Archive for Turn of the Century

Unpleasantness at the Knickerbocker Club

Roland Molineux

The first rule of the Knickerbocker Club, the current iteration of the club at the center of several Gilded Age murders which interest us here, is that no one speaks about the Knickerbocker Club. The organization is not a secret society in the sense of clubs like Yale’s famously un-secret Skull and Bones, but its membership eschews publicity in favor of exclusivity. There is no application process; if the club wants you as a member, it will extend an invitation to join. Obviously there is no public membership list, but it is likely that the membership is comprised of New York City’s oldest and richest families. The annual dues can probably buy a good college education for someone, but one does not join for the weights and sauna. It is now a place where completing business deals over single-malt scotch and a cigar is more important than burning off carbs on a Stairmaster.
Many people assume, mistakenly, that the Knickerbocker Athletic Club and the NBA team are, or were, somehow related. There is no direct connection; the word “Knickerbocker” has been used to describe New Yorkers since they were New Amsterdamers. In the days before professional sports teams, clubs sponsored athletic events which brought competitors from across the nation. The teams from the club were naturally called the Knickerbockers, and were known for swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and bicycling. The Knickerbocker Club also fielded a football team in the earliest days of the sport.
Harry Cornish, 36, was athletic director for the club while Roland Molineux, 31, was a member of its house committee at the time of the Knickerbocker Club unpleasantness. There was no love lost between the two men and it appears they fought from the time Cornish came to work for the Club. Cornish came from a good background and had a national reputation as an athlete, but he was not of the class of Molineux, something that made Cornish little more than a servant in his eyes, although he could also see that Cornish had more clout at the club as a successful coach and trainer than he did as a member. Prior to joining the staff of the Knickerbocker, Cornish ran the Chicago Athletic Club. He was described by the papers as “a tall, square-shouldered man, a splendid type of physical development.”
Harry Cornish“He is one of the best-known men in New York athletic circles, and has many friends in this city,” gushed the New York Times back in 1899. “He has won many honors on the football field and has acted as coach for a number of college teams.”
A college graduate with a liberal arts background, Molineux studied chemistry for two years at Cooper Union where he developed sufficient knowledge in the science to be the superintendent in a business that manufactured dry colors for use in paint. Before taking that job in Newark, Molineux had been in charge of color-making at a firm where his father was on the board of directors. Evidence introduced at his trial showed he had a good chemical library and a well-equipped laboratory. However, Molineux testified later he did not consider himself a chemist.
“Molineux was the sort of man that a thousand authors have tried to call up from the world of imagination: genteel, suave and appealing, but with a touch of the dangerous, perhaps the sinister,” the Times told its readers in a 1925 retrospective on the case. “At the moment when his manners, speech and general address induced confidence, there was a look in his eye, a cast to his face that stirred doubt. Molineux, the enigma, represented in his personality and career the flesh and blood reality of the mystery man.”

Mortal Enemies

In 1896, difficulties arose between Molineux and Cornish over the behavior of another club man. Neither the press nor criminal justice system expanded on what constituted what was universally described as “ungentlemanly conduct” because interesting though it might be, it was not relevant to the case. The next April Molineux was put in charge of an amateur circus produced by the club and complained to the house committee that Cornish was slacking on keeping an orderly kitchen and clean baths. The complaint earned Cornish a significant demotion: he had been superintendent of the club and manager of the club restaurant. After Molineux’s complaint Cornish’s authority was reduced to athletic training and team coaching.
That same spring the chairman of the house committee told Molineux that Cornish had said that he made his money as a bootlegger or “by keeping a place of questionable repute.” Molineux insisted that this matter, together with his other grievances, be investigated by the club. A hearing was held, but, as Cornish denied having made the statements attributed to him, no further action was taken.
However, Molineux was still intent on ruining the man he saw as his nemesis. Somehow Molineux obtained a copy of a letter written by Cornish in August 1897 to a club track and field star named Wefers. The letter was a harsh criticism of Bartow Weeks, a director of the rival New York Athletic Club.
“Weeks has been guilty of a dirty piece of business, and he is too far beneath me to take notice of,” Cornish wrote. “I have got it in for Weeks and will never let up on him until I get even.”
Later in court testimony, Cornish denied he was speaking in any way other than the sporting sense.
“When I said I would get even with Mr. Weeks I meant in an athletic way,” he testified. “He was a New York Athletic Club man, I was a Knickerbocker man, and it was athletic rivalry.”
Although the matter did not pertain to him, Molineux was upset by Cornish’s note and felt the honor of the Knickerbocker Club had been stained. He demanded that Cornish be fired. That matter was considered by the governing committee and Cornish was censured but not otherwise punished. Instead, the governing committee and leading members hosted a dinner in Weeks’ honor at which apology was made and accepted.
Molineux continued to agitate the alleged shortcomings and misdeeds of Cornish until he told the club secretary that if Cornish did not leave the club he would — never a good way to make a threat when leverage is weak. It was clear the club leadership was tired of Molineux’s trouble-making and faux civility; after all although he was a member of the club, he was a legacy. It was his father’s quite notable and numerous wartime achievements that earned the family entrĂ© to that elite circle.
Without debate Cornish was retained by the club, and on December 20, 1897, good to his word, Molineux resigned.
The evening of his resignation, Molineux and Cornish met on the stairs of the club house. “Cornish called Molineux a vile name and taunted him with his failure to procure Cornish’s discharge,” one contemporary report states.
Molineux joined the New York Athletic Club where Bartow Weeks, who would later come to play a central role in the case, was in charge. The next time Molineux and Cornish saw the other, it was in court.

