100 year old murder case still haunts Dover, Delaware

It's a case that brings new meaning to the phrase "don't take candy from a stranger." The creepy story of a cross country murder mystery in 1898.

In the summer of 1898, the city of Dover, Delaware would be the site of a murder that would shock not only Delawareans, but also the rest of the country. It was the first time the U.S Postal service was used to commit murder.

It’s a case that brings new meaning to the term “Don’t take candy from a stranger.”

This tale starts out as so many do, two people met, fell in love, were married and embarked on their lives together.

That is where the tale takes a strange turn. A turn that ends with two people dead, a city in shock, and a country entranced by the news and court proceedings that follow.

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The house where the ‘poison candy murders’ happened looks much as it did back in the summer of 1898.

Mary Elizabeth Pennington, daughter of former Congressman and Attorney General John B. Pennington, met and married John Dunning, a local newspaper reporter.

The two settled in Dover and were living happily. Reporting the news in Dover, Delaware during the 1890’s wasn’t very exciting.  Dunning applied for and received a job offer that would take him, Elizabeth and their daughter to San Francisco, California.3

A changed man

While living in San Francisco, Dunning changed. He began to drink heavily, he gambled away all of their money and he spent time with many different women.

One such woman was Mrs. Cordelia Botkin. they began an affair that would last for several years.

In 1896, Dunning lost his prestigious job with the Associated Press. He was fired for embezzling money to pay his gambling debts.

Mary Elizabeth was a religious woman, so after her husband’s philandering ways, coupled with his unemplyement and the loss of their money, she took her daughter and moved back to her parents’ house in Dover.

In 1898, Dunning was hired to cover the Spanish-American War. By this time, Botkin was separated from her husband, and she and Dunning were living together in a hotel. Dunning told Botkin he was leaving for good and that after his assignment he planned on returning to his wife in Delaware. Cordelia didn’t take the news very well.

If she couldn’t have Dunning than no one would.

Mysterious mail

Back home in Delaware, Mary Elizabeth began receiving strange letters telling her about her husband’s cheating ways and suggesting she leave him.

These letters were very upsetting for her, she went to her father and asked him to intercept the letters and make sure she didn’t see them. He kept the letters as they continued to arrive.

In August of 1898, while sitting on the front porch of their Dover home, Mary Elizabeth received a package in the mail. It was addressed to her. Inside the package was a note that read ‘With Love to Yourself and Baby.’ The note was signed ‘Mrs. C’.

Mary Elizabeth mistakenly thought it was from Mrs. Laura Corbaley, a friend she made while living in California.

Under the note was a box of chocolate candies. Mary Elizabeth and several other people on the porch that evening began eating the candy. They all became ill. Within several days both Mary Elizabeth and her sister Ida were dead.

Grief stricken at losing his remaining daughters, their father, John Pennington thought something was suspicious. He sent a sample of the chocolates to a local lab. It turned out the candies had been laced with arsenic.

Murder trial

Pennington hired a local detective, and the first person he wanted to speak with was Mr. John Dunning. Dunning, who was still reporting on the Spanish-American War, came back to Dover when he heard the news.

Dunning was told of the circumstances and shown the letters Mary Elizabeth received over the years and the note accompanying the candy. He took one look at the handwriting, and said one word ‘Cordelia.’

Pennington wanted Cordelia tried for murder in Delaware. The problem was, extradition laws at the time weren’t as they are today. Cordelia had never been to Delaware; therefore she wasn’t a fugitive from Delaware. They then wanted her tried in California for the murder, the other problem was, there was no body in California, the crime hadn’t occurred there. Eventually a law was discovered they could use to try her.

The family of Mary Elizabeth as well as other witnesses had to make the trek to San Francisco to provide testimony.

Handwriting experts were brought in, they compared the letters and the note that accompanied the candy. They were found to have both been written by Cordelia

In 1898 Mrs. Cordelia Botkin was found guilty of murder.

The saga wouldn’t end here however, she appealed. Again the trial was put on and the family again had to travel back to California to testify.

Cordelia Botkin was found guilty a second time in 1904 and was sentenced to life in prison.

She died in San Quentin prison in 1910. Her death certificate listed the cause of death as softening of the brain, due to melancholy.

John Dunning’s career was ruined by the revelations that came to light during the trial. He died in Philadelphia in 1908, two years before Cordelia.

If you are interested in learning more about the case you can find retired Delaware State Police detective John Alstadt’s book ‘With Love to Yourself and Baby” at your local library as well as amazon.com.

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