Tag Archive for murder

Death and (Low) Taxes

On an overcast Tennessee morning about a month before the 1998 election, State Senator Tommy Burks was more concerned about the work to be done on his Putnam County farm than about the upcoming vote. There was no reason for him to feel otherwise.
A conservative Southern Democrat, Burks was highly regarded by his constituents and was almost assured of reelection. His Republican opponent in the race, Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron “Low Tax” Looper, had been so quiet during the election season that most folks in Burks’ district thought he was running unopposed.
Looper had a history of bizarre behavior. His reputation was such that Burks presciently expressed concerns to a friend about what Looper might do during the campaign.
Although he adopted the moniker “Low Tax” as an election gimmick, he eventually legally changed his name to include it. Looper believed because he was the only Republican in office in Putnam County, he was the victim of an ongoing political plot to ruin him. Worse than his paranoia was his ambition. He was frequently levying outrageous charges against perceived opponents or praising himself in lengthy press releases that he faxed across the country at county expense. Burks’s state Senate seat was supposed to be the next step in a journey that would end in Washington, D.C.
An alternative newspaper, The Putnam Pit, supported Looper and advanced his conspiracy theories. The paper remains convinced that Looper was set up by a Cumberland County political cabal.
His election to county office was more luck than anything Looper himself did. The Democrats had such a stranglehold on the seat that the GOP establishment did not even put up a candidate. Looper added his name to the ballot as a Republican without any knowledge of the party. However, the long-serving assessor was accused of malfeasance in office and was under a cloud of suspicion. Voters — but not as many as one might expect — simply chose the only other name on the ballot.
Low Tax was both corrupt and inept, although the ineptitude was far more troubling than over-staffing the office with political cronies and his own lackadaisical approach to showing up for work (He was enrolled in law school across the border in Georgia and would be absent from work for days at a time). Assessments were not recorded if they were made at all, tax records were not updated and Putnam County missed the state deadline to distribute tax bills, prompting the state to step in. Once an audit was completed the state took control over the office. Looper was left to manage his press releases and dream up new conspiracies.
Undeterred, Looper put his own name on the ballot to challenge Tommy Burks. The party considered the race such a lost cause that it provided no support. Looper did not want or need their help. He had a plan.

Murder

Even with a practically nonexistent opponent, Burks had planned a busy day of meet-and-greet in Putnam, Clay and Macon counties. Among the other things on the politician’s schedule, it was his daughter’s birthday and Burks was looking forward seeing his grandchildren for a celebration later that day.
A light rain was falling when Burks drove away from his two-story brick house and turned down Hog House Road to speak to farmhand Wesley Rex. Wes was on his way to a pumpkin field where a wagon had broken down. It was important for him to get the wagon fixed because on this day a group of elementary school children were coming on their annual pumpkin patch field trip.
Tenn. State Sen. Tommy BurksThey sat in their respective trucks and chatted about the chores for the day but stopped talking briefly as an older dark-colored car started down the road. After speaking for a minute, the two men went their separate ways. The strange car probably belonged to a constituent, they must have thought.
Wesley Rex was approaching the pumpkin field when he heard a “pop” sound, much like the backfiring of an engine. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the dark car approaching at high speed. He averted his eyes as the car zoomed past, trying to keep the dust out of his face, but not before getting a look at the man behind the wheel. Wesley did not think he had ever seen the man before.
He briefly considered the car, but quickly put it out of his mind as he set about fixing the wagon. As he headed back to pick up a forgotten tool, he passed Burks’s truck and noticed Burks had his head down. The truck was idling and Burks still had his foot on the brake. Wes had no reason to think anything was wrong at that point. Retrieving his wrenches, Wes started back toward the wagon and saw Burks was still sitting with his foot on the brake. This time, Wes thought something looked odd and stopped his truck. Burks’s head had dropped lower and his forehead was resting on the steering wheel.
Charlotte Burks was on her way to Cookeville when she saw Wes Rex driving toward her. She swerved to the side of the road as Rex slammed on the brakes and his truck slid on the gravel road.
“Miss Charlotte, something’s wrong with Burks,” Wes was saying, breathlessly. “He’s hurt awful bad. He’s bleeding from his ears.”
“Go get help!” Charlotte shouted at the teenager. “Call 911.”
Tommy Burks sat in his Ford pickup, his head resting on the steering wheel. There was blood everywhere in the cab and a glance by Charlotte revealed that Burks wasn’t just bleeding from his ears. Blood was flowing from a large gunshot wound to his forehead, just above his left eye. The back of his head was swollen. State Sen. Tommy Burks, popular politician and well-to-do hog farmer, was dead.