A Mysterious Gift


Cornish was still at work on the afternoon of Christmas Eve when a small parcel was delivered to him in his office. There was no return address and it was sent from the city’s General Post Office. Aside from the anonymity, the only odd thing about the package was that the sender misspelled the address, writing “Fourty-third Street” rather than Forty-third.
Beneath the brown wrapping was a robin’s-egg blue box, indicating it came from Tiffany & Co. Opening the package, Cornish found an unusual present: A trial-size bottle of bromo-seltzer manufactured by a company in Baltimore, near Camden Yards (The buildings on the label below are Camden Station and Camden Yards long before the ballpark was built).
“The box also contained a small silver bottle holder, shaped like a candlestick, about 2 inches in diameter and about the same height,” wrote The New York Times. “The bottle rested in the bowl.”
There was no card from the sender, as one would expect. Thinking that the sender simply forgot to enclose a card, Cornish saved the wrapper in hopes that he might identify the sender by the handwriting.
Kate G. AdamsCornish took the gift, or what he perceived to be a gift, to the home he shared with his widowed aunt, Kate Adams, 52, and her daughter, Florence Rogers.
“Oh, some bashful girl has sent you a gift,” teased Kate, testified both Cornish and Florence later.
Cornish put the gift aside, remarking that the next time anyone had a headache, the remedy would be near.
Christmas came and went and the strange gift was forgotten until December 28, when Kate, who suffered from ill health due to a hernia, awoke with a headache. She was reminded by her daughter of the bromo-seltzer. When Florence could not open the bottle, she summoned Cornish.
bromo seltzer adSome of the bromo-seltzer had apparently dried around the lip and cap and it was Cornish’s athletic ability that finally opened the bottle with almost-ominous crack. Stirring a teaspoon of the bromo into a glass of water, Cornish gave the mixture to Kate who took a drink. Commenting upon the peculiar taste of the mixture she put down the glass.
“This horrid stuff! What have you given me?” were Kate’s last words.
Whereupon Cornish remarked “why that stuff is all right” and took a big slug of what remained in the glass.
Within minutes Kate was lying near death on the floor of her bathroom, her face taking on a bluish tinge common with certain poisons. Her eyes had rolled up into her head and her mouth was slack-jaw. Cornish was collapsed in an armchair, obviously in great distress.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

A neighbor, Dr. E.F. Hitchcock, was summoned to the Upper West Side brownstone. Even though Hitchcock stood by helplessly during the final moments of Kate’s death agonies and watched as Cornish suffered for stupidly poisoning himself, he felt the need test Cornish’s theory himself and touched the edge of the headache powder bottle to his lips.
The Times reported that Hitchcock was attacked by the same symptoms as Cornish and Kate, and directed a servant, who the press felt obliged to point out was “a negro boy,” to fetch another doctor.
That physician, E.Samuel Potter, came from his nearby home, finding one dead patient and two very ill ones. Kate’s face was blue, or cyanotic, and there was froth around her lips. Her countenance indicated her final moments on earth were decidedly unpleasant.
Cornish was seated in an overstuffed chair; Potter testified he “was pale and ashen. He had the appearance of having passed through a long illness.” Dr. Hitchcock was self-medicating with whiskey in an attempt to mitigate his self-destructive impulsivity. The physician later admitted in court he was not aware of any poison for which whiskey was an effective antidote, but said that the three draughts he imbibed helped him recover.
Until the murder weapon was removed from Dr. Hitchcock’s possession by the coroner, the medical man continued to test his theory that the bottle contained cyanide. His research methodology could easily have made him a murderer, as well.
“I gave the bottle to eight different persons who came into my office this afternoon, and without saying another word, asked: “‘What does that smell like?’ the not-too-bright doctor said later. “The answer invariably was: ‘It smells like bitter almonds.'”
The physician was probably prevaricating. While cyanide is associated with a slight almond scent, the ability to smell it is tied to a recessive gene.
The Merck Manual lists seven different compounds that most commonly make up the cyanide class of chemicals, although there are many more. The class contains both mineral and vegetable poisons, some of which may surprise readers (a brief internet search reveals that cattle are particularly vulnerable to accidental exposure as some of their favorite foods — sorghum and Sudangrass — naturally produce hydrocyanide). Prussian blue, the key component of any blue dye or paint, is made from potassium ferrocyanide, yet another of the cyanide family.
Mercuric cyanide is equally deadly and can be found among any serious gardener’s supplies; however, combined with water, mercuric cyanide forms the even more potent hydrocyanic (prussic) acid in gas form. The Nazis used prussic acid in their death camps.
The one thing that all cyanides have in common is a basic compound of carbon and nitrogen. That particular molecule is what makes the chemical poisonous. Death from inhalation — the most common form of exposure — or ingestion can occur within one minute, and unless specific modern antidotes are used, the patient will usually endure a painful agonal period lasting no more than a quarter-hour.
The U.S. National Institutes for Health provides a succinct exposition of the effects of mercury cyanide exposure. The end may be swift, but the victim’s final minutes are particularly gruesome:

Symptoms include tightness and pain in chest, coughing, and difficulty in breathing; cyanide poisoning can cause anxiety, confusion, dizziness, and shortness of breath, with possible unconsciousness, convulsions, and paralysis; breath may smell like bitter almonds. Ingestion causes necrosis, pain, vomiting, and severe purging, plus the above symptoms. Contact with eyes causes ulceration of conjunctiva and cornea. Contact with skin causes irritation and possible dermatitis; systemic poisoning can occur by absorption through skin.

Physically, the powder in the bottle little resembled bromo seltzer, Hitchcock told the Times.
“Anyone who knows the first thing about bromo seltzer can see at a glance at the stuff in the bottle that it is not that drug,” lectured Dr. Hitchcock, who was obviously one of those who knew very little about bromo seltzer. “The grains are about the size of table salt, whereas the genuine bromo comes in rough, irregular grains, or rather lumps.”

