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Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century

An excerpt
By Harold Schechter

December 9, 2007

Harold Schechter, Professor of English at Queens College, is the author of more than twenty books, including a series of historical true-crime accounts of notorious American murder cases.

When Joseph Pulitzer purchased the New York World in May, 1883, a typical front page consisted of a half-dozen columns of densely packed type, unrelieved by illustrations or eye-catching headlines. Viewed from a slight distance, the page resembled a solid block of gray print, so dreary in appearance that the layout was referred to as a “tombstone.” 1

The content was equally numbing. On May 10, 1883 – its last day under the ownership of the financier Jay Gould – the World ran page-one stories on the recent nominations submitted to the Board of Aldermen, the forthcoming dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the election of the executive committee of the American Cocker Spaniel Club. Little wonder that the paper had a daily circulation of less than 12,000 copies and was losing $40,000 a year.2

All that changed the moment Joseph Pulitzer got hold of it. An immigrant himself, Pulitzer saw himself as a champion of the weak and oppressed. The World, as he conceived it, would be a paper “dedicated to the cause of the people rather than to that of the purse potentates.” In an early editorial, he laid out his goals, a ten-point program that included “punishing corrupt office holders,” along with levying taxes on luxuries, inheritances, large incomes, monopolies, and “privileged corporations.”

His method of achieving these lofty aims was to appeal to his reader’s lowest instincts. After all, he reasoned, the best a publisher could do was to “go for a million circulation, and when you have got it, turn the minds and the votes of your readers one way or the other at critical moments.”4 And the most effective way to reach that million circulation was by printing the kind of wildly sensationalistic stories that ordinary people have always gobbled up.

He lost no time in putting his plan into action. The very first issue of the World edited by Pulitzer featured front-page stories on a New Jersey fire that claimed the lives of a half-dozen people; the last hours of a convicted killer who had beaten his wife to death in a drunken rage; the public execution of another murderer, a hardcase named M’Conkey who went to his death cursing his jailers; a deadly lightning bolt that killed a man on Long Island; and a dynamite attack by Haitian rebels that left four hundred victims dead or wounded.5

The following days brought more of the same: headline stories about human sacrifices performed by religious fanatics; a little boy killed when his pony stumbled and fell on top of him; a smallpox scare in Hoboken; a killer tornado in Kansas; plus assorted homicides, suicides, holdups, beatings, and even a grave robbery.6 By the following March, a typical week brought such attention-grabbing headlines as “A CHILD FLAYED ALIVE,” “A BRUTAL NEGRO WHIPS HIS NEPHEW TO DEATH IN SOUTH CAROLINAS,” “STRANGLED BY ROBBERS,” “DIED A DESPERADO’S DEATH,” A LADY GAGGED IN A FLAT,” and QUINTUPLE TRAGEDY – AN ENTIRE FAMILY ANNIHILATED BY ITS HEAD.”7

The very look of the paper underwent a radical alteration. Headlines now stretched over several columns or were splashed across the entire top of the page. And there were cartoons, caricatures, lurid illustrations, and other voyeuristic visual aids. Not only were grisly murders reported in graphic detail; they were diagrammed so that readers could picture the horrors more clearly. When, for example, a New York City clergyman named Klemo slashed his wife to death in their fourth-floor apartment, then cut his own throat and hurled himself from the window, the story was accompanied by a drawing of the crime scene with a helpful alphabetical key:

A – Door stained with blood; B – Window stained with blood from which Klemo leaped; C – Bed covered with blood; D – Table set and covered with blood; E – Chair in which Mrs. Klemo sat; F – Sink in which knife was found; G – Pool of blood.8

Soon, Pulitzer had added a Sunday supplement, providing readers with such uplifting Sabbath fare as “a long treatise on weapons used to commit murder in recent years, including a nail, a coffin lid, a red-hot horseshoe, an umbrella, a matchbox, a window brush, and a tea kettle”; “an account of the careers of two Vienna cutthroats who had specialized in courting lonely women and then murdering them”; “a description of life in the death house at Sing Sing”: a “thrilling narrative of cannibalism at sea”; and the supposedly true-life tale of an English explorer thrown into a pit of vipers by “fiendish” African tribesman.9

Pulitzer’s sensationalistic strategy succeeded beyond all expectation. By March, 1885, the World had a daily circulation of more than 150,000 copies – an astonishing tenfold increase in less than two years. That figure would double again before the end of the decade.