Looking for Looper


When Putnam County investigators arrived on the scene, they realized that they would not have jurisdiction in this case. Burks’s spread straddled two counties, and Burks had died just over the county line. They called in Sheriff Butch Burgess, District Attorney General Billy Gibson and the Cumberland County authorities.
Burks’s body was taken to the morgue where the medical examiner reported the senator had died from the single gunshot wound to his head. Death was almost instantaneous, the coroner told police.
The murder of a political candidate and long-time elected official prompted media inquiries from around the nation, and put Gibson and Butch Burgess in the center of a media storm. The word around town was that Looper had a hand in the crime, so reporters grilled them on the Putnam County Assessor’s status. The authorities would not commit.
“We have reached a point in the investigation where it is necessary to talk to Mr. Looper,” said one Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent cautiously.
What authorities weren’t saying was that Wesley Rex had positively identified Looper as the sole occupant of the dark-colored car he had seen on Hog House Road on the morning Burks was slain.
Wesley Rex’s ID only served to strengthen investigators’ suspicions. Looper was the only person authorities could find who had any plausible motive for shooting Burks. Rex’s positive identification put Looper at the top of a very short list of suspects and police made interviewing Looper their top priority.
But Looper was gone. His home on 4th Street in Cookeville was vacant and his car was missing. The media, both local and national, reported that a manhunt was on for the opponent of the deceased state senator from Tennessee.
Perhaps the most wanted man in America, Looper took a long road trip. Heading first to Little Rock, he bragged to an unbelieving former school-mate that he had killed his opponent and obliquely asked him to provide an alibi. The man, Joe Bond, testified that the word of “Loopifer,” as he was known in school, could not be trusted, so he discounted Looper’s claim. After borrowing a suitcase, Looper was on the road again before Bond saw the news and contacted police.
The fugitive headed across the Smokey Mountains to South Carolina, where he briefly talked to a former colleague in the Georgia House of Representatives where Looper served as a page (not as a legislative aide as he claimed on his resume). When she told him he was a wanted man, he seemed unperturbed, she said. Then he left, refusing to tell her his plans.
Putnam County authorities had Looper’s home under surveillance, never thinking that the assessor would simply return home and walk into their grasp. But that’s what Looper did. Acting like a man who had no reason to believe he was wanted for questioning in connection with a murder, Looper returned to his house at about 1 a.m. Friday morning, almost five days after Tommy Burks’s death.
Officer Michael Matt of the Cookeville police was sitting in a prowl car near Looper’s home when he saw Looper drive up in a dark Chevrolet. He radioed the news in as Looper went inside and disappeared from view for a few moments. He returned to the living room, where Matt observed him sitting in a chair reading his mail. In a few moments, TBI agents and investigators from Bill Gibson’s office showed up and summoned Looper outside. They placed him under arrest and took him to the Cumberland County jail.

Election

While Looper sat in jail, his political opponents and friends of Tommy Burks moved fast to have him removed from the ballot and his office as tax assessor. They quickly filed an ouster suit naming several Putnam County landowners as plaintiffs, charging that Looper’s mere arrest constituted moral ineptitude, one of several factors required for removal.
Charlotte Burks also took action to prevent Looper from winning her husband’s place in the General Assembly. She mounted an aggressive write-in campaign for the Senate seat, and picked up nearly every supporter who had previously endorsed her husband. Normally apathetic citizens took part in the campaign, working door-to-door to educate voters about Charlotte’s campaign. Stickers were printed to be affixed to ballots, handbills announcing the change were passed out and political ads were run in the local media.
Even the state GOP took the extraordinary step of endorsing Charlotte Burks.
Looper spent the day of the election in the Cumberland County jail and was handily defeated by Charlotte. Ironically, one the votes his alleged act cost him was his own: Looper had not voted early, and had not made arrangements for any absentee voting. In keeping with standard jail policy, inmates were not taken to the polls. Charlotte outpolled Looper 25 to 1.

