Archive for Turn of the Century

The Man without a Conscience

Henri Landru, murderer

He was shorter than most, with a bald head and a long, brownish-red beard which gave him the appearance of some mythical forest creature. His brows were thick and bushy and arched above his dark eyes, giving the impression that he was always shocked or surprised. By physical appearance, Henri Landru looked more like a clown than a killer who swindled more than 300 women out of their life savings.
 
But there was something special about this bourgeois second-hand furniture dealer without a conscience that vulnerable women found irresistible. And for 10 of them, their willingness to believe the lies Landru told them would cost them more than their meager fortunes — the price they paid for falling under the spell of this wretch was their lives.
 
Born of parents of modest means in 1869, Landru’s childhood and early years were nondescript. Young Henri was a bright lad who attended Catholic school and was admitted as a sub-deacon in the religious order of St. Louis en l’Isle. By his teen years Landru had realized that he was clever and glib with the ladies. In 1891, he seduced his cousin, Mademoiselle Remy, who became pregnant and bore him a daughter.
 
He was drafted and excelled in military life, rising to the rank of sergeant. Two years after enlisting Landru married Mlle. Remy, while he was quartermaster of the regiment at St. Quentin.

His Early Crimes

Upon discharge Landru went into business as a clerk. His employer, however, was unscrupulous and absconded with the money Landru had given him as a bond. Incensed with this blow which fate had dealt, Landru made a vow to get revenge through a life of crime.
 
Despite his standing as a deacon and member of the choir of his church, Landru became a part-time swindler. His targets were most often the middle-aged widows he met through his legitimate furniture business. Faced with the prospect of long, lonely, poverty-stricken lives, these women came to him to sell their possessions. Landru would prey on their fears and in addition to taking their possessions, wooed his victims and enticed them to let him invest their meager pensions, which he promptly stole.
 
The scam worked well until 1900 when Landru made his first appearance in a French courtroom, being sentenced to a two-year prison term for fraud.
 
For the next decade, Landru was in and out of prisons seven times — spending more time inside a cell than out. He remained married to Remy and together they had four children. Sometime around 1908, he apparently struck upon the scheme that would eventually bring him to the guillotine.
 
In that year, Landru, already serving a sentence in a Parisian prison for fraud, was brought to Lille to stand trial for another scam. He had placed a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper, portraying himself as a well-to-do widower seeking the companionship of a similarly situated widow. In return for some counterfeit deeds, Landru persuaded a 40-year-old widow to part with a 15,000-franc dowry. Madame Izore was left destitute and sought recompense through the courts. She would have to content herself with the knowledge that Landru would serve an additional three years, for the dowry (worth about $50,000 in current dollars) was gone.
 
He was released shortly before World War I, most likely with the understanding that he would re-enlist in the French Army. He had already driven his father to suicide over his lawlessness and left his family penniless and humiliated. Rather than serve his country in the middle of a horrific war, he drifted around the countryside, well aware of the fact that he had been convicted in absentia for various other offenses and sentenced to lifelong transportation to New Caledonia, in the Coral Sea west of Australia, certainly not the appropriate place for gentleman like himself, he thought.

Motivation

Once the war started, Landru, who was estranged from Remy, began the scams that led to his downfall. Perhaps it was the war with its heretofore-unknown measure of death that turned Landru into a murderer; perhaps it was the years spent in harsh French prisons, or perhaps it was something else.
The Earl of Birkenhead, eminent Oxford don (a professor or lecturer) and author of Famous Trials of History, discounted the theory that Landru was driven by bloodlust to kill his female suitors. “There seems to be no evidence of that,” he wrote in the 1929 follow-up to Famous Trials.

A man who embarks on this kind of adventure must shake himself free of entanglement…It is therefore inevitable that a proportion of the women would be difficult to shake off and some must have shown no great disposition to hand over their property. The obvious means of overcoming their attachment was to destroy them, and to do so was only too easy…We must therefore postulate that he was callous and inhuman — an assumption which offers no difficulty, seeing that his very mode of life was impossible for any other kind of man.

