The Moral Imbecile

Arthur Warren Waite, on trial for the murder of his father-in-law in 1916, presented perhaps one of the most unusual defenses in the history of American jurisprudence: He admitted everything, denied that he was insane, and banked on his outrageous claims and behavior to convince the New York jury that he was indeed mad.
Not surprisingly, it was a really dumb idea. The gambit failed and Waite died in Sing Sing’s electric chair on May 24, 1917.
Waite pretended to be a dentist thanks to forged records for Glasgow University in Scotland, but later he admitted that he had only studied dentistry while he wooed Clara Peck, the daughter of a millionaire pharmaceutical executive from Grand Rapids, Michigan. With his put-on British accent, his exciting adventures as a dentist in South Africa during the second Boer War, and his skill as a tennis player, Waite soon won over Clara and her family.
“Like the rest of us she saw nothing but the exterior of this man Waite,” said the Rev. Dr. A.W. Wishart, the Baptist minister who married the couple in Grand Rapids. “The exterior was fascinating to be sure. Mrs. Peck considered Dr. Waite a worthy man — a good catch. I do not know whether Clara Peck was in love or just charmed.”
The two were wed in the fall of 1915 after a year-long courtship.
Unbeknownst to Clara, Waite never loved her — or even cared one wit about her or any other human but himself. He was only using her as a means to get to her family’s fortune. When the time came, he said later, he fully expected to murder Clara.
Within days of their marriage, Waite began pressuring Clara for money. As a wedding gift, the couple had been given $50,000 by John Peck, but the Peck family patriarch angered his new son-in-law when he announced that the money would be held in trust and just $300 could be drawn each month.
The Peck family made murder quite attractive. John Peck and his wife, Hanna, had named each other as their beneficiaries in their wills, with their children, Clara and Jacob, to receive the bulk of the estate when the surviving parent died. Jacob, in turn, named his sister as his beneficiary, while most of Clara’s money and a good share of her real estate holdings were destined for Waite if she predeceased him. Therefore, as if in some familial tontine, or for the less classically inclined, a reality TV show, the surviving member stood to make out quite handsomely. Waite was determined that he would be that survivor.
Waite and Clara moved to New York City where Clara was already well-established on the social register. They moved into a lavish Riverside Drive apartment purchased by John Peck and also received a $3,000 gift from Clara’s aunt, Carolyn Peck. Waite opened a dental practice while studying medicine under a friend of the Peck family, Dr. Jacob Cornell. There, Waite had easy access to his preferred weapon, various bacilli and other nasty microbes.
After Carolyn Peck gave Waite $80,000 to invest on her behalf Waite made her his first target, just months after he married Clara.
“I gave her repeated doses of germs, then some arsenic, and after that some ground glass,” Waite would testify matter-of-factly later. “I also injected live germs into a can of fish before presenting it to her.”
The event that saved Aunt Catherine was the arrival of Hanna Peck in New York to spend the Christmas holiday with her daughter and new son-in-law.
A little over a month later, Hanna Peck was dead.
“I started poisoning her from the very first meal after she arrived,” Waite said. “I gave her six assorted tubes of pneumonia, diphtheria, and influenza germs in her food. When she finally became ill and took to her bed, I ground up 12 five-grain veronal tablets (a barbiturate) and gave her that, too.”
Waite continued his murderous treatments for several days until one night, the overweight but relatively healthy Hanna died in her sleep. Waite checked on her in the middle of the night, and finding her dead, went back to sleep.
“I went back to bed again so that it would be my wife who would discover the body,” he testified.
The family physicians attributed her death to kidney disease and Waite surprised the entire clan when he told them it was Hanna’s last wish to be cremated. Despite never hearing her discuss such a wish, the family cremated her body and buried her ashes in the family plot in West Michigan.
In February 1916, a month or so after Hanna died, John Peck came out to New York to spend time with his East Coast relations. He did not realize that he was Waite’s next target, although by this time, Clara was reportedly having some doubts about her husband’s role in her mother’s death.
“She suspected her husband from the day her mother died, but she was tongue-tied by her tremendous fascination,” said Francis X. Mancuso, the New York prosecutor who investigated Waite’s activities. “She did not dare believe what her own heart and senses told her. She said nothing.”
While Clara consoled her father and Waite poisoned him, another woman entered the picture who will always be somewhat mysterious.
She was Margaret Horton, a “young, beautiful contralto singer” and former cabaret performer from Cincinnati, Ohio, who moved to New York to find fame and fortune as an opera star. Margaret, who was married to Harry Mack Horton, an electrical engineer, was studying languages at the Berlitz school when she met Waite, who was also studying French there. A teacher at the school suggested that the two team up outside the classes to converse.
