed up herself and her daughter and moved back to Delaware with her parents.
Still caught up in the clutches of Cordelia, Dunning moved into same hotel where she was staying and for the time being was content to let Cordelia support the both of them with her husband's money.
During one of their conversations the subject of Dunning's wife arose and he let it slip about her love of candy and that she had a close friend in San Francisco named Mrs Corbaley.
Eventually Dunning grew tired of his life of debauchery and jumped at the chance when Associated Press offered to rehire him as a war correspondent to cover the Spanish-American war in Cuba. He informed Cordelia of his plans and turned a deaf ear to her impassioned pleadings for him to stay with her. Dunning also informed her that he had no intentions of returning to San Francisco and upon completing his assignment he would be returning to Delaware in the hopes of reuniting with his wife and child.
Mary Elizabeth received letters signed "A Friend" postmarked San Francisco. They informed her that her husband was still constantly seen in the company of an attractive woman and warned Mary Elizabeth not to reconcile with her husband. She turned the letters over to her father for safe keeping.
On August 9, 1898, a small package arrived at the Dover, Delaware addressed to Mary Elizabeth Dunning. Inside the box was chocolate bonbons resting atop a lacy handkerchief with the price tag still attached. The note enclosed with the package read, "With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C."
Later that evening after dining on trout and corn fritters, the family retired to the veranda in a effort to cool off from the summer heat. Thinking the chocolates were from her friend, Mrs. Corbaley, from San Francisco, Mary Elizabeth had no reservations about indulging in her love of chocolate or passing the box around for her family to share. Mary Elizabeth's parents passed but her older sister, her daughter, her niece and two young neighbors who had stopped by to visit.
Hours later all six of the unfortunate people who ate the candy experienced stomach pains and vomiting. The physician who came to examine them diagnosed their illness as cholera morbus, a common ailment due to lack of refrigeration. He claimed it was probably from the corn fritters they had eaten at dinner. The problem with that theory was the two neighbors had not eaten the fritters. Nonetheless everyone eventually recovered with the exception of Mary Elizabeth and her sister. Having eaten the bulk of the candy they progressed to severe stomach spasms and their father called in a specialist who's grim suspicion spelled doom for the two women. He feared that they had been poisoned and by then it was too late to save them. Mary Elizabeth and her sister died a day later.
Mr Pennington began to suspect that his daughters had been poisoned by the candy and he had the uneaten candy analyzed. The chemist reported that a few of the chocolates had indeed been tainted with arsenic.
Mary Elizabeth's father dispatched a telegram posthaste to John Dunning informing him of the death of his beloved wife. When he reached the home of Mr. Pennington, Mary's father, he was immediately shown the letters and handwritten note that accompanied the box of chocolate. It took only one brief glance for him to instantly recognise the handwriting. There was no doubt as to the identity of the writer in his mind. He broke down and told Mr. Pennington the details of the sordid affair with Cordelia Botkin.
The Dover Police were contacted who then referred the case to San Francisco since the candies were sent from there. The remaining candy, the paper it was wrapped in and the handkerchief were sent to San Francisco in the custody of Dover Police.
San Francisco Police Chief Isaiah W. Less spearheaded the case against Cordelia and immediately set to work building the evidence against her. The sensational story was soon front page news and the Examiner "assisted" the police with the investigation. The paper that was used to wrap the candy was traced back to the George Haas confectionery where the clerk recalled selling the chocolate bonbons to a woman fitting Cordelia's physical description. The price tag on the handkerchief led directly to the City of Paris department store. A clerk who remembered selling arsenic to a woman who resembled Cordelia was eventually located at the Owl Drug store. Finally Less had the note that accompanied the chocolates and the anonymous letters sent to Mary Elizabeth analyzed by a handwriting expert who conclusively matched them to samples of Cordelia's writings.
In October, 1898, Chief Less appeared before the grand jury, confident that he had a strong, albeit circumstantial case. The only potential problem was the fact that an autopsy had not been performed on the two women so there was no proof that they had died from arsenic poisoning. In response the grand jury returned with an indictment for two counts of first-degree murder against Mrs. Cordelia Botkin.
Her trial began in December, 1898 before Judge Carroll Cook. Given the strength of the prosecutions case, the defense had no choice but to put Cordelia on the stand. She admitted that she bought the arsenic in June but hers was powdered not the crystalline type that was found in the candy. Furthermore she claimed she had bought the arsenic to bleach a straw hat. She also produced alibis to prove that she did not purchase the candy or mail the package. However her alibis could not be substantiated.
After four hours of the deliberation the jury found Cordelia guilty and recommended life in prison. As recommended Cordelia was confined to the Branch County Prison to serve her life sentence. One Sunday a few months after being sent to prison Judge Cook spotted Cordelia shopping in downtown San Francisco. He immediately launched an investigation and uncovered evidence that Cordelia had exchanged sexual favors for lavish comforts in jail and the freedom to leave the prison grounds.
Meanwhile Cordelia's lawyer appealed her conviction and was able to have it overturned based on a procedural error. Her second trial commenced in 1904 and on August 2, 1904 she was again sentenced to life in prison.
Cordelia Botkin was transferred to San Quentin State Prison where she remained until her death on March 7, 1910. The official cause of death was "softening of the brain due to melancholy." She was 56 years old.