His method of killing is unknown, but evidence at his villa suggests that the slayings were most likely quick and clean, and that the victims were probably not defiled in any way. Lust was not his primary motive, and he is among the minority of serial killers where anger, revenge or sexual release are at best secondary motivators.

Landru’s Wives

In 1914 the following advertisement appeared in the Paris newspapers: “Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to matrimony.”
 
For a French war widow facing a life of loneliness and penury in the depressed economy of wartime France, such an advertisement must have seemed heaven-sent. Landru, who placed the ad, had no trouble meeting women. Determining just who Landru wooed and when is naturally difficult and by the dates of his murders, it is clear that he had multiple scams going at a time. His reliance on aliases helps muddy the picture.
 
The first woman to meet this predator was Mme. Cuchet, a 39-year-old woman with a 16-year-old son, Andre. Cuchet worked in a lingerie shop in Paris and was barely keeping her head above water when she made Landru’s acquaintance. He told her his name was Monsieur Diard and that he was an engineer. Their relationship flourished over time but was not without its ups-and-downs.
 
Landru’s scheme was almost revealed before it had a chance to flower after Cuchet and the man she called Diard had a falling-out. Cuchet begged her family and brother-in-law to accompany her to Landru’s villa near Chantilly, with the hopes of ironing out their differences. Landru was not in when they arrived, but the family apparently felt enough at home to search the the place. Her brother-in-law found a chest filled with many letters from other women, and informed Cuchet that her lover was a fraud.
 
She chose to disregard her family’s advice to dump Landru, and instead furnished a villa at Vernouillet, outside Paris and became estranged from her family. The last time Cuchet and Andre were seen alive was in January 1915. Shortly after the three moved into Vernouillet, Landru opened a bank account with 5,000 francs, which he claimed was part of his inheritance from his father. In all likelihood the money came from Cuchet. Soon after Cuchet’s disappearance, Landru’s wife was presented with Cuchet’s watch as a present.
 
His next victim was an Argentine named Mme. Laborde-Line, the widow of a hotelier. She told friends that she was planning to marry a charming engineer from Brazil, but frustrated with the red tape, the pair decided to dispense with the ceremony and move in together. Afterward a man that her former neighbors identified as Landru came back and collected her furniture, sending some to his villa and the rest to a garage. Laborde-Line was last seen in July 1915, when she arrived at the villa with her two dogs.
 
Mme. Guillin, a 51-year-old widow whose full name was Marie Angelique Desiree Pelletier, was last seen at the villa a month later. Also in 1915, Mme. Heon visited Vernouillet and disappeared. Whether or not there were others between the murders of Heon and 19-year-old Mlle. Andree Babelay, a servant girl who disappeared in early 1917 en route to visiting her mother, only heaven knows. Why Babelay was killed is also a mystery; she had no money of her own.
 
After Babelay disappeared, Landru left Vernouillet for a new villa in Gambais and promptly had a large cast-iron oven installed. He laid low for a time but soon returned to his murderous ways.
 
Landru had been courting Mme. Buisson, a wealthy widow, for nearly a year before he succeeded in creating an estrangement from her family. She moved with him to Gambais without her son, who went to live with his aunt. In April 1917, Buisson was seen for the last time.
 
His next victim at Gambais was Mme. Louise Leopoldine Jaume, who disappeared in September 1917. After her disappearance, Landru’s new neighbors in Gambais noticed black, noxious smoke pouring from his villa.
 
Mme. Annette Pascal, 38, followed Jaume by vanishing in the spring of 1918, and finally, Mme. Marie Therese Marchadier, an “entertainer” known among the non-commissioned officers of French Army as “La Belle Mythese” and who had retired to relative anonymity in Paris, was visited by Landru who wanted to purchase her furniture. A friendship blossomed and she accompanied the murderer to Gambais in late 1918 and promptly disappeared.
 
In all, at least 10 women and one boy (and two dogs) had disappeared after meeting Landru, yet no police had ever suspected him of any misdeeds. It would take a pair of anxious families to bring Landru at long last to justice.

