Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Great American Poison Mystery by C.J.S. Thompson 1904

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One of the most carefully planned murders by means of poison in modern times was investigated at the trial of Roland B. Molineux, who was charged with causing the death of Mrs. Catherine J. Adams in New York in 1899.

On November 10, 1898, a Mr. Henry C. Barnett, a produce booker, who was a member of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, one of the most prominent social organizations in New York, received by post at the club a sample box of Kutnow's Powder. He was in the habit of taking this and similar preparations for simple ailments, and soon after receiving the box he took a dose of its contents. He became ill immediately afterwards, and was thought to be suffering from diphtheria. That he had a slight attack of this disease there is little doubt, as the fact was proved from a bacteriological examination made by his medical attendant. He left his bed earlier than the doctor advised, and died presumably of heart failure.

The contents of the box, however, were examined, which led to the discovery that the powder had been tampered with and mixed with cyanide of mercury; and although Mr. Barnett had died from natural causes, it seemed clear an attempt had been made to poison him by some one who knew he was in the habit of taking this powder. The investigation, however, does not appear to have been carried farther.

The next chapter in the story occurred in connection with a Mr. Harry Cornish, who occupied the position of physical director to the Knickerbocker Athletic Club.

A day or two before Christmas in the same year, a packet directed to him was delivered by post at his address. It contained a box, in which, on opening, he found at one end a silver article for holding matches or toothpicks; at the other end was a bottle labelled "Emerson's Bromo-seltzer," and between the two was packed some soft tissue paper.

Mr. Cornish was at first under the impression that some one had sent him the packet as a present. After removing the articles from the box, he threw it and the wrapper into his wastepaper basket, but on second thoughts he cut the address from the wrapper and kept it.

The bottle, labelled "Bromo-seltzer," which is a saline preparation well known in America, was sealed over the top and bore the usual revenue stamp. After tearing off the outside wrapper, Mr. Cornish placed the bottle and the silver holder on his desk.

On the following Sunday he remarked to his aunt, a Mrs. Catherine Adams, that he had received a present. Mrs. Adams and her daughter Mrs. Rogers joked him about it, saying he must have some admirer, and was afraid to bring his present home, as the sender's name was probably upon it. So on Tuesday night Mr. Cornish took the bottle and the silver holder home with him, and presented them to Mrs. Rogers, saying they were no use to him and she might have them.

The next morning Mrs. Adams complained of a headache, and her daughter suggested a dose of the Bromo-seltzer. Mr. Cornish was present, and mixed a teaspoonful of the preparation from the bottle with a glass of water, and gave it to his aunt. After drinking it she at once exclaimed, "My, how bitter that is!"

"Why, that's all right!" said Mr. Cornish, as he took a drink from the glass.

A few moments afterwards Mrs. Adams collapsed, and died within a short time. Mr. Cornish was seized with violent vomiting, which doubtless saved his life, and he recovered.

A post-mortem examination revealed the fact that Mrs. Adams had died from cyanide poisoning; and on the bottle of Bromo-seltzer being analysed the contents were found to have been mixed with cyanide of mercury.

For a long time the affair seemed a complete mystery, and the police investigations appeared likely to be fruitless. Then the particulars of the death of Mr. Barnett, who was Chairman of the House Committee of the Knickerbocker Club, were brought to light; and connecting them with the fact that Mr. Cornish was also a prominent member of the club, and had received the bottle of Bromo-seltzer by post in the same manner, it seemed highly probable that both the poisoned packets which contained cyanide of mercury, had been sent by the same hand.

Further examination proved that the bottle used was not a genuine Bromo-seltzer one, and that the label had been removed from a genuine bottle and carefully pasted on that sent to Mr. Cornish.
A firm of druggists in Cincinnati then came forward and stated, that as far back as May 31, 1898, they had received a written application signed "H. C. Barnett" for a sample box of pills, and another similar application on December 21, 1898, which was signed "H. Cornish."

Both these applications were found to be in the same handwriting, which was also strikingly similar to the address on the packet sent to Mr. Cornish, which he had fortunately kept. The address given by the applicant who called himself "H. C. Barnett," was 257, West Forty-second Street; New York, a place where private letter-boxes are rented for callers. The address given by the applicant signing himself "H. Cornish," was a similar place at 1,620, Broadway, in the same city. From these facts it seemed evident that an attempt had been made to poison both Barnett and Cornish by some one who knew them, and the poisoner had concealed his identity by employing the names of his intended victims.

The nature of the poison used, cyanide of mercury, was also a slight clue, as it is a substance which is not used in medicine and must in all probability have been specially prepared for the purpose, by some one with a good knowledge of chemistry.

At the coroner's inquest, which began on February 9, 1899, certain facts were elicited that tended to bring suspicion on Roland B. Molineux, who was also a member of the Knickerbocker Club and well acquainted with Barnett and Cornish. He was also known to have quarrelled with the latter. At the close of the inquest Molineux was arrested, and removed to the Tombs prison.
Owing to legal technicalities in the original indictment, which charged him with the murder of both Mr. Barnett and Mrs. Adams, he was twice liberated, and then for the third time arrested.
The trial of Molineux for the murder of Mrs. Adams was a memorable one, and lasted nearly three months. It began on November 14, 1899, at the Central Criminal Court, New York, and was not concluded till February 11, 1900.

The evidence was entirely circumstantial. Most of the experts in handwriting who were examined declared that the address on the packet sent to Mr. Cornish was in Molineux's writing, and that he had also written both applications to the druggists in Cincinnati. Further, Molineux was engaged as a chemist to a colour factory in which cyanide of mercury was used, which would enable him either to make or procure that special poison, from which only three other fatal cases had been recorded.

No witnesses were called for the defence, and the jury found Roland B. Molineux guilty of "murder in the first degree," which, according to American law, is murder with premeditation.

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