The Poison Candy Murder Case: A True Delaware Horror Story!

Not to scare anyone about chocolate with Halloween approaching but with candy, you really do need to consider the source. A detailed account of an infamous murder which took place in Dover, Delaware in 1898 is available for review in the DHS research library.  In his book “With Love to Yourself and Baby: The Story of the Poison Candy Murder Case”, retired Delaware State Police Detective John R. Alstadt Jr. carefully examines the circumstances surrounding the mysterious deaths of Mary Elizabeth Dunning and her sister Ida Henrietta Deane as well as the ensuing trial of accused murderess Cordelia Botkin of San Francisco, California.  Alstadt applies years of insight and expertise as a detective in his description of one of the earliest known cases in the United States of murder ‘by mail’. The victims died within days of eating arsenic laced chocolate ‘bon bons’ sent to Mary Dunning at her residence in Dover. A deliberately deceptive note placed in the box of chocolate read “With Love to Yourself and Baby” and signed “Mrs. C”. The intended victim mistakenly assumed this signature to be that of Mrs. Laura Corbaley, a well esteemed acquaintance from her days in San Francisco, California.


The case generated intense local interest. In 1891 Mary Elizabeth Pennington and John P. Dunning had been married atMeeting House Squarein Dover, Delaware. Soon thereafter, the couple moved to San Francisco for employment opportunities. In 1896, Mary returned to Dover with her young daughter in an attempt to escape marital difficulties. Two years passed without serious incident. Then in August of 1898, quite without warning, she received a nondescript and pleasantly wrapped box in the mail. After sharing the chocolate candies found inside with friends and family, she and several others fell violently ill. The treacherous event quickly caught the eye of Dover high society. It resulted in the deaths of both remaining children of former congressman and attorney-general John B. Pennington. Grief stricken, the venerable Pennington employed all his energies in tracking down the perpetrator. This was accomplished with remarkable speed, thanks primarily to the efforts of Delaware detective Bernard McVey who amassed an impressive amount of physical and circumstantial evidence in the weeks following the murders. The case also carried with it national significance. As the evidence against San Francisco socialite Cordelia Botkin mounted, a major flaw in extradition laws of the time came to light.  Jurisdiction laws proved quite inadequate to cope with serious crimes committed across state lines. Technically, for extradition of a suspect to be legally enforceable, the accused had to be a fugitive from justice from the state in which the crime had occurred. The legal jargon of the time defined this as “constructively present” (ie. physically present) at the scene of the crime. In this case of course, the method of murder originated from not only a different state but from the opposite side of the country.  Consequently, Delaware prosecutors faced serious legal obstacles in the apprehension of Botkin.  Fortunately there were laws on the books in California which allowed close cooperation between the two states. In December of 1898 this unprecedented case went to trial as “The State of California vs. Cordelia Botkin”. Stop into the Delaware Historical Society research library to explore in greater detail this sordid chapter in Delaware’s criminal history. The call number of the book is F164.6  .A46.


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