Courtroom Antics

A week after his arrest, Looper appeared in court for the first time, entering a not guilty plea during his arraignment. Looper’s attorneys for the arraignment were Lionel Barrett, a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney described as “an institution around the criminal courts” and Jerry Burgess, a local lawyer who had once faced off against Gibson in the district attorney election.
Barrett was an ardent death penalty foe: “No circumstances, period, would ever make me favor the death penalty,” he said once. Barrett served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers twice and was the first recipient of the association’s award for “extraordinary effort” in defending capital murder cases. The award now bears his name.
(It is appropriate to point out that Barrett’s management of a Tennessee death row inmate’s was heavily criticized by the American Bar Association in a 2011 Journal article. The piece blamed Barrett’s lack of attention to the case as the major reason the convict could be executed. In the article Barrett agreed to the allegations made by the ABA Journal.)
A packed courtroom in Crossville was the scene of Looper’s preliminary hearing. Security was tight in the courthouse, and observers had to pass through several metal detectors and searches before they could enter the courtroom.
Looper was brought to the courthouse in handcuffs and leg chains, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. He changed into a suit before the hearing and was not handcuffed or shackled in court. He looked a little haggard, and it was clear he hadn’t been able to keep up his deportment. His face was drawn and pale, and there were noticeable dark patches under his eyes.
First up was the Coroner, Dr. Sullivan Smith, who described how Tommy Burks had been shot in the head with a 9mm weapon. Smith testified that Burks had been shot from close range by a gunman who fired from an upward angle. The bullet was recovered from Burks’s body and was in good shape for analysis.
Following Smith, Putnam County Election Chairman Perry Bartlett gave testimony that pointed toward the motive. Since Burks’ death on October 19 fell within 30 days of the November 3 election, state law required that his name be removed from the ballot.
“It’s such an obscure law that we didn’t know it existed before this occurrence,” he testified.
Gibson chose not to put farm hand Wesley Rex on the stand because his background as a special education student could have provided Barrett with grounds to challenge his competency. But Bill Gibson didn’t need Wes to take the stand because he had what was considered “a powerful and explosive witness”: Joe Bond, the friend of Looper’s whom he visited immediately after the shooting and to whom Looper allegedly confessed.
Looper’s sole emotional demonstration occurred when Gibson called Bond to the stand. He appeared visibly surprised when Bond appeared in the courtroom and consulted quickly with his attorneys. Bond was the prosecution’s final witness in the nearly three-hour hearing, but his testimony was by far the most damaging.
“He said ‘I did it, man. I did it,'” Bond testified under questioning by Gibson. “He said: ‘I killed that dude.'”
Bond confirmed the suspected motive when he testified that Looper had told him about the statute during his confession.
The judge didn’t have to deliberate long to determine that probable cause existed to charge Looper with first degree murder. After Looper was returned to the jail, Barrett tried to downplay the effect Joe Bond had on his case. Burgess, however, was a little more reticent.
“The state has produced a very powerful and explosive witness,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
While prosecutors took advantage of the holiday break to prepare their cases, Looper, in a move that he was to repeat several times during the next several years, fired his legal staff. Looper’s new defense attorney, Doug Trant was present when Looper appeared in court on February 5, 1999 to enter a plea.
The Honorable J. Steve Daniel of Murfreesburo, a 15-year veteran of the Tennessee bench, was named to oversee the case. Daniel had an impressive resume: He was former president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and the Tennessee Trial Judges Association. He spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, serving as the Reserve Military Judge for Kentucky and Tennessee and holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Daniel had been awarded the Outstanding Service Award by the Tennessee Judicial Conference in 1995.

Evidence and Allegations

Prosecutors got a break in the Looper case in early March when a road crew found a 9mm handgun along Interstate 40. Ballistic tests showed that the weapon was the gun that killed Tommy Burks. The pistol was in poor shape, but its serial number was readable and was quickly traced back to a close Looper friend – former Monterey Mayor and Assessor’s office employee John Bowden. Bowden acknowledged that he had once owned the gun, but said he had sold it in 1997 or 1998 to a flea market gun dealer. Bowden and Looper had been political cronies, and when Bowden was defeated in a December 1997 election, Looper hired him as a “tax investigator”.
A central part of Looper’s defense was his insistence that he was framed as part of a wide-reaching political plot, and as proof of that plot he offered the testimony of John Wayne Dedmon, 33, who had rented a room from Looper and worked off criminal charges of his own by serving as a police informant.
In 1997, Dedmon, facing charges of passing bad checks, began working for Gibson. He infilted a local gambling ring that was using pinball machines for gaming. However, Dedmon became angry when Gibson confiscated his earnings from the undercover work to cover his fines and restitution. He claimed that he secretly recorded the prosecutor asking the informant to “set him up,” meaning Looper. Gibson denied that any such conversation ever took place and some people who heard the tape said the voice was clearly not his.
Trant said that he intended to introduce the tape into evidence in Looper’s murder trial and a hearing was set by Daniel. But Dedmon vanished and the $42,000 Corvette he had purchased — with a worthless check –turned up abandoned.
“I am afraid that something bad has happened to my friend John,” Looper told a Nashville newspaper. “It could be that he has met with foul play.”
Something bad did happen to Dedmon, but it was of his own making. Dedmon, an admitted drug abuser, showed up at his mother’s home about a week later and in a fit of rage destroyed the windows of a parked car. A few hours later he was involuntarily committed to a Chattanooga psychiatric hospital.
Dedmon later appeared before Daniels and said he could not recall anything before the last few weeks. “I’ve been on drugs real bad,” he said as his role in the case ended.
Gibson allowed the deadline for seeking the death penalty to pass without posting a notice of intent. The Burks family had a strong say in Gibson’s decision, and said they felt life in prison in general population would be worse punishment than a solitary cell on death row.