The Real Target

Even for someone who had just been through such a terrible ordeal, Cornish acted strangely after Kate’s death.
Leaving Potter and a houseful of gawkers, Cornish — witness to a serious crime — left the murder scene, but not to report what he saw. At least not first. Along with Hitchcock, Cornish visited a local undertaker and there he and the doctor parted. Instead of going to the police, Cornish went the office of Assistant District Attorney John F. McIntyre and reported the death.
From there Cornish visited a friend named Yocum — a chemist by profession — who prevailed on Cornish to take some whiskey, which the athletic director was unable to keep down. Then Cornish proceeded to the office of his cousin Louis H. Cornish, who was also related to Kate, and informed him of her death. From thence Cornish went to the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, where he lay down upon the bed in Yocum’s room.
“During the whole of his trip down town and return Cornish had been ill, the journey being marked by frequent interruptions necessitated by the condition of his stomach and bowels,” was how the New York Court of Appeals later described the journey.
Cornish’s behavior surprised District Attorney Asa Bird Gardiner. Gardiner, considered a brilliant legal scholar despite an extraordinarily flawed character, has a legacy as a public servant which includes protecting his cronies in Tammany Hall from corruption probes, being prosecuted unsuccessfully for that crime himself, his firing by then-Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, prosecuting on false charges one of the first African-Americans appointed to West Point, and refusing to return his Medal of Honor when an apparently routine audit of records showed his actual conduct did not merit that award.
Tracked down at a Tammany event by New York reporters hot on the story, Gardiner showed some frustration with Cornish’s behavior, but also hinted that the case was not as mysterious as it appeared on its face.
“The case was reported at my office before the police had heard a word about it,” he said. “Mr. Cornish called in person shortly before 1 o’clock this afternoon, and told us how Mrs. Adams had died, and his suspicions regarding the sending of the poison. There is no question in my mind that the intention to was to kill Mr. Cornish and not Mrs. Adams.”
Gardiner was mum about what specifics Cornish had supplied, and the coach vehemently disputed the DA’s account that he had named a possible suspect.
“I can think of absolutely none,” Cornish said when asked if he saw any motive. “I cannot conceive of anything that I have ever done that would make a person want to kill me.”
Within a few days it was made public that Cornish had, in fact, immediately thought of Molineux as the most likely — the only, really — killer.
“The thought just came over me in an instant, and I said when I thought of Molineux that he was just the fellow who sent it to me,” was how the investigator’s note, admitted during the inquest, read.

Running Down Leads


The work of the investigators was lead by Capt. George W. McClusky, chief of the detective bureau, who quickly confirmed Gardiner’s claim that Cornish was the intended target. While the early reports show detectives apparently chasing their tails, within the week McClusky announced that significant progress had been made on the case. Numerous people had been eliminated from suspicion, and clues to the identity of the poisoner were coming to light.
“I have definitely ascertained that the package was mailed on Dec. 23 in one of the receivers on the Broadway side of the General Post Office,” he said. “I know the factory which manufactured the silver holder and store in which it was sold.” At the time, McClusky, a closed-mouth cop with a habit of fighting with reporters desperate for a nugget of news, did not share that the manufacturer and retail store were in Newark.
Detectives tracked down the manufacturer of the silver bottle holder from a trademark on the item, whereupon silversmith Frank A. Lebkuecher pointed out that the holder was meant to contain matches. He also disputed the current theory, pushed to the point of a near-guarantee by Assistant DA John F. McIntyre, that the poisoner was a woman. The police had not subscribed to that angle, but there was much speculation in the press that the writing on the wrapper was from a feminine hand.
“The statements calling the article a vial holder are wrong,” Lebkuecher said. “It is intended for a match or a toothpick holder, which is a man’s article and not a woman’s. The holder would not ordinarily be purchased by a woman unless she intended it for a present to some man.”
Since the poison was delivered as a present, Lebkuecher’s theory shed no light on the matter. However, the holder was a new item and fewer than 50 had been sold in the New York area, including one to a store in Newark. The young clerk who sold the gift to the killer described a man wearing a wig and fake beard as the purchaser. She wavered back and forth over the course of the case as to whether or not the man was Molineux, thanks in part to Molineux’s decision to shave off his rather large mustache.
“He was a man of about 40, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with light brown hair almost red, and a stubby red beard,” the girl testified. “He had a heavy, harsh voice and gentlemanly manner.”
The salesman at the store where the wig and beard were bought, however, said the buyer was Molineux. He remembered the sale because of the price of the sandy-reddish beard was high: $8.75.
“He was very particular,” the elderly man told the press. “He wanted the beard to ‘look natural.'”
The manager of Tiffany & Co. snootily defended the company’s reputation by pointing out the box was obviously reused because it had no white satin ribbon and that so many purchasers leave the store with the iconic box that it would be impossible to track down that particular one. And most important, silver items sold by Tiffany were made by none other than Tiffany.
The Emerson Company of Baltimore, makers of the bromo seltzer, told investigators that while the bottle was one of theirs, the label was not. It was printed in black ink, whereas Emerson used only blue. Just where the label did come from was never revealed, but it may have been clipped from a magazine. What was first thought to be dried powder around the lip of the bottle turned out to be paraffin wax, which Emerson did not use in its bottling process.
As expected the autopsy and subsequent chemical tests revealed that the substance in the bottle was bromo seltzer and mercuric cyanide. The glass itself containing the poison sediment could not be tested, however. It was discarded along the way by the coronor’s physician who did not think it was needed because police had the bottle. That mistake caused problems for prosecutors who needed it to establish the corpus delicti. Its loss destroyed an essential link in the chain tying the poisoner to Kate Adams. She had been killed by gas of hydrocyanide, which would have been detectable in the glass. However, the bottle contained powdered cyanide of mercury; the state was arguably without the murder weapon.
(The missing link resulted in a bit of courtroom drama in what was otherwise a fairly dull trial: Cornish was compelled to pantomime how he filled the glass with water, added the teaspoon of poison and stirred it. Later in the trial, the state proved that water and mercuric cyanide combine to form hydrocyanic gas by having a chemist mix a weak batch in the courtroom. The sample was then passed to the jury to smell.)
The chemist who analyzed the powder speculated that the poisoner was sophisticated because the mercuric cyanide had been crushed by mortar and pestle from its usual crystalline form to a powder, obviously without killing the maker.
“The instances in criminal annals wherein hydrocyanic acid has been used as a poison are extremely rare,” said Dr. W.H. Birchmore, an expert chemist and recognized authority on cyanides. “The rarity of such cases is undoubtedly due to the great danger in handling the poison. It is an extremely risky and dangerous piece of business to make hydrocyanic acid and there is hardly a drug clerk in New York who would undertake to prepare the stuff.”

