Newspaper sketch of Cordelia Botkin at the time of her 1904 retrial. (Wikimedia Commons; Billy Penn illustration)

In February of 1891, a landmark wedding took place in Dover, Delaware.

The groom, John P. Dunning, was a well-known foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. His new bride, Mary, was the daughter of Delaware U.S. Rep. John B. Pennington.

The couple didn’t stay in Delaware long. By March, they were on their way to San Francisco, where Dunning had accepted a new post from the AP.

It was out west that their story began its dark turn.

After a chance meeting in Golden Gate Park, Dunning struck up an affair with a woman named Cordelia Botkin.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, he also began to drink and gamble heavily, eventually embezzling money from the AP to cover his losses.

Dunning was fired from the Associated Press. And his wife, Mary, had finally had enough. She moved back to the Delaware Valley in 1896 to live with her father, taking the couple’s only daughter with her.

But a little light embezzlement apparently wasn’t enough to keep John Dunning down.

When the Spanish American War broke out, the AP hired him back. And as Dunning left for the Caribbean, he finally ended his affair with Cordelia Botkin. When his assignment ended, he told her, he would return to his wife in Dover.

Botkin was devastated. She hatched a murderous plan.

In the summer of 1898, a box of chocolates arrived at Mary Dunning’s Delaware home. Attached was a note that simply read:

“With Love to Yourself and Baby”

It was signed by a “Mrs. C.”

From today’s vantage point it might seem strange that anyone would eat this mysterious candy. But at the time, murder by mail was a novelty.

Shortly afterward, everyone who ate the candy became violently ill. Many of them recovered. But Mary and her sister Ida died. Their grieving father sent some of the remaining chocolate to a lab where it tested positive for arsenic.

Mary Dunning had been poisoned.

John Dunning rushed home from the war front. He recognized the handwriting as that of his ex-lover, Cordelia Botkin.

San Francisco Examiner, 1898

Botkin’s murder trial was a national sensation. Witness testimony linked her to the purchase of chocolates and arsenic. And a handwriting expert matched her script to that found with the poisoned candy.

In December of 1898, a jury found Botkin guilty of murder.

Botkin may have been the first person to ever commit murder through the U.S. Postal Service. Despite appeals — and a second trial — her conviction was upheld.

John Dunning’s career did not survive the scandal, and he died in 1908. Botkin died in prison two years later.

Originally posted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on Sept. 14, 2023 

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...