The age of “yellow journalism” had arrived.

* * * * * *

Before his expulsion from Harvard in 1886, William Randolph Hearst – pampered heir to a mining fortune – had served as the business manager for the college humor magazine, the Lampoon. The experience had awakened in the aimless young man a keen interest in journalism. Studying the various dailies from New York and Boston, he found himself enthralled by Pulitzer’s newly reinvigorated World. Everything about it – from its crusading zeal to its shameless sensationalism – filled him with admiration. “If a man can be in love with a newspaper,” declares one biographer, “Hearst was downright passionate about the World.10

As it happened, Hearst’s father, George, owned a paper himself. In 1880, the elder Hearst – a shaggy-bearded ex-prospector who had struck it rich in gold, silver and copper – had purchased the San Francisco Examiner as a propaganda tool to advance his political ambitions. Though George would eventually get elected to the United States Senate, the paper was a financial disaster, losing more than a quarter-million dollars during the years he controlled it.11

George’s boy, Willie, thought he could do better. While still in college, he wrote a letter to his father, insisting that the Examiner could turn a profit by imitating publications like the World – “that class [of newspaper] which appeals to the people and which depends for its success upon enterprise, energy, and a certain startling originality.” Illustrations, were important, too, since they “attract the eye and stimulate the imagination of the lower classes.”12

Twenty-four-year-old William got a chance to put his theories into practice in March 1887 when – after spending a year as a reporter for the World – he persuaded his father to give him the Examiner. Emulating Pulitzer, he set about creating a paper that, as one of his first employees put it, would fill readers with the “gee-whiz emotion.”13 Like Hearst’s later publications, the Examiner was less a traditional newspaper than a “printed entertainment – the equivalent in newsprint of bombs exploding, bands blaring, firecrackers popping, victims screaming, flags waving, cannons roaring, houris dancing, and smoke rising from the singed flesh of executed criminals.”14

Within a week of taking it over, Hearst was already trumpeting the Examiner in half-page advertisements as “THE MONARCH OF THE DAILIES!” with “THE MOST ELABORATE LOCAL NEWS, THE FRESHEST SOCIAL NEWS, THE LATEST AND MOST ORIGINAL SENSATIONS!”15 Determined to “startle, amaze, or stupefy” readers on a daily basis, he served up the subjects that have always thrilled and titillated the public: scandal, sentimentality, sex, gossip, disaster, adventure.

And always, of course, crime, depravity, and murder – the more shocking the better.

* * * * *

Given the ubiquity of serial killers in our movies, TV shows, and paperback thrillers, a person might be forgiven for thinking that our country is crawling with homicidal psychopaths. In reality, the number of serial killers at large in the United States at any given time is, relative to the total population, infinitesimal: no more than fifty, according to the most reliable FBI estimates. The average citizen, in other words, is far less likely to be stabbed by a psycho while taking a shower than to slip in the bathtub and die.

The same sort of disparity existed in the nineteenth century in regard to poisoners. According to one crime historian, “poisoning accounted for less than one percent of murder cases that entered the criminal justice system” in the 1800s.16 And yet, poison-murder was everywhere in the popular culture of the time. At least a hundred true-crime books were devoted to the subject, while writers of “sensation novels, detective stories, and other popular fiction turned frequently to poisoning as a plot device.”17

Gilded age newspapers were quick to exploit the public’s fascination with poisoners. During one month-long span in the late 1800s, the New York City dailies ran no fewer than five poison-related headlines: “POISONED COLOGNE SENT TO BROOKLYN GIRL,” “ARSENIC IN JELLY,” “HIRED TO POISON A CHILD,” “GRANDMOTHER ACCUSED OF POISONING NEIGHBOR’S WELL,” and “POISON IN WINE PRETTY GIRL INDUCED HER LOVER TO DRINK.” Even an instance of alleged pet-murder – “DOG DEAD BY POISON, SAYS MASTER” – made the front pages.18

Several poisoning cases became bona fide media sensations. In 1891, for example, New York City was riveted by the story of Carlyle Harris, a medical student who murdered his young wife by putting a lethal dose of morphine in her sleeping pills. The following year, a Manhattan physician named Robert Buchanan used the same narcotic (mixed with some belladonna to conceal the symptoms of poisoning) to rid himself of his own wife, a former brothel keeper he had wed for her money. Shortly after Buchanan’s trial came to an end, yet another physician, Dr. Henry Meyer, was convicted of murdering an acquaintance with arsenic and antimony as part of an insurance scam.