The Odd Death of Henry Barnet


Meanwhile at the Knickerbocker Club, members were becoming concerned that someone was trying to kill them. While an attempt on Cornish’s life could come from anyone, they were troubled by the similarities between Cornish’s attack and the sudden and tragic death of club member Henry C. “Barney” Barnet back in November.
A heavyweight wrestler, Barnet was small, but built as solid as a fireplug. He had no known enemies, and, according to Molineux, was a very close friend of his. Barnet had lived at the Knickerbocker Club for several years and had a predilection for patent medicines. He he had a reputation for using Kutnow’s Powder For Good Health and was always a source of unspecified “male vigor” supplements for his fellow clubmen.
On Nov. 1, Barnet received a free sample of Kutnow’s Powder, purportedly from the manufacturer. He took a dose and immediately fell ill.
“I went to his room and he said: ‘Moore, I think I have been poisoned,'” Barnet’s valet Joseph Moore told the coroner’s jury investigating Kate Adams’ murder. “He pointed to the wastebasket and said: ‘Some of that damned stuff.’ I wet my finger and took a taste of it, and it was very bad. It tasted like I had a mouthful of pennies.”
Dr. Phillips, who would later call on Cornish and Kate Adams, attended Barnet in the first days of what became a terminal illness. He testified at the coroner’s inquest and at Molineux’s trial that Barnet believed the powder had caused his illness. A Dr. Douglas, who took over the case, later corroborated Phillips’ statements.
Douglas sent the suspect powder to a chemist who quickly ascertained that the substance contained cyanide of mercury; “enough to kill a regiment,” he said. However, Douglas took no further action, except to ask Barnet’s nurse to find the wrapper. He was convinced that Barnet was stricken with diphtheria, which has symptoms in common with cyanide poisoning. Further, Douglas treated his patient with calomel, which is little more than straight mercury.
Barnet lingered for several days before dying. Despite Barnet’s repeated insistence that he had been poisoned, Douglas opted not to perform an autopsy and signed the death certificate with “cardiac asthenia, caused by diphtheria” as the cause of death. Asthenia is doctor-speak for “absence of strength, vigor or force. It is a symptom, difficult to define, with a set of vague sensations, different for each patient.”
To qualify as myocardial asthenia, the symptoms must be present for more than one month. Barnet was dead in less than two weeks. Douglas failed to report the death to police until he was contacted after Kate Adams’ death or to follow the law requiring diphtheria deaths to be reported to health officials.
In his defense regarding treatment, Douglas said he knew that chemical tests on Barnet would reveal mercury that he prescribed in accordance with accepted practice at the time. As far as confirming murder, that was impossible. The results would be hopelessly contaminated and no conclusion could be drawn. He also discounted the cyanide poisoning angle simply because Barnet lived more than a week after being exposed (He did not comment on diagnosing asthenia without sufficient evidence).
A subsequent autopsy confirmed the presence of mercury in Barnet’s body, which meant nothing, but eager officials put down as proof of murder anyway.
The notoriety of the case spread across the nation and was noticed by the general manager of Kutnow’s Powder Co., who contacted NYPD to let them know his company did not send unsolicited samples and Barnet had never asked for any. However, he told them, he did send a sample to Harry Cornish at a stationery store which rented mailboxes.
Cornish denied renting the box and the letter to Kutnow’s, written on blue paper with a curious interlocking crescent watermark, did not match his signature. Nor could police tie him with the paper, which was the same as the kind used by the New York Athletic Club. The store owner also told police that Cornish was not the man who rented the box, which regularly received shipments of patent medicines for impotence, purported aphrodisiacs and “marriage guides.”
This did not surprise McClusky, who, although he had not eliminated Cornish as a the killer, was already pursuing another avenue with a more-promising suspect. It turns out that Barnet and Cornish shared one thing in common: They had each incurred the wrath of Roland Molineux.

Cherchez la femme


Having narrowed their suspects to Cornish and Molineux, investigators began looking at motive. Regarding Kate Adams’ murder, that could be explained as an attempt by Molineux to kill the man he saw as some sort of rival. Cornish had no reason to kill Kate. By all accounts they got along well and Kate had opened her home to him after he lost his apartment at the Knickerbocker due to his demotion.
Interviews with Knickerbocker Club members supplied the possible reason Barnet was murdered. It was an open secret at the club that Molineux had lived as man and wife with Blanche Cheeseborough under her surname at a local boarding house until the pair separated after she rejected his marriage proposal. Barnet stepped in to fill the void and sealed his fate.
The relationship between Blanche, Barnet and Molineux was complex and stretched from mid-1897 until Barnet’s death. The quickest way to summarize it is to quote how Assistant D.A. James W. Osborne explained it to the jury at Molineux’s trial.
I propose to show that from November 1897 to January 1898, the defendant and the woman he afterward married, lived together at 251 W. 75th St. and that Blanche Cheeseborough then went to live at 257 West End Ave., and lived there alone, and that the defendant dropped out of sight and was not heard of until they were married. And I propose to show that there was another caller at the West End house, and that he was H.C. Barnet.

Molineux claimed that he had introduced Barnet and Blanche and that while he did not think Barnet was in love with his paramour, “it would not surprise me if he was.”
Most damning was a letter written by Blanche to Barnet when she learned of his illness that could certainly be interpreted as from someone with a more-than-platonic attachment.

I am distressed to learn of your illness. I arrived home Saturday and was exceedingly sorry to know that you have been so indisposed. Won’t you let me know when you are able to be about? I want so much to see you. Is it that you do not believe me? If you would but let me prove my sincerity. Do not be cross any more, and accept, I pray you, my very best wishes. Yours, Blanche.

Molineux, in testifying before the coroner, stated that when he learned of Barnet’s illness he communicated the fact to Blanche and it was agreed between them that she should send Barnet some flowers. Molineux also asserted that he bought the flowers himself, and, although he assumed that a card or letter would be sent with them, he never knew of the letter.
He did admit he was aware that Blanche had taken dinner with Barnet, gone to shows, and on one occasion, was Barnet’s guest at a Knickerbocker Club dinner. “And while there, was one of several people who went to Barnet’s room and drank wine,” the Court of Appeals felt compelled to add.
The government’s case against Molineux was strengthened with the news that a little more than two weeks after Barnet’s death, Molineux announced to friends that he had a “sudden and romantic engagement to be married on the succeeding Tuesday.” Molineux and Blanche were married on November 29, thus removing any way to compel Blanche to tell her story.
After Molineux was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, she wrote a letter to the New York Times denying any relationship beyond friendship.
“The whole accusation brought against me regarding Mr. Barnet was one huge fabrication, grossly and atrociously false,” she said. “Every scrap of so-called evidence, every innuendo, every insinuation wherein the District Attorney sought to connect my name with Mr. Barnet and to show the existence of something more than an ordinary friendship, originated in his own very convenient and elastic imagination.”