The Arrest and Investigation of Landru


Landru had taken great pains to separate his victims from their families, but after their deaths, he took equally strong measures to reassure the families that their loved ones were well.
 
Most killers for financial gain do not destroy the evidence of their victims’ deaths. In insurance or inheritance scams, proof of death is often required — few killers want to wait a decade or so to collect their ill-gotten reward. But Landru obviously took great pains to cover up his crimes. He sought to avoid detection and make it look like his victims were still alive. Two of Guillin’s friends received postcards from Landru saying that Guillin was unable to write herself. He forged a letter from Buisson to her dressmaker and another to the concierge of her Paris apartment. Landru represented himself as the attorney of Jaume, who was divorcing her husband, and successfully closed out her bank accounts.
 
Two years after Buisson met Landru her son passed away. Obviously the family wanted to notify her, but was unable to find her. Her sister remembered that Buisson had whispered her intention of running away to Gambais with a “Monsieur Guillet.” She wrote to the mayor of Gambais, seeking help in locating either Buisson or Guillet. The mayor replied that he knew of neither of them, but perhaps she should meet the family of a Mme. Collomb, who was also missing in Gambais. She had vanished under similar circumstances. Collomb disappeared after meeting Landru in early 1917.
 
The tenant of the villa in question, the mayor told the family of Buisson, was not Monsieur Fremiet, the fiance of Collomb, or Guillet, the fiance of Buisson, but M. Dupont. However, when the police went to Villa Ermitage, as Landru’s estate was known, they could not find Fremiet, Dupont, Diard or Landru. The villa was unoccupied but recently lived in.
 
Mlle. Lacoste, Buisson’s sister, was not discouraged. She had seen “Guillet” so she began combing the streets of Paris near his old residence looking for him. In 1919, her search paid off. She spotted Landru coming out of a dry goods shop and followed him, only to lose him in the crowd. She returned to the store and found out that the man’s name was not Guillet, but Frimiet, and that he lived in the Rue de Rochechouart with his mistress. Immediately, the police were summoned and Landru was arrested.
 
But on what charge should he be held, the authorities wondered. Clearly murder was suspected, but where was the body? There was no evidence that Landru had killed anyone and the strong-willed killer was unwilling to discuss anything with authorities.
 
They returned to Gambais, where a thorough search was undertaken. The gardens were excavated looking for bones, but the only remains police found were those of a pair of dogs. They searched his old villa at Vernouillet and came up equally empty. All the police had to go on was a cryptic memorandum book where Landru had meticulously recorded his income and expenses.
 
But within the copious notes were several names that interested authorities. On one page was the entry: “A Cuchet, G. Cuchet, Bresil, Crozatier, Havre. Ct. Buisson, A. Collomb, Andree Babelay, Mme. Louis (sic) Jaume, A. Pascal, Mme Thr. Mercadier.” Buisson and Collomb were missing and the authorities soon learned that the whereabouts of the Cuchets were also in question. They suspected this was a list of victims. But again, they had no bodies.
 
Confident in the erroneous knowledge that he could not be convicted of murder without a body, Landru kept silent and refused to talk with police. For two years, authorities investigated the disappearances of his victims, yet Landru never admitted anything. Slowly, they learned that each of the women in the ledger met Landru through his marriage advertisements and disappeared. Stupidly, Landru recorded the purchase of one-way tickets from Paris to Gambais for each of his victims, while marking round-trip tickets for himself.
 
The gardens in Gambais and Vernouillet were dug up time and time again. Authorities tried to link Landru to purchases of acids and other chemicals, to no avail. Finally, neighbors at Gambais told authorities of the noxious fumes that often emanated from the kitchen. The stove that Landru had installed shortly after his arrival in Gambais was inspected and horrific evidence of murder was uncovered.
 
In the ashes police found small bones, undoubtedly human, as well as burned, but still recognizable fasteners of the kind worn on the clothes of French women. Landru had disposed of his victims by burning their remains. How they were killed was still a mystery, but what had happened to Mmes. Collomb and Buisson, as well as the nine others, was clear.
 
