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Cordelia Botkin (1854–1910) was an American murderer who sent a box of poisoned candy to her ex-lover's wife.



In 1895, Botkin met John Preston "Jack" Dunning while he was bicycling in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Although Botkin was then 41, nine years his senior, and both were married, he was smitten with her. A highly-regarded reporter for the Associated Press, having completed overseas assignments in Samoa and Chile, he had been promoted to superintendent of the AP's Western Division bureau in San Francisco.[1] Dunning had been stationed in Samoa in 1889 when the island had been the scene of a naval confrontation between the U.S., Great Britain, and the German Empire concerning the reigning monarch in Samoa (there was a split in the choice by the local chiefs between at least three men). A typhoon hit the island sinking most of the German and American vessels (the sole British ship, H.M.S. Calliope managed to get out to sea). Dunning's account of the disaster and its consequences was a model of first rate reporting at that time, and frequently reprinted.

In 1896, Dunning's religious wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Penington, apparently upset by his marital indiscretions, left her husband and returned with their little daughter to the home of her father, former Congressman John B. Penington, in Dover, Delaware. By then Botkin had become Dunning's lover and constant companion. Botkin was estranged from her own husband, grain broker Welcome Botkin of Stockton, California, but he supported her with regular remittances. Dunning, a heavy drinker, was soon fired by the Associated Press in 1896 for embezzling $4,000 in office funds to pay his gambling debts. Subsequently let go by newspapers in Salt Lake City and San Francisco for habitual drunkenness, he moved into Botkin's hotel in a room down the hall.

The affair lasted for nearly three years but ended when Dunning, whose skills had not been forgotten at the Associated Press, was rehired in March 1898 as the agency's lead reporter for his outstanding coverage of what would become the Spanish-American War. However, as he left San Francisco, he told the weeping Botkin that he would not return. Then he reconciled with his wife before leaving for Cuba. Dunning when he was in Cuba was again useful at the battle of Santiago Bay (2 July 1898) when he helped save survivors of the Spanish battleships that were sunk. However, his own work as a reporter was overshadowed there by the more impressive reports sent by Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis.

Botkin sent anonymous letters to Mrs. Dunning regarding her husband's affairs. On August 9, 1898, Mrs. Dunning opened a box of candies addressed to her and her sister in Dover, Delaware. It was anonymously signed as "With love to yourself and baby." "Passionately fond of candy," according to Dunning, she took at least three herself and shared the bonbons with others on the porch of her father's home. Arsenic in the chocolates killed 35-year-old Elizabeth and her older sister, 44-year-old Ida Harriet Deane, after two days of agony. Four other partakers survived. Alerted when Elizabeth's father noted similar handwriting on the note and the taunting letters he had kept in a drawer, authorities traced the candy to a shop in San Francisco and from there, to Cordelia Botkin.


Botkin was tried before Judge Carroll Cook who ruled on the first case involving a crime committed in two states, a decision which was not reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.[2][3]

Never admitting guilt, she was convicted of murder in December 1898 and convicted again at a retrial in 1904. She was sentenced to life.[4] She died in 1910 at San Quentin State Prison. Dunning, his career shattered, had died two years earlier in Philadelphia.



  • Transcript on Appeal: People of the State of California, respondent, versus Cordelia Botkin, defendant. Complaint 12,579. San Francisco Superior Court Criminal Case 632. Filed 29 February 1900, with Supreme Court of State of California. Item W.P.A. No. 29080 and 27069, California State Archives, Sacramento, CA. (Original trial records were destroyed in the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in April 1906.)
  • Offord, Lenore: "The Gifts of Cordelia: The Case of Cordelia Botkin" in "San Francisco Murders," ed. Joseph Henry Jackson.New York: Dual, Sloan, and Pierce, 1947.
  • Tales of Love and Hate in Old San Francisco, Millie Robbins. Chronicle Books, San Francisco 1971 ISBN 0-87701-071-8 OCLC 206797


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