The Criminal Genealogist

S1E4: Cordelia Brown Botkin - Death by Chocolate

September 23, 2021 Host Michelle Bates Season 1 Episode 4
The Criminal Genealogist
S1E4: Cordelia Brown Botkin - Death by Chocolate
Show Notes Transcript

Cordelia Adelaide Brown Botkin was quite the character and the center of one of the most intriguing crimes at the end of the 19th century. She was the first person in America convicted for murder via the US Postal Services, delivering a deadly package to the wife of her ex-lover.

P.S. Sorry for the delay - this one-woman show was delayed several times in getting this episode completed. It won't happen again, pinky promise.

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Cordelia Adelaide Brown Botkin was quite the character and the center of one of the most intriguing crimes at the end of the 19th century. She was the first person in America convicted for murder via the US Postal Services, delivering a deadly package to the wife of her ex-lover. But before we dive into Cordelia’s crimes, let’s learn more about her life growing up. 

Cordelia Brown was born in Polk County, MO in 1854. Unfortunately, since statewide birth registrations in Missouri did not start until 1910 and some counties kept these records but not until the 1880s, I am unable to confirm her exact birthdate. Usually, church records would hold information about baptisms, but none were found for Cordelia during my research. 

Her parents were Richard Brown and Lemina Alderman. Richard Brown was born August 4, 1822, in White County, Tennessee. He is best known as the first white settler in Brownville, Nebraska which was named after Mr. Brown. Lemina Alderman was born in May of 1823 in Grayson County, Virginia. 

Together they had 8 children and Cordelia was a middle child; 7 girls and 1 boy who was a Civil War soldier but died at the age of 21 due to cholera morbus during the outbreak in 1866.  

The first 5 children were born in Missouri and the last three were born in Brownville, Nebraska. According to the Nebraska History website and the Brownville Story, Richard Brown and his family arrived in the Nebraska Territory in August of 1854. Since Cordelia was born in 1854, we can conclude that she was born prior to August. 

Brownville quickly became a flourishing town and even though it had a promising future, Mr. Brown decided to move his family to South Texas in September of 1859, where they had planned to make their permanent home. It seems however that Texas was not for them and they returned to Brownville on May 17, 1860. 

The family had left Brownville again sometime during or after the Civil War because of the violent anti-slavery feeling, but it was rumored they were coming back. Richard Brown did own slaves as indicated on several census records and grew up on a plantation in Tennessee so his pro-slavery views may have not sat well with the Brownville community. It’s suspected that they moved back to Missouri, as they were found in Kansas City, MO on the 1870 census with all the children minus Alexander, who had already passed. Cordelia, also known as Delia, was 16 years old at this time. 

Cordelia married Welcome Aplin Botkin, a man 15 years her senior, on September 26, 1872, when she was 18 years of age. Welcome often went by his initials W. A. Botkin. They welcomed a son (pun intended), Beverely in December of either 1872, a few months after his parents married, or perhaps in 1873 or 1874. The various records found for him indicate any of those years could be his birth year. Welcome was a banker when he married Cordelia and settled in Kansas City, where Beverley was born and Cordelia had already been living with her family. 

Cordelia and Welcome were still in Kansas City in 1880, while Cordelia’s parents and 2 youngest siblings, Dora and Ada are found in Ferndale, Humboldt County, California in 1880. Since many of the 1890 census records are not available due to records being lost in burned counties, none of the family, Cordelia or her parents can be found but we already know her parents are in California by 1880. Luckily there are other records, such as city directories and voter registrations to track where people are located. We first find Welcome Botkin in the Stockton, CA city directory in 1888, and in 1887 he was in Kansas City, so we can narrow down when the family moved. 


At only 4 feet and 10 and ¾ inches tall and with a fuller body, Cordelia stood tall and confident in herself. She was as some would say, a little too flaunty for the Victorian period.  She loved to pose and be photographed and boasted often about how many photos there were of her. 

By 1895, she had been estranged from her husband Welcome and moved into the Victoria Hotel in San Francisco while Welcome lived in Stockton, California. He still provided for Cordelia financially, however. At this point, their son Beverley was a young adult in his early 20s; it is unclear if he was with his mom or dad or living on his own. 