Arrest and Trial

Two months after Kate Adams’ murder, the Coroner held his inquest. Because he was mentioned in the case Molineux was represented by an attorney — Bartow Weeks. It was probably one of the longest and most contentious such hearings in New York history. While Weeks could not directly question witnesses, he was allowed to suggest questions to the coroner.
Harry Cornish was a terrible witness for the state and had a rough time on the stand. He gave the lame excuse of being a gentleman for retracting his claim Molineux poisoned Kate. Eventually Osborn was able get Cornish to confirm he had indeed blamed Molineux on the day of the murder.
“It is said that Cornish, by his attitude on the stand and his unwillingness to accuse anybody, as he said, without any proof, has antagonized the District Attorney, and he means to get even with him by badgering him as much as possible,” the Times reported.
After a two-week inquest which included much of the evidence described above, Molineux was arrested in the courtroom and charged with Kate’s murder. He was not charged with murdering Barnet, a case that was impossible to prove as it was based mostly on hearsay.
Molineux’s first trial began December 1899 after months of legal wrangling that saw grand jury indictments quashed for clerical errors, which resulted in a 15-minute breath of freedom for the defendant before he was returned to the Tombs. Concerns about the competency of three witnesses because they were black, and an expert who was an agnostic had to ironed out (All were allowed to testify, but the agnostic handwriting expert was barred from appearing in another case in New York City some months later).
There were a couple of sessions where ladies were removed from the gallery because of the testimony about the patent medicines and risque magazines, but for the most part the first trial of Roland Molineux was terribly boring. The best way to tie Molineux to the mailboxes, Kutnow’s Powder and numerous letters that inclupated him was expert testimony from handwriting experts. For the better part of 13 weeks the experts talked about similarities and differences between the various letters and Molineux’s handwriting.
Keeping track of which letter proved what was difficult, as the New York State Court of Appeals demonstrated, and explains why we will not be going into detail on that evidence. Readers are welcome to skip this part, as it is included here only to show the complexity of the evidence.


…Some of the mail addressed to this box 217 was never called for. Part of it consisted of four letters, the envelopes of three of which bore the post office box number of Von Mohl Co., of Detroit, and the fourth of which bore the post office box number of Dr. Fowler, of Moodus, Conn. These were marked 58, 61, 62 and 63 in the so-called prime series.

Nine letters and communications were written in the name of H.C. Barnet. These, together with five “Barnet” envelopes, comprise the so-called “Barnet” series and are marked B, B2, C, F, H, I, J, K, M, N, O, P, Q and R respectively. “B” is an order for Dr. Rudolphe’s specific for impotence, received by Dr. Fowler June 1st, 1898, and “B2” is the envelope in which it was mailed. “C” is a letter to the Marston Remedy Co., dated May 31st, 1898, writing for one month’s treatment for the same trouble. “F” is a letter to Cameron Co., received by them June 1st, 1898, asking for “Book,” and “J” is the envelope in which it was mailed. “H” is a letter to Marston Co., received by them June 6th, 1898, asking for marriage guide, and “K” is the envelope in which it was mailed. “I” is the so-called “diagnosis blank” sent by Marston Co. in answer to the request for marriage guide, and returned to Marston Co. on the 4th or 5th of June, 1898, in the name of Barnet, but filled with answers which are said to accurately describe Molineux and not Barnet. “M” is a letter to Von Mohl Co., received by them June 1st, 1898, requesting “five days’ treatment,” and “N” is the envelope in which it was mailed. “O” is a letter to the “Sterling Remedy Co.,” received by them June 6th, 1898, asking for “Book.” “P” is a letter to G.B. Wright, Marshall, Mich., written about June 1st, 1898, asking for prescription, and “R” is the envelope in which it was mailed. It may be noted in passing that none of these “Barnet” letters contain any reference to any powder or substance which was used or, so far as appears, could be used, in mixing with, or in the administration of, the poison by which Barnet and Mrs. Adams are alleged to have been killed.

We now come to the “Cornish” letter box and the correspondence written in the name of Cornish…Each of these three letters, Exhibits “D,” “E” and “G,” was written upon a peculiar paper of “egg-blue” tint, bearing a “tri-crescent emblem.” The same kind of paper was used for the so-called “Burns” letter (Exhibit 2) which was received June 1st, 1898, by one Agnes Evans, acting for Dr. James Burns, who was requested to “send remedy” to Roland Molineux, Jersey street, Newark, N.J. Molineux admits having written the “Burns” letter…


As one might expect, the experts drew so many varying conclusions — eliminating Molineux as the source of handwriting on this letter but being unable to do so on that envelope — that it must have been difficult for jurors to keep them straight. On the other hand the amount of evidence aided in the handwriting analysis.
“I have never had a case in which there was so much material on which to base a conclusion,” said Albert Osborne, generally regarded as one of the giants of graphology. “This is because of the use of the same words so often in the letters sent for various drugs.”
Osborne, no relation to the prosecutor, opined that all of the Barnet letters and Cornish letters were written by the same person who wrote the address on the poison package, and that they were the same as Molineux’s known exemplars.
Cornish was just as bad on the stand as he was in the inquest, and was treated as ruthlessly by Osborn on direct examination as he was by Weeks on cross, who made the most of Cornish’s reluctance to publicly name Molineux, as well as hinting that Cornish himself killed Kate.
The prosecution’s strategy was sound, if not a bit nefarious. Molineux was suspected of two murders, but only indicted for one, which obviously the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. To do so, the district attorney presented indisputable facts connected to the second “murder” that he did not have to prove to show that Molineux was capable, at least, of committing a murder.
Weeks had objected strongly to admission of anything related to Barnet, but the court ruled some of it admissible. Testimony was given about the relationship between Blanche, Barnet and Molineux, but the judge later admonished the jury to disregard it. It went to motive, which was not an element of the crime the state needed to establish, and could be considered prejudicial.
The jury convicted Molineux of Kate’s murder. Jurors said the only thing they considered was the handwriting evidence.
“That was a verdict no outsider could have accurately foretold,” the Times retrospective said. “It literally stunned a large share of the public.”
He was sentenced to death and immediately appealed the verdict.