Lawyers Go, Lawyers Come

At the next court hearing in July, 1999, approximately one month before the case was set to go to trial, Trant, a 20-year trial lawyer and former head of the Knox County Democratic Committee, told the court he could no longer represent Looper. He previously filed a motion citing irreconcilable differences with his client and made vague references to ethical concerns.
“I regret that I have to make this motion, but it has come to the point where I can no longer ethically represent Mr. Looper,” Trant told Daniel. Trant said defending the case in the manner Looper wanted would result in a violation of Tennessee Code of Professional Conduct which deals with representing a client within the bounds of the law.
Daniel granted Trant’s request, ordering him to file under court seal the exact nature of his ethical dilemma. Daniel agreed to a court-appointed attorney for Looper. Crossville attorney Larry Warner was appointed to act as defense counsel in the case. Through no fault of his own, Warner’s fate would be the same as all Looper’s previous lawyers.
The prosecution announced in court filings that TBI agents had found the Audi that Looper allegedly drove when he assassinated Burks. After the shooting Looper left the car at a repair shop, and then advised the shop to sell it and keep the proceeds. It was confiscated from the subsequent owner and turned over to the TBI.
Here and there, little bits of evidence turned up. A cashier at the drive-up window at Hardee’s in Crossville said a man matching Looper’s description caused a small scene shortly before the slaying; his order was incorrect and he sat at the drive-thru waiting for it to be corrected, the woman testified. When the order was complete, Looper “threw the money at the window,” she said.
Looper summoned the editor of the Crossville Chronicle and complained that he was not being represented fairly. Looper said he distrusted his court-appointed lawyers and that the case was not progressing as he wanted. Looper was reluctant to talk about specifics of his case, except to say that his family had found two other attorneys that he would like to see take it on.
McCraken “Ken” Poston, a skilled defense attorney who served in the Georgia legislature and had known Looper from his days as an aide, wanted in on the case. Looper said his mother had taken out a second mortgage on her home to pay his fee. The second lawyer, Ron Cordova, was a former Orange County, California prosecutor who had been following the case out of personal interest and said if Poston was going to serve as counsel, he would donate his services for free.
With extreme reluctance, Daniel allowed the men to take over the case, noting that their trial experience meant he was going to adhere to the set timeline and would grant no more continuances.