Two years after his arrest, Landru was charged with 11 counts of murder and set for trial.

France’s Trial of the Century


There is little doubt that Landru’s trial captivated his countrymen. Consider the time it occurred. He was arrested in April 1919 at his home in Paris with his mistress, 27-year-old Mlle. Fernande Segret, whom he had picked up on an bus in the city. France was still recovering from the bloodiest war in the history and the peace talks at Versailles were not going well for them. Shortages and economic depression abounded and a case that promised sex, gossip and gruesome killing was delightfully played up by the papers as a diversion from the dreary day-to-day life of post-war France.
 
Landru’s trial began in November 1921 and lasted nearly a month.
 
The French system of justice had been instituted in 1848 and while not, as is commonly believed, assuming the guilt of the accused until innocence is proven, it is heavily weighted against the person on trial. Not only does the chief judge of the three-judge panel serve as an interrogator, the French allow questioning of the accused for the sake of investigation in front of the jury during the trial. The French system also allows relatives of the victim to bring suit for damages during the course of the trial, and the victims’ legal counsel can question the accused and argue before the jury. Often the defendant is expected to rebut any adverse claims by witnesses immediately after the testimony concludes.
 
Clinging to his mistaken belief that he could not be convicted without evidence of a body, Landru’s defense was essentially to stonewall the court. Time after time he would refuse to answer questions and would reply that it was no one else’s business what he knew of their disappearances. For days he stood before withering interrogation by the court without changing his story.
 
“I have nothing to say,” he said over and over, much to the frustration of observers. Every time new evidence was unearthed, Landru merely shrugged his shoulders and denied everything or refused to discuss it.
 
“What of your relationship with Mme. Guillin?” he was asked in open court.
 
“I am a gallant man and will say nothing,” Landru replied to the exasperated magistrate. “I cannot think of revealing the nature of my relations with Mme. Guillin without the lady’s permission.”
 
During the course of the trial Landru’s health began to fail. He began to provide statements of “fact” in response to questions, but the prosecution easily refuted his allegations. His strategy was a tactical blunder, wrote Lord Birkenhead.
 
“Where explanations are obviously needed,” he wrote, “the failure to afford these explanations…will tend to confirm the inference.”
 
Landru’s impudence before the court clearly grated on the jury. His evasions and quickness to answer with sarcasm only succeeded in proving that he was the kind of man who would deceive women like his victims.
 
It took the jury just two hours – after nearly 25 days of testimony – to decide Landru had killed the 11 women. The penalty for such a crime was death.
 
French justice is swift. Just two months passed from the time of his conviction until Landru received word that his execution was imminent. The French system did not inform the condemned until very shortly before the execution.
 
The guillotine is a curious method of execution and although it is generally held to be humane, there is some question about how quickly one dies after being decapitated. Two doctors in the 1960s wrote that “death is not instantaneous. Every vital element survives decapitation…it is a savage vivisection followed by premature burial.” Drs. Piedlievre and Fournier go on to discuss how the brain is capable of breaking down complex sugars in the neurons into oxygen for as long as six minutes after decapitation.
 
Regardless, in February 1922, Landru was brought before the guillotine.
 
Landru bade farewell to his attorneys and presented them with some artwork he had drawn while in prison. Had they looked inside the frame, his attorneys would have found a written confession from Landru admitting his crimes and the means by which he disposed of the bodies, but this was not discovered until nearly five decades later. He declined to hear a Mass and rejected the traditional glass of brandy from his jailer. Landru indignantly refused to make a statement, saying the very question was an insult.
 
Landru stood before the guillotine, which had been the preferred form of execution in France since its revolution a little over a century before. He knelt down and within moments, the blade had fallen ending the life and crimes one of the coldest mass murderers of all time.

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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
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. He was sentenced to death and immediately appealed the verdict.
 
“That was a verdict no outsider could have accurately foretold,” the Times retrospective said. “It literally stunned a large share of the public.”

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.