Prior Bad Acts

Generally a defendant’s prior bad acts — earlier crimes, non-criminal but antisocial behavior, etc. — are not admissible in a criminal trial except when they bear a strong link to the case at hand. This advantage for the defendant helps ensure that jurors make their decision based only on the facts introduced at trial.
“The general rule of evidence applicable to criminal trials is that the state cannot prove against a defendant any crime not alleged in the indictment, either as a foundation for a separate punishment, or as aiding the proofs that he is guilty of the crime charged,” wrote the appeals court in tossing Molineux’s conviction. “This rule, so universally recognized and so firmly established in all English-speaking lands, is rooted in that jealous regard for the liberty of the individual which has distinguished our jurisprudence from all others, at least from the birth of Magna Carta. This rule, and the reasons upon which it rests, are so familiar to every student of our law that they need be referred to for no other purpose than to point out the exceptions thereto.”
Despite the doctrine’s purpose in “that jealous regard for the liberty of the individual,” there are exceptions to the rule. Generally speaking, evidence of other crimes is competent to prove the specific crime charged when it tends to establish (1) motive; (2) intent; (3) the absence of mistake or accident; (4) a common scheme or plan embracing the commission of two or more crimes so related to each other that proof of one tends to establish the others; (5) the identity of the person charged with the commission of the crime on trial.
The court found that the Barnet evidence failed to fit into any of the exemptions and ordered a new trial.
Without the Barnet evidence Molineux’s second trial was faster and even more dull. After a few weeks of testimony about handwriting, the jurors took 13 minutes to deliver a not guilty verdict.

Aftermath

In the wake of the trials, Harry Cornish decided for a change of scenery and a new career. He moved to Baltimore where he became involved in the brass manufacturing industry. In 1908 he married 36-year-old Mary M. Waite of Newark. The papers, alerted to the application for a marriage license, were present at the nondescript City Hall ceremony.
“At the time of the marriage Justice Barr said he was impressed by the appearance of the couple, both of whom were well-dressed and seemingly in good circumstances,” a witness said.
The couple honeymooned at Niagara Falls and from there disappears from the public eye forever.
Not to anyone’s shock, the marriage of Blanche and Molineux failed while he was in prison. Upon his release, Molineux went to his parents’ home in Fort Greene, while Blanche remained in a New York apartment. Eventually Blanche moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, obtained a divorce, returned to New York City and married her divorce lawyer. She still had enough notoriety to pique the public interest, so naturally she took to Vaudeville — as a singer. The papers reported a single performance in 1913, and she, too, faded into anonymity.
The year 1913 was also notable for Roland Molineux, who, after his release wrote four well-reviewed books, mostly centered on his Sing Sing death house experiences. His autobiographical play, The Man Inside, had a run at the Criterion Theatre. On Opening Night eve, Molineux appeared at city hall with 28-year-old Margaret Connell, his assistant, and was wed.
“He said he wanted a license at once because the marriage had been hurriedly arranged for to take place during the evening,” the Times told readers. “He said that his mother was dying and that it was her wish that the marriage could take place at once.”
The strain of producing his play apparently took its toll on Molineux. Soon into the run he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized at a private sanitarium. He was never again a free man.
In April 1914 during a stay at Mac Levy’s Health Farm outside the village of Babylon on Long Island, Molineux escaped the institution and ran through the streets of the village in a bathrobe. He attacked anyone he saw.
“Molineux knocked down each person he met until he came to Policeman Devin,” the United Press wrote. “Devin knew Molineux and started to talk to him. After a while Molineux became quiet and Devin ordered a cab. But by the time the farm was reached Molineux was violent again, and it was all the policemen could do to hold him.”
Molineux died at the age of 51 in the New York State Hospital for the Insane at Kings Park on November 10, 1917. No cause of death was listed in the obituary.

Monster in the Belfry

Theo Durrant

The macabre scene in the little room off to the side of the death house at San Quentin was a fitting end to a gory and violent series of crimes, but even the bizarre actions of Theo Durrant’s parents shed little light on what had caused the handsome medical student, polite almost to the point of condescension, to turn into a monster and murder two young women.
As the dead body of William Henry Theodore Durrant, his face reflecting the after-effects of execution by hanging, laid in repose in the state-issue coffin not four feet from their table, his parents sat down to a sumptuous meal of roast beef, fruit salad and tea, enjoying the repast as if they did not have a care in the world.
Perhaps they took comfort in the idea that their son went to meet his maker as an innocent man. The pair was unshaken their belief that Theo did not commit the heinous murders of Minnie Williams and Blanche Lamont, whose naked, ravaged bodies were left hidden in a San Francisco church. If so, then they were the only ones who did, for even as the date of his execution neared, Durrant’s Baptist minister admitted he had trouble believing Durrant’s claim of unjust persecution. In response, Durrant converted to Catholicism.
The jurors who convicted Durrant of murder certainly had no trouble with the state’s case — they took just five minutes to return from their deliberations with a guilty verdict.
In 1898, Durrant went to the gallows without admitting any guilt, and nothing in his many statements to the press shed any light on his motivation to kill.
The public, though, was not really interested in what made Durrant a sexual murderer; they simply labeled him a monster.