Trial

Five hundred people were summoned for jury duty and two hundred showed up at the Sullivan County Courthouse to be selected for jury duty in mid-August, twenty-two months after Tommy Burks was gunned down on his hog farm. About 100 miles or so from Crossville, Sullivan County was chosen for the jury pool because it was hoped that the distance from the scene of the crime would mitigate any sensational news coverage.
When jury selection was completed on Saturday afternoon, Daniel dismissed the jury, admonishing them not to talk with anyone about the specifics of the case, and ordering them to report for transportation to Crossville the next afternoon.
“Pack enough clothes for two weeks,” he told them.
Before a crowded courtroom which held members of the Burks and Looper families, as well as District Attorney Bill Gibson’s mother, the prosecutor stood before the 16-member panel and opened the state’s case against Byron Looper. The state would show, Gibson said, that Looper wanted power and that he would do anything – including murder — to achieve it.
“Looper is a man obsessed with a burning desire for power,” Gibson began. “He knew he didn’t have a chance in the fair election to defeat Tommy Burks, and that caused him to formulate a plan to resolve this election with a bullet instead of a ballot.”
He told them they would hear from a Hardee’s restaurant employee who could testify that Looper was the angry customer in her restaurant a half-hour before the shooting. Wesley Rex would testify how he saw Looper at the scene of the crime when Burks was shot, and Joe Bond would tell them how Looper had confessed.
Other witnesses would testify to Looper’s predilection for violence as an electoral strategy. Those witnesses included a political consultant from Louisiana who answered an ad in Campaigns & Elections magazine placed by Looper. The consultant turned down the job after Looper said the cost of winning his race was only 35 cents — the price of a bullet, Looper clarified.
Ken Poston opened for the defense and was severely limited in his options to refute the state’s circumstantial case. Poston had no plausible defense to present, so he painted Looper as the victim of conspiratorial political enemies. Looper was a zealot, Poston admitted. He did like to attack the system and he held a take-no-prisoners approach. But Looper was no murderer, he said.
“He was the first Republican elected in Putnam County, at least in recent memory, and he made quite a name for himself, but not a good name,” said Poston. “He had a bombastic campaign style, a way of offending anyone that was status quo, and he did it repeatedly.”
Why Tommy Burks would be sacrificed by the cabal when any victim would suffice was never brought up.
Opening statements took most of the morning, and after a short break, Gibson began laying out the state’s case in more detail.
Wheeling in a television set and VCR, Gibson warned the court that what he was about to show might be disturbing to some, but he was not showing the tape for shock value. In a silent courtroom, he pushed the play button on the VCR and took the jury back to October 19, 1998. In sometimes erratic, amateurish quality, the tape showed Burks slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck, the interior of which was covered with blood. The tape had no sound, which added to its eerie quality. Burks’s corpse could plainly be seen, his foot still on the brake, his face mottled with blood and gunshot residue.
The state presented 34 witnesses during its phase of the trial, everyone from the Hardee’s manager to employees of Looper’s office, in an effort to link Looper to the crime.
No witness was more damaging to Looper’s fate than Joe Bond. He spent two-and-a-half hours on the stand, but no matter how hard Poston and Cordova tried, they could not crack a hole in the Marine’s story.
Gibson and his team took four days to lay out their case, painting a strong circumstantial version of what happened. They were never able to put the gun in Looper’s hands, and never explained how gunshot residue could be found in a car that they said was not driven to the murder scene.
First up for the defense was Looper’s ally, John Bowden. The 73-year-old ex-mayor took the stand and Poston used his testimony to try and wedge in that concept of reasonable doubt. On cross-examination Bowden admitted he had lied to the TBI about where he bought the gun. It was a police issue weapon available only to peace officers. One of Bowden’s cop buddies completed the straw purchase. Bowden acknowledged his timeline of events in his sale of the weapon was hazy. Most importantly for the defense, Bowden claimed Looper had never touched the handgun.
With the last of the 19 defense witnesses done testifying, Daniel began closing arguments a little more than a week after the trial began. Assistant District Attorneys Tony Craighead and David Patterson laid out the prosecution’s case point by point.
“He had a method to win the election,” Craighead told the jurors. By killing Burks, Looper would be the only name on the ballot. He was the only person who stood to gain by Tommy Burks’ murder. Witnesses could place Looper in Monterey on the morning of the slaying, both before and after the event.
As if eyewitness identification wasn’t enough, Joe Bond testified that Looper confessed the crime to him, prosecutors argued. Other witnesses told the jury about how Looper had thought about killing an opponent to win a race, as well.
McCracken Poston made the defense’s closing statement. They never linked Looper to the murder weapon, he said. The prosecution laid out a fine circumstantial case, but when it came right down to it, they weren’t able to finish it. Poston said the evidence shows that Looper was a victim of a conspiracy, because the loose ends just didn’t come together.
There were still a few hours of daylight left when the jury announced it had reached a verdict. They had weighed the evidence and deliberated for a little more than 21/2 hours when Judge Daniel recalled the parties to his courtroom. When the verdict of “Guilty” was announced, Looper stood ramrod straight and showed no emotion. His only demonstration was to look back toward his mother and brother and offer a small, reassuring smile.
The jury’s work was not done, because in Tennessee, the panel had to recommend a sentence to Daniel. He had some latitude to deviate, but that was unusual. It took another half-hour, but the jury returned to the courtroom and recommended that Byron Looper spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance for parole. Had they chosen the parole option, Looper would have been eligible for parole when he was 87 years old.
Again, Looper showed no emotion as the decision was announced.
In 2013, Byron Looper was found dead in his prison cell from an apparent heart attack. Although he had been placed in restraints earlier for assaulting a pregnant civilian prison employee, he was not restrained at the time of his death. The subsequent investigation concluded his death was from natural causes. He was 48 years old.

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.