A cartoon in the San Francisco Examiner depicts the case of Cordelia Botkin. (Courtesy Photo)

Candy from a Stranger: The Gifts of Cordelia Botkin

Chocolate has been an integral part of San Francisco since the Gold Rush. The two oldest chocolate companies in the U.S. — Ghirardelli and Guittard — both started in San Francisco in the early 1850s. This tradition continues today with artisanal chocolate makers such as TCHO and Dandelion making small batches of chocolate. But there was one 19th century chocolatier, Cordelia Botkin, who is never mentioned.

Therein lies a story.

It all started in Golden Gate Park in September 1895 when John Dunning, an Associated Press manager, met Botkin. They struck up an immediate friendship based on a shared perception: Their spouses did not understand them. Dunning, 31, had a wife and young daughter in San Francisco. Botkin, 12 years older, was separated from her husband and living in San Francisco.

During the next two years, Dunning and Botkin carried on an affair at her apartment at 927 Geary St. Adultery seemed to be a gateway vice for Dunning; he started drinking heavily, and betting at the racetrack. His gambling necessitated a fourth vice, embezzling money from The Associated Press, which led to his firing.

As a result, his wife, Mary, and daughter moved back to Dover, Md., to live with her father, John Pennington, a former congressman.

Dunning moved into a room at 927 Geary St., where he became part of an unusual relationship with Botkin, her son Beverly and his mistress, a widow named Louise Seely. They went to the track together and often had loud, boozy parties financed by Botkin’s generous monthly allowance from her husband.

Soon Dunning’s wife began receiving anonymous letters from “a friend” telling her that her husband had been keeping company with “an attractive woman” and warning her not to reconcile with Dunning. Mary turned the letters over to her father for safekeeping.

By 1898, Dunning’s ardor for Botkin had cooled considerably. “She is jolly company but has raised merry hell several times. She wants me all to herself and gets jealous if I look at another woman,” he later testified. The Spanish American War gave Dunning his chance to escape. He was rehired as the AP’s top reporter in the conflict and sent to Puerto Rico.

Before he left, Dunning told Botkin that he had reconciled with his wife and would not be returning to San Francisco.

A few months later, on Aug. 9, 1898, Mary Dunning received a package of candy and a handkerchief with a note saying, “With