“Dr. Waite was also anxious to get extra practice in the languages,” Margaret told the insatiable New York newspapers when the story broke. “He took such a friendly interest in my work and seemed open and trustworthy. Dr. Waite and I went to restaurants together to talk French, we danced together at the Hotel Plaza, and we took walks together. I soon learned that he was an accomplished pianist and he learned I was a singer.”
It was at that point that Waite suggested they rent a salon apartment at the Hotel Plaza to use as a studio “on the afternoons when we had no other engagements,” Margaret Horton continued.
They did so with the apparent knowledge and support of Harry Horton — but not of Clara Peck Waite. Harry Horton said he had full trust in his wife and that she “was a dove among crows” in New York.
“When I brought her to this city I said to my dove among crows, ‘Do what you like. I can trust you,’” he told the press. “‘I know you would never put anything over on your old husband.’”
Just what the role of the Hortons played in Waite’s plan was never fully explained. It has been speculated that Waite wanted to marry the attractive singer when Clara was gone, or that the Hortons were planning on blackmailing the wealthy dentist who stood to lose everything if his wife found out.
The evidence tends to support the former conclusion.
“She (Clara) was not my equal in anything,” Waite said. “When I had got rid of her I meant to find a more beautiful wife.”
In between meetings at the Plaza with Margaret Horton, Waite was actively trying to kill his father-in-law.
“I used to insert tubes of typhoid, influenza, and diptheria in his soups and rice puddings,” Waite testified at his trial. “Once I gave him a nasal spray filled with tuberculosis bacteria.”
When the bugs failed to harm the 71-year-old man, Waite stepped up his attack using chemicals.
“Nothing seemed to affect him, so I used to let off the occasional tube or two of chlorine gas in his bedroom, hoping the gas would weaken his resistance.”
When that didn’t work, Waite poisoned John Peck with 18 grains of arsenic. His greed would cost him his own life.
John Peck died on March 12, 1916 and once again Waite told the family he wanted to be cremated. He made arrangements with an undertaker, Eugene Kane, to preserve the body for shipment back to Peck’s final resting place in Grand Rapids.
Waite’s second mistake was his reaction when Dr. Cornell asked to pay his respects to his old friend and one-time patient. Waite rudely refused his request, which prompted the physician to comment about Waite’s behavior to his niece. Cornell’s niece, Elizabeth Hardwick, a distant relation to Percy Peck (Cornell was also John Peck’s cousin), sent him a telegram ahead of the Waites’ arrival in Grand Rapids, urging Percy not to let John Peck’s body be cremated before an autopsy was performed.
“Suspicion aroused stop Demand autopsy stop,” read the cryptic telegram signed “K. Adams.”
Arriving at the railroad station in Michigan, Waite quickly tried to take control of the situation, telling the grieving family that he had already made arrangements for John Peck’s cremation.
Not so fast, Percy countered. He told Waite he was taking control of his father’s remains. Not letting on that he was concerned, Waite, accompanied by Clara, went to visit the family lawyer to see about the will. They learned that their share of the Peck estate would top $1 million. With that, they headed back to New York City.
In New York, Waite immediately began to cover his tracks. He met with Kane and gave the undertaker $9,000 to state that arsenic was present in the embalming fluid. It wouldn’t have done any good even if Kane was willing to testify to that “fact.” The manner in which the embalming fluid spread throughout the body was inconsistent with the way the arsenic was found in the autopsy.
As the police closed in, Waite attempted to commit suicide. However, on March 23, 1916, police burst into the Riverside apartment and took Waite to the hospital, where his life was saved (temporarily). But from there, it was all downhill for Arthur Waite.
In April 1916, Clara filed for divorce and by May, Waite was on trial for his life. He had already admitted in a letter to the press that he killed both of his in-laws, writing “the indictment is just and the penalty is one that I deserve for I have killed. I killed John E. Peck and his wife.”
Waite’s plan was to be so callous about his crimes that no jury would consider him sane — in the terms then in use in New York, he wanted to be labeled “a moral imbecile.”
He managed to convince several alienists that he was a homicidal maniac and “an immoral monster.” They testified that he knew what he was doing, but that he had “no moral sense.”
However, when Margaret Horton took the stand, she blew Waite’s scheme out the window. She described a letter he wrote that stated, “If they prove it, I suppose it would mean la chaise, but I hope and expect to spend a while in detention as an imbecile, and then I’ll be free again to join you.”
That sealed the deal for the jury and Waite was sentenced to die by electrocution.
On May 24, 1917, he went to la chaise smiling and at ease. “Is this all there is to it?” was his final statement.