In September of 1895, Cordelia was at Golden Gate Park when she met Mr. J.P. Dunning after his bicycle broke down and they struck up a conversation. J.P. (John Preston), was at the time a war correspondent for the AP news and had accepted a position in San Francisco. It’s stated that he received this assignment shortly after he married Miss Mary Elizabeth Pennington in Dover, DE on February 12, 1891. The couple had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth (named after her mom) on December 15, 1891, in Dover, DE and she was baptized on March 22, 1892. It also indicates that she was dismissed on April 1, 1895, which indicates that the family was granted a letter of dismissal for another church and is likely when they moved to San Francisco. 

John’s wife Mary was reported to have gone back to Dover, DE to be with her family though it was unclear why she moved back there. It was said that John was away a lot for work but also that she was not fond of San Francisco. 

Regardless of the reason, John Dunning stayed in San Francisco for his job and moved into the same building that Cordelia was living in. Mr. Dunning and Mrs. Botkin were constant companions and it was stated that their affair lasted 3 years. John allegedly struggled with drinking and gambling, some saying at the bad influence of Cordelia. He had been fired from his position but was called back to cover stories and in March of 1898 accepted a position as a war correspondent and had to depart for Puerto Rico immediately. Cordelia begged him not to go. He told her that when he was done, he would be going back to Delaware to be with his wife and child. Needless to say, Cordelia was not happy about this news. 

Instead of moving on, she started to write letters anonymously to Mrs. Dunning telling of her husband’s affair with an interesting and pretty woman and to not take him back. Mary gave the letters to her father for safekeeping. It is said that Cordelia bought arsenic from Owl’s drug store, some chocolate candies from Market Street Candy Store in San Francisco on July 31, 1898, and then went to a novelty store called “The City of Paris” and bought a handkerchief. She laced the chocolate candies with the arsenic, wrapped them in the handkerchief, and put them into the unmarked box with a note stating “With love to yourself and the baby, Mrs. C”. 

Apparently, JP had told Cordelia about Mary’s love of chocolate and about a close friend in San Francisco she had, a Mrs. Corbaley so Cordelia took this information to send the present to his wife to make it appear the present was from her friend.  She then mailed it to Mrs. Dunning in Dover, DE. This was August of 1898. 

On the evening of August 9, 1898, the family was at the home of Mary’s father, John Pennington, a former DE congressman. They all retired to the porch to cool off after dinner. Mrs. Dunning’s nephew had gone to fetch the mail and came back with a package for her. She opened it and was delighted to find the chocolates though she wasn’t sure who Mrs. C was, but assumed she had no enemies so it was safe. Mary, her sister Mrs. Ida Deane and several other family members and friends took bites of the candies. Mary and Ida seemed to have eaten more and were violently sick, ultimately passing on August 12th and 11th, respectively. The autopsy revealed the chocolates were poisoned with arsenic. 

Mr. Dunning was requested back to Dover and when he saw the letters, he knew they were from Cordelia. He provided police with letters Cordelia had sent him for hand-writing analysis experts to examine. The Delaware police took all the evidence to California in search of more information and evidence and to find Cordelia. There were several witnesses that spoke to police including the store clerk she bought the arsenic from, the ladies at the bakery who remember her buying the chocolate and asking to put it in a plain box, and the employee from the store she bought the handkerchief, which she had left the tag on. They all stated Cordelia was the person who bought those items. Also, the postman remembers her delivery because his last name was very similar to the Dunning surname. With all of this Cordelia is apprehended and arrested for the murder of Mary Dunning and Ida Deane. 

Since this was the first case of murder via the US postal service and between two jurisdictions, it was unclear who should have jurisdiction. The murder occurred in Delaware but Cordelia had never stepped foot in that jurisdiction, so her attorney argued the case should be decided in California. Delaware fought for the extradition of Cordelia and the decision came before 5 Superior judges, sitting en banc, to determine jurisdiction. On October 23, 1898, they decided that California should have jurisdiction. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court so the grand jury was called in and Cordelia was indicted 5 days later. 

The trial began on December 9th of the same year and witnesses were called in from California and Delaware, including the victim’s family and JP Dunning. There are a TON of articles about the case in California newspapers but also across the country. Think about the gossip magazines of today or the websites/social media outlets and tv shows that cover sensational crime; this case was that in 1898. Luckily for you, I have added all of those to my show notes for your reading pleasure. 