Theo and Blanche

The epitome of late 19th century femininity and sexuality, 18-year-old Blanche Lamont was probably very pleased when Theo Durrant started courting her.
He was certainly a catch. In addition to attending medical school, Durrant was the assistant superintendent of the Sunday school at Emanuel Baptist Church in San Francisco. He was a member of the California Signal Corps, the contemporary equivalent of the National Guard. Everyone thought he was quite handsome, gallant and gentlemanly. He was courteous to the young and old alike, and as a student at Cooper Medical College, his future appeared bright.
Born in Montana but living with her aunt and uncle near Emanuel — with one “m” — Baptist Church on 21st Street, Blanche was young, but she was not naive. She knew she was attractive to men and took care to keep herself that way. Blanche dressed well and was studying at the Normal School just up the road from Cooper Medical College to be a teacher. The only known picture of Blanche appears to be taken from a school group photo where she looks ahead confidently, showing just a whisp of a smile.
The photo only hints at what the press repeatedly described as her “doe-like eyelashes.”
So it came to be on a crisp April morning in 1895 that Theo and Blanche met up at the electric trolley stop near their respective homes on their way to school. Both were well-noticed by the other riders on the tram that morning. Blanche wore a billowing black skirt topped with a fashionable Basque jacket and a wide-brimmed hat that tied beneath her tender chin with a bright yellow ribbon.
Blanche LamontSitting close to Durrant, she stared ahead with a knowing smile on her face as he whispered sweet nothings in her ear and playfully slapped at her with the kid gloves she had removed upon boarding the train.
Very likely Durrant was making arrangements to meet Blanche that afternoon at church, but neither had religious intentions. It had become fashionable recently for young people to meet for clandestine sexual rendezvous in empty church rooms, and Emanuel Baptist had seen its share of such blasphemies. One of the church elders had mentioned this to fellow leaders, bemoaning, “I have heard stories of strange actions on the part of some of the young people of the church.”
Durrant and Blanche parted at the Polk Street stop and bade farewell as they went to their respective schools. Each spent a presumably non-descript day in their studies and before 2 p.m. Durrant was seen pacing anxiously near the trolley stop as if he was waiting for someone.
Witnesses said he nearly flew down the street in anticipation when he saw Blanche approaching. They boarded the tram together, joined by May Lannigan, who would later testify that she remembered the meeting vividly because “it was the man’s hair which attracted my attention. It struck me as unusual to see a gentleman with such long hair.”
Another witness placed the pair walking toward Emanuel Baptist Church a short time later. Walking into the wind caused Blanche’s clothing to cling tightly to her full-bodied form which offended the witnessing lady’s Victorian sensibilities and cemented the encounter in her mind. The woman did not offer a suggestion of what Blanche should have done in the situation.
The last person to see Blanche alive was Caroline Leak who saw Durrant open the church’s heavy oak door and hold it as Blanche entered. At the last minute the wind caught the door and almost caught Durrant’s fingers as it slammed shut.
The newspapers that covered the murder of Blanche Lamont stated that the young lady, worldly yet demure, did not part with life and honor without a struggle,” and that a “sexual outrage had probably occurred after death.”
None of that was known to church choral director George King as he entered the sanctuary to practice organ sonatas some three hours after Durrant and his victim He had barely seated himself at the instrument and begun to pump the pedals before a very pale and somewhat disorganized Durrant appeared before him, he testified later.
“I’ve been fixing a gas jet upstairs,” Durrant explained. “Be a good fellow and go to the drug store and fetch a Bromo Seltzer.”
King complied and within moments of his return with the tonic, Durrant’s features took on their normal, handsome appearance. Durrant bade his friend farewell and strode out into the cold evening air.
As King practiced his Bach, the naked corpse of Blanche Lamont was hidden high above him, dark purple bruises on her neck a silent testament to the rage of the fiend who killed her, and then laid her out as medical students do with their cadavers — her head propped between two blocks of wood and a third under her neck, lifting her chin.
After he had finished raping Blanche’s dead body, Durrant took her arms and folded them across her naked breasts as if to protect her modesty. He then left the bell tower and closed the seldom-used trap door, leaving his grisly work to the dust and flies.
Less than five hours after he killed a woman in the bell tower, Durrant was back at the Emanuel Baptist Church for an evening prayer service. There he spotted Tryphena Noble, Blanche’s aunt. He inquired after the student teacher.
Tryphena looked worried as she told Durrant that she hoped Blanche would be at the prayer service that night because she had not returned home from school and her absence was most disturbing.

Suspicion

For some reason never explained, Tryphena Noble waited three days before she reported Blanche’s disappearance to San Francisco police. Immediately, suspicion fell on Durrant, who, on closer examination, seemed to be preoccupied with sex. He had confided to one classmate without prompting that he “had no knowledge of women,” and police learned that a young female parishoner had once been accosted in the church library by Durrant in, as she delicately put it, “his birthday suit.”
Contrasting Durrant’s claim of virginity, he bragged to other friends of his exploits in the brothels of Carson City and once boasted that he had raped a Native American woman.
Durrant did little to allay the suspicions that he was involved in Blanche’s disappearance.
“Perhaps,” he told police, “she has wandered from the moral path and gone astray.”
Durrant showed up unannounced at the home of Tryphena Noble and shared his fears that Blanche had been kidnapped by “white slavers” and forced into a life of prostitution. He vowed to rescue her from this horrid fate.
Down in the Tenderloin District Durrant tried to pawn some women’s rings but was unable to strike a deal with the pawnbroker. Shortly after this, Tryphena received in the mail three rings belonging to Blanche. They were wrapped in a paper bearing the name of George King, the church organist.
But without a body and no sign of foul play, the police could do nothing in the disappearance of Blanche except to hope that either the young woman would turn up alive, or that more clues to her fate would reveal themselves.

Theo and Minnie

Meanwhile, Durrant began paying attention to another church-going young lady, 21-year-old Minnie Williams. It was on Good Friday, April 12, 1895, that Minnie bade farewell to her boardinghouse companions and headed to a Christian fellowship meeting at the home of church elder. The boarders last saw Minnie at 7 p.m.
Minnie WilliamsA few minutes later Minnie was observed speaking sharply with Theo Durrant in front of the church. Their conversation was so heated that a man named Hodgkins felt the need to intervene.
“His manner was unbecoming to a gentleman,” Hodgkins said later. The peace restored, Minnie and Durrant entered the church together and Hodgkins went on his way.
Two hours later, Durrant arrived at the home of the Vogels, who were hosting the meeting. He appeared shaken and disheveled at the Vogel house and before joining his friends at the meeting, announced that he had to wash his hands. By the time the meeting broke up close to midnight, he appeared to have recovered himself.
The only odd thing anyone noticed was that on leaving the meeting Durrant said he was going to the church where he had “left something.”

