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December 28, 1998 - January 1, 1999

Tuesday, December 29 -- Wednesday, December 30, 1998

A splendid little murder

Cordelia Botkin. Mrs. Botkin. Hardly a household name for San Franciscans in December 1998. But her face stares, dark-eyed, round-cheeked, out of nearly every issue of the Chronicle and the Examiner published in December 1898. Residents of the city a hundred years ago eagerly absorbed every detail of this woman's private life just as their 20th-century counterparts voraciously devour news of Monica Lewinsky's comings and goings. Hers, too, was a titillating story of sexual indiscretion, augmented by the testosterone-charged excitement of a splendid little war. Perhaps the parallels stop there. But perhaps there are other lines that diverge, only to meet again, now, in an exquisite full circle.

The occasion for Mrs. Botkin's quickly sketched portraits, which adorned the pages of every local newspaper, was her trial for murder in Police Court, Judge Carroll Cook presiding. The facts were well known, for William Randolph Hearst's Examiner had made the case its own, in the same way that Hearst's newspaper empire had thrown itself into the events leading up to the Spanish-American War. To enflame passions against Spain's barbarism in the Caribbean among Americans unimaginatively content to tend their own gardens, Hearst sent artist Frederic Remington to Cuba in search of visual kindling. In a now-famous exchange, Remington requested permission to return home because "there will be no war"; Hearst replied, "You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war." And to heat up public interest in two Delaware murders with a San Francisco angle, the Examiner sent a reporter with the wonderfully Dickensian name of Lizzie Livernash to inveigle her way into the confidence of the prime suspect --- Cordelia Botkin.

But let me tell you the story. It began when a bicycle broke down in Golden Gate Park in September 1895. As the cyclist, a journalist named John P. Dunning, stopped to tend to his wheel, he noticed two women sitting on a bench nearby. One of them was Cordelia Botkin. Despite 19th-century taboos on associations between men and women who had not been formally introduced, the two fell into an easy conversation. One thing led to another, and they became intimate.

When the particulars of their relationship emerged later, the public expressed shock and disapproval. It turned out that the 41-year-old Mrs. Botkin lived in San Francisco, either alone or in the company of her son Beverly, apparently a plump dissolute fellow in his early 20s. She enjoyed a comfortable separate existence from her husband, Welcome A. Botkin, who resided officially in Stockton but paid frequent consoling visits to a San Francisco landlady named Clara Arbogast. (The names are not important, but they are far too delicious to omit.) Mr. Dunning, who was about 30, also had a family --- a wife named Mary Elizabeth and a little girl, named Mary for her mother. But alas, his menage was not a happy one, he confessed, because his wife, the daughter of a Delaware farmer-turned-Congressman, was "extremely religious and could not get accustomed to conditions in San Francisco."

Or maybe it was her husband who caused her discomfort. About the time that Dunning landed literally at Mrs. Botkin's feet, he 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, and her errant husband, pockets empty, joined his new love, first at 927 Geary (in a two-story house that subsequently changed its number out of embarrassment) and then in the Victoria Hotel, at 1105 Hyde, on the corner of Hyde and California. Oh, the happy times --- or goings-on, depending on your point of view --- that took place in Room 26 of the Victoria! Visitors recalled seeing Jack Dunning sitting casually with a glass of whiskey in his hand as he bantered with a bathrobe-clad Cordelia. They also noticed, with raised eyebrows, the frequent presence of a 31-year-old widow, Louise Seeley, a close friend of son Beverly.

Then suddenly, just when Dunning's finances seemed at their lowest ebb, he received a posting to cover the war in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Cordelia traveled with him by ferry to the railroad station in Oakland and tearfully saw him off, convinced that he would meet a horrible death at the hands of the Spanish. In fact, as his letters describe, he rather enjoyed himself, even cutting off a piece of an enemy scalp, which he kept as a souvenir, until it went bad and smelled "anything but attar of roses."

But while he was overseas, trouble erupted in Dover. 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 --- she 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 the paterfamilias 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, Leila 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.

Poison. The classic weapon of a woman. 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."


* * *

Local newspapers in San Francisco quickly caught wind of the case, and from then on it was difficult to tell whether the Examiner or the Police Department was directing the investigation. The box of bonbons was traced to Haas & Sons Confectionery, in the flatiron-shaped Phelan Building at 810 Market, where an army of reporters soon drove the staff into hiding. The handkerchief was found to bear a price stamp from the City of Paris (a department store on Union Square which subsequently traded its Gallic elegance for Texas chic, in the form of Nieman Marcus). A clerk was discovered at Owl Drug Store (at 1002 Market) who remembered he had sold some arsenic to a woman resembling Cordelia Botkin. And best of all, "Mrs. Botkin," as the headlines styled her, was located at her sister's house in Healdsburg. Hotshot reporter Lizzie Livernash sped to her side, representing herself as a kindred spirit and persuading the semi-hysterical fugitive to tell all. Or at least a lot, all of which duly appeared in the pages of the Examiner.

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. Like the members of a TV audience well-primed before the official statement of a president, the people of San Francisco turned their attention toward the courthouse, eager for a look at the new media-created celebrities they had been reading about. Foreknowledge only whet their appetite. Every day they packed into the courtroom, men stolid in bulky topcoats, women knocking ornate hats askew as they vied for front-row seats. One day it rained --- California was unusually cold and dry that year --- and the intense body heat in the crowded room forced clouds of steam from water-soaked clothing. On the final days of the trial, when the attorneys were scheduled to give their closing speeches, a line of more than 500 people stretched away from the courthouse, the overflow that had been unable to squeeze inside. For their benefit, and to make the rest of the city a part of the ghoulish festivities, the Examiner erected a public bulletin board, where it posted up-to-the-minute reports of the trial's progress.

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. (There had been a brief jurisdictional dispute over which state should host the trial, which California won on the grounds that a person couldn't be extradited to a place where she had never been.) 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 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.

Once again, as in the splendid little war, a newspaper had orchestrated events, building a readership by molding popular opinion, creating consensus by sensation. William Randolph Hearst's dream was to establish a national voice for the press as a partner in the political process. For many decades, that goal was thwarted by a succession of strong presidents. Until recently.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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