And then there was the irresistibly lurid case of the San Francisco femme fatale, Mrs. Cordelia Botkin.

The estranged wife of a fellow with the unlikely name of Welcome A. Botkin, Cordelia was thirty-eight years old in 1892 – already past her prime in an era when a woman of forty was considered to be “in the cold and constricting clutch of middle age.”19 “Time had laid upon her the unkind stigmata of full-blown maturity,” as one commentator puts it.20

Despite her advanced years, however, she possessed a powerfully seductive charm and, in September of that year, embarked on an affair with a young cad named John P. Dunning, a journalist ten years her junior with a wife and children of his own in Delaware. Their liaison lasted for nearly six years, until Dunning, tired of his “maturely alluring” lover, broke off the relationship and decamped for Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War as a correspondent for the Associated Press.

Not long afterwards, on the afternoon of August 9, 1898, a package arrived at the Dover, Delaware post office addressed to Dunning’s wife, Elizabeth. Inside was a box of chocolate bonbons, along with a handwritten note reading: “With love to yourself and baby. Mrs. C.”

That evening, after a dinner of trout and fritters, Mrs. Dunning sat on the porch and shared the treats with her older sister, her nephew and niece, and two young neighbors, Misses Bateman and Millington, who had stopped by for a visit. A few hours later, all six became violently ill. The children and the two young ladies eventually recovered, but Mrs. Dunning and her sister – who had devoured the lion’s share of the candies – died painfully a few days later. Autopsies revealed the presence of lethal doses of arsenic in the viscera of both women, a finding confirmed when the leftover bonbons were analyzed by chemists.

John Dunning was immediately summoned home. He needed only a glance at the handwritten note to know who had sent the package. “Cordelia!” he gasped, then – “broken with grief and abased with shame”21 – he proceeded to spill out the story of his affair with Mrs. Botkin.

The San Francisco papers quickly got wind of the investigation, and Hearst’s Examiner turned the case into a full-fledged media circus. His “murder squad” located the confectionery store where the bonbons had been purchased, traced the arsenic to a local drug store, and tracked down Cordelia Botkin herself, who had taken refuge at her sister’s house in St. Helena. One of Hearst’s ace women reporters, Lizzie Livernash, immediately sped to Mrs. Botkin’s side and, ingratiating herself with the fugitive, wangled a series of interviews that were splashed across the Examiner’s front pages.

The frenzied coverage of Mrs. Botkin’s trial – which began in early December, 1898 – boosted the already sky-high circulation of the Examiner to stratospheric new heights, proving that few stories could sell more papers in that era than a poisoning case with the right sensational ingredients. Hearst – then in the thick of his newspaper war with Joseph Pulitzer – could only hope that Fate would supply him with an East Coast version of the Botkin affair which he could exploit to equally dramatic effect in the Journal.

And then – even before Mrs. Botkin’s inevitable conviction was handed down – Fate obliged.

1 Ezra Bowen, ed. This Fabulous Century: 1870-1900 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1970,p. 166.
2 George Juergens, Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 6 and 51.
3 Bowen, p. 168.
4 Ibid.
5 Juergens, pp. 51-52.
6 John D. Stevens, Sensationalism and the New York Press (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p.70.)
7 Juergens, pp. 67-69.
8Denis Brian, Pulitzer: A Life (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001), p. 74.
9 Ibid, p. 55.
10 W. W. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst (New York: Scribner’s, 1961), p.41.
11 Ibid, p. 47.
12 Benjamin Procter, William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863-1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 41.
13 See Swanberg, p. 43.
14 Ibid, p. 193.
15 Ibid, p. 49.
16 Roger Lane, Murder in America (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1997), p. 320.
17 Mark Regan Essikg, Science and Sensation: Poison Murder and Forensic Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Cornell University, January, 2000), p 5.
18 See the New York Sun, 3 March, 1899, New York World 11 March 1899, New York World 16 March 1899, New York World 2 April 1899, and New York World 7 April, 1899.
19 Edward H. Smith, Famous Poison Mysteries (New York: The Dial Press, 1927), pp. 30.
20 Ibid. p. 31.
21 Ibid, p. 22.