Discovery

The next morning Durrant left San Francisco for a Signal Corps bivouac at Mount Diablo.
At the same time a group of ladies had gathered at the Emanuel Baptist Church to prepare for the Easter Sunday service by decorating the pews with flowers. The work was not difficult and it did not take them long to finish. With a few moments to spare the group decided to take a bit of refreshment in a room off the church vestibule used as a library.
No one was paying much attention as one of the ladies opened a cupboard door in search of teacups. With a horrible shriek, the woman took a step back and promptly fainted. The others in the room turned to look and what they saw sent the lot of them screaming in terror from into the street.
Their shouts prompted calls to the police who arrived on the scene and were directed to the library where they found the naked, brutalized body of Minnie Williams.
Minnie had been crammed into the cupboard. Her wrists were slashed, her breasts repeatedly stabbed and her underclothes had been forced down her throat with a stick.
The cuts on Minnie’s arms were so deep that not only had her killer sliced through the arteries, he had severed the tendons. The stab wounds to her breasts were made with a weapon of convenience, most likely a knife from the church kitchen. There was a difference of opinion as to whether Minnie had undressed herself willingly or if the killer had done so to facilitate his foul intentions.
“It appeared that the cold-blooded wretch had deliberately unfastened his victim’s dress that the knife might penetrate her flesh,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.
Eventually the coroner ruled that Minnie had been raped after death.
Police had but one suspect — Durrant — and the Chronicle led its Easter Sunday morning edition with a proclaimation that not only had Durrant killed Minnie Williams, but that the Sunday School teacher had probably murdered Blanche Lamont as well. The paper goaded the police into searching the church for clues to Blanche’s disappearance.
The authorities made a perfunctory search of the church on Easter Sunday, not expecting to find anything of substance. This was a church, after all, and Blanche had been missing for two weeks. It was impossible to hide a body there for so long without discovery, particularly because the church was busy preparing for Easter.
Then someone remembered the belfry. It was largely ornamental because it held no bell and thus no one had any reason to go up into the cupola. A close examination of the rusty trap door hinges showed that it had recently been opened.
Reopening the door the investigators were met by the smell of death and the loud buzzing of flies. A policeman hoisted a lantern up into the steeple and peered in.
It was the bloated, decaying corpse of Blanche Lamont that greeted the police. She lay naked and dead, her face “was fearfully distorted, the mouth being open, exposing the pearly teeth and attesting the horrible death the poor girl had died,” was how one paper reported the discovery.
By the end of the day a detective from the San Francisco police department had reached Mount Diablo and apprehended Durrant. The barbarity of the crimes elicited a rage on the part of the people of the city and an angry mob met the ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf.
“Only the presence of a large police contingent prevented a lynching,” wrote crime historian Harold Schechter.

Durrant on Trial

Theo Durrant’s trial began in the fall of 1895 and was front-page news in every big city newspaper across the nation. The mustachioed medical student/Sunday School teacher yielded excellent copy for the penny papers that reported daily on the exploits in the courtroom.
The Sweet Pea GirlLike many other killers, Durrant drew his share of admirers and was besieged by marriage proposals and love letters. He was gentlemanly and gallant in the courtroom to his female admirers; each morning Durrant accepted a bouquet of flowers from a pretty blonde woman the press dubbed “The Sweet Pea Girl of San Francisco.”
The prosecution’s case was straightforward and simple, albeit circumstantial.
The defense tried a variety of tactics including accusing the church pastor who spent significant amounts of time alone in the church and had access to every part of the building. They pointed out that no blood was found on Durrant or any of his clothing, and there was no indication he had destroyed any clothes in the time prior to the discovery of the bodies.
Prosecutors proposed that Durrant was naked during the murder of Minnie Williams, lending credence to the belief she had been willing sexual partner prior to her murder.
Doctors who examined Durrant for the prosecution and defense debated on the stand about the young man’s soundness of mind.
“It was not claimed that Durrant was insane,” wrote Matthew Worth Pinkerton in his account of the case in Murder in All Ages, published in 1898. “Yet that there was something morally defective in his makeup is apparent.”
Durrant was probably a budding serial killer of the disorganized type. As the name implies, Durrant very likely did not plan to kill Minnie or Blanche — they were simply targets of opportunity whose deaths were provoked by some unknown trigger.
Blanche’s body might never have been discovered and her case never solved if Durrant had taken more care to hide Minnie’s corpse. His actions were not merely sloppy, they were proof that his psyche had broken down and he was out of control. This is not the same as being legally insane as the experts for both sides testified.
The distinction was apparent to the jury, which rendered a guilty verdict before the courtroom had cleared for what was expected to be lengthy deliberations.
Durrant was sentenced to death.

“An Innocent Boy”

The appeals process slowed the wheels of justice and it was not until three years had passed that Durrant faced the hangman. In the intervening years Durrant’s attorneys had spared no effort to save his life, bringing up the details of his sordid sex life, drunken debauches on the Barbary Coast and twisted fetishes. Still, court after court upheld the convictions and sentence. When the U.S. Supreme Court let the verdict stand, he announced that he was “ready to die like a Durrant.”
On the morning of his hanging he declined to confess his sins to his priest because he said he was not guilty. Then he climbed the gallows, his arms strapped to his side, and proceeded to deliver a lengthy oration on his innocence, blaming his convictions on the press.
“I now go to receive the justice given to an innocent boy who has not stained his hands with the crimes that have been put upon him by the press of San Francisco,” he said.
As Durrant gathered his energy to continue his rant, the hangman slipped the hood over the head of the condemned man. From beneath the white bag, Durrant’s muffled voice continued:
“I do not look upon people now as enemies,” he said as the hangman adjusted the noose around his neck. “I forgive them as I expect to be forgiven for anything I have done…”
He paused briefly as the executioner slid the knot down the rope just behind his right ear. “I am innocent. I say now this day before God, to whom I now go to meet my dues, I am innocent…”
The hangman considered this a sufficient statement and pulled the lever which sprang the trap. Durrant dropped three feet below the gallows and he was dead immediately.
His body was placed in a black lacquer coffin and his parents were allowed to see their son. His handsome features were marred by the hanging. His blue eyes that some people claimed were pale to the point of glassiness bulged from his face and his blackened tongue protruded from between his lips.
It was thus that his parents received him in that small room off the San Quentin execution chamber, and he remained that way as they enjoyed their afternoon repast.
Durrant’s crimes were so heinous that no cemetery in the area would accept his remains. It took some time for his parents to find a cemetery in Los Angeles that would bury his ashes.