The Chocolate Murders

by Dana Kester-McCabe

I recently visited artists Jan Crumpley and Taylor Collins at the Parke Green Galleries on State Street by the Green in Dover. They shared some stories about that neighborhood's local history.

Because Jan and Taylor's gallery is in a building of historical significance they have fully embraced a heritage theme with a particular emphasis on women's contributions to our history. One of the rooms in their gallery is named for famed astronomer and Dover native Annie Jump Cannon. Another is named for one of the First State's great preservationists.

Taylor Collins:
"So we named that room the Mabel Lloyd Ridgley Room because that is the house next door. That was her house. The family history goes way back. She is the woman we really like of that era. She started "Old Dover Days". She saved the old State House because they were going to tear it down when they built the current Leg Hall. So she saved that and she was real big in preservation. She was a suffragette and all that, and so were all the women who lived on the Greene at that time."

Jan Crumpley:
"Mabel Lloyd Ridgley was also an artist."

Taylor Collins:
"Oh yeah."

Jan Crumpley:
"So, the other thing about Mabel too, was in 1926 she and her husband Henry bought this building and they reconfigured the Capitol Hotel, changing the aspect of these offices that you see from some of the remaining Capitol Hotel walls. Their family has lived next door continuously since 1767. But their family is still there and they are our landlords. SO we pay homage to them that way too."

Jan and Taylor often find themselves telling shop visitors the stories of this unique neighborhood. There are quite a few they could tell but the one they are asked to repeat the most is the story of the "Chocolate Murders". I had never heard this story so Jan Crumply filled me in.

Jan Crumpley:
"What happened was, there were two daughters that lived here on the Green, of John Pennington who was a state legislator and a lawyer. The youngest of the two married this man John Dunning and he was an AP writer. So he was made the head of the AP post in San Francisco and he took his bride Mary Elizabeth and they went out to San Francisco. They had a child while they were out there."

"But he was basically a philanderer. And this woman he was seeing became more and more important to him. So Mary Elizabeth figured this all out and cut her losses and came back with her baby to live with her parents here on the Green. Some time ensued and John Dunning ran afoul of the AP and they said: "You're not going to run our bureau any more. You're going to cover the Spanish American War. You're off to Puerto Rico."

"So I guess he did not tell his mistress. And, her name was Cordeila Botkin. And Cordelia Botkin had a lot plans up her sleeve. And she figured that John Dunning had come back to Dover to reunite with his wife. And she thought if she couldn't have him nobody could."

"So believe it or not she made arsenic chocolates and was able to mail them in the heat of summer via train, because you didn't have planes back then takin' the mail, to Dover, Delaware. These chocolates were delivered anonymously and the two sisters ate them and both died. And some children got sick, and a bunny died too."

"Anyway when Mary Elizabeth died they called John Dunning back to bury his wife. And John Pennington, the father, said she had received these anonymous letters and what did he know about this and "How do you think this came about?"

The first thing that John Dunning, the philandering husband, said was: "Cordelia!"

Naturally after hearing Jan's story I had to go find out more. John Dunning had made a name for himself covering the devastation of war and natural disaster in Samoa. Following that harrowing experience he brought his family to the West Coast to work for the Associated Press. But he and his wife, poor gentile Mary Elizabeth Dunning, were no match for the temptations found in San Francisco and particularly Cordielia Botkin. After meeting her while riding his bycicle to his office, John was hopelessly drawn into her dissolute world and a circle of wild women.

When you hear the names of the players and just a few of the details you can understand why large crowds gathered to attend the trial and why newspapers across the country made a fortune covering all the dirt. There was Cordielia Botkin herself and her confidant Mrs. Forcade. Another gal pal was Mrs. Seely, Cordelia's stepson's girlfriend. And there was a Mrs. Arborgast who was having an affair with Cordelia's husband. Yes - she too was married. Despite refusing to divorce Mr. Botkin, Mrs. Arborgast had Cordelia's blessing in this union. Though they were never charged, there were accusations that one or more of Cordelia's friends were part of the murder conspiracy. She claimed it was they who had written anonymous notes to Mary Elizabeth Dunning exposing her husband's wild life of gambling, drinking, and infidelity. Maybe they were the ones who sent the poisoned candy to Dover?

While this may have been the first case of murder by mail in the US, Cordelia Botkin may have been inspired by a similar incident in Britain where she was raised. The American case was a particular problem for authorities because they couldn't decide whether the crime had been committed in Delaware where two women died, or in California where the poisoned candy was prepared. Finally it was decided that the trial should take place in San Francisco.

The prosecution presented pretty compelling evidence that Cordelia had purchased the poison. But her case was lost when a writer for the San Francisco Examiner named - get this - Mrs. Lizzie Livernash was assigned to befriend Cordelia and investigate the case. Despite knowing the woman was a newspaper reporter Cordelia took her into her confidence. Though she never confessed to the murder plot she shared lurid details of her escapades with John Dunning and how she was dedicated to a life of pleasure. Mrs. Livernash in turn repeated all this in court. What she could not wheedle out of Cordelia directly she learned by eavesdropping on conversations heard through closed doors. The stories of Cordelia and her friends' outrageous behavior were enough to convince the jury. Cordelia was convicted despite maintaining her innocence.

It is not clear where her money came from but she hired the top defense lawyers in the city who mounted several appeals. They got her a retrial but she was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison. John Dunning's responsibility for setting off the terrible chain of events took its toll on him as well. He had to admit in court that he had lost all of his money gambling and that he had dalliances with several other women. He was then jailed during the proceedings for refusing to name them. His writing career was ruined and not long after the trials he died of a brain tumor at the age of 44.

Meanwhile Cordelia charmed the guards at the San Francisco jail where she was incarcerated. They allowed her to have extravagant privileges: nice bed linens, good food, and believe it or not - the freedom to come and go from the jail grounds. The very judge who had sentenced her was shocked when he ran into her on a public trolley while she was out for an afternoon ride. This special treatment apparently went on until the earthquake of 1906 wrecked the jail forcing her and other convicts there to be transferred to the much bleaker existence of San Quentin. This is where she died in 1910 some say of depression.

Not all the stories about the stately homes and families that have lived on the Green in Dover are so lurid. There are many equally fascinating tales of important turning points in the history of our country which happened right there. Mondays through Saturdays all year long, storytellers at the John Bell house on the Green give free guided walks through Dover's historic district.


Jan Crumpley and Taylor Collins

Historic Dover Walking Tours

Cordelia Botkin

The Botkin Case
By Jim Fisher

The Poison Candy Murder Case: A True Delaware Horror Story!
the Delaware Historical Society

100 Year Old Murder Case Still Haunts Dover Delaware

John Alstadt's book 'With Love to Yourself and Baby
2001, trade paperback edition, Dorrance, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Dover poisoned candy murders
Widener Law Library

Dunning Sent To Jail For His Refusal To Expose The Companions Of His Gross Revelry
California Digital Newspaper Collection - San Francisco Call, Volume 85, Number 20, December 20, 1898

American Murder
By Gini Graham Scott
Praeger Westport, Connecticut 2007

Who Sent The Poisoned Candy?
Daily Mail & Empire - Decemebr 26, 1898

The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill
By Richard Glyn Jones