On December 30, 1898, Cordelia Botkin was found guilty and on February 4, 1899, she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Before she was sent to state prison, there was a decision about another trial where it was found there was a trial error and therefore that person was given a new trial. This affected Cordelia’s trial and she was given a 2nd trial. 

After the 1st trial, Cordelia’s husband filed for divorce on the grounds that she was a convict now. Some articles also state he filed based on her having loose morals. Either seems like good grounds for divorce. Sources state that the divorce was granted, but no confirmation on when it was finalized. 

The 2nd trial for Cordelia began in 1904 and again Mrs. Botkin was found guilty on August 2, 1904, of murder and sentenced to life. She appealed and in 1908 the state supreme court affirmed the lower court’s decision on October 28, 1908, leaving Cordelia with no further hope. 

From her original arrest in 1898 until 1908, she had been in prison and during that time, she had lost many loved ones. 

Her father, Richard Brown died in 1900 after being kicked by a horse. His probate records give further details on the tragic accident. 

On April 30, 1904, her ex-husband Welcome Botkin died due to heart issues at the age of 65. Cordelia requested to go to his funeral but the judge denied that request. 

A year later to the date, Cordelia’s only child and son, Beverley Botkin, died of the same issues that took his father. Cordelia was allowed to attend the funeral for her son. Sadly, the tragedy that Beverely had endured was never of interest to anyone but the young man had essentially lost his mom to prison and his dad the year prior, but he also lost his wife just a few months before his own death. Beverley married Zaida Hope Ewell on November 12, 1903, in Santa Clara County, CA. She is listed as 21 years of age and Beverley is 30. The young couple was only married 1 year and 3 months when she passed away. 

Her ex-lover John P Dunning, the man whom Cordelia killed for died on April 17, 1907, of a cerebral hemorrhage due to a brain tumor.  His life after his wife’s death was not seemingly a good one. He drank too much and lost his way. His daughter, Mary Elizabeth was living with her maternal grandparents in 1900 along with a woman who appears to be her aunt, Mary A Dunning. She was just 6 years old when her mom was murdered and 15 when her dad died. Mary Elizabeth went on to get married in 1922 in Philadephia, PA, and then is found in New York and New Jersey in later census records. 

Lastly, Cordelia’s sister Sadie Brown was apparently committed to an asylum for the insane several times in 1890 and 1901. Her last known commitment was in November of 1901 to the Mendocino State Asylum in California and she apparently died there on April 15, 1907, 2 days prior to JP Dunning’s death. 

Cordelia had been housed at the Branch County Jail while she awaited the outcome of her appeal, but in 1906 a major earthquake hit San Francisco causing major damage to parts of the jail. Prior to this, she was given more “plush” accommodations in prison as she sweet-talked her way into getting things. There are also some stories about the judge seeing her out in public shopping and he immediately requested an inquiry into this. I believe this was mentioned in a newspaper, but I didn’t have any official inquiries from prison records to confirm any validity. If it was true, I can only imagine the shock that went through the judge that day. Poor guy probably thought he was losing it.  

After the earthquake though, she lost those accommodations and requested to be moved to San Quentin. Her request was approved and she was received into San Quentin on May 19, 1906. Her inmate pictures are found in the show notes if you are interested in seeing how fancy she looks and really how fancy everyone looks in their pictures. Today’s mugshots are a far cry from 1898. When she lost her appeal, her hope diminished and she slowly started fading. To the end, she claimed her innocence but with no opportunity to get out of prison and the loss of her loved ones, she became depressed and started experiencing melancholy in late 1909. In February of 1910, she begged the parole board for her release so she could spend her remaining time with her aging mother and beloved sister, Dora. Unfortunately, Cordelia didn’t get that chance and she was found unconscious and dead on March 7, 1910, in her prison cell. Her official cause of death was “Softening of the brain, due to melancholy”. Cordelia was 55 or 56 years old when she died since we don’t know when in 1854 she was born. 

Her sister, Miss Dora Brown, had funeral services for her sister at her home, and Cordelia was buried in a family plot in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, CA. Her mom Lemina died 6 years later and her sister Dora didn’t pass until 1942. 

The life of all of these people mattered and this heinous act caused so much hurt and turmoil for so many people. While it is interesting to find these types of stories about ancestors, it really is a sad situation. So while you keep digging up those skeletons remember my criminal genies - records don’t lie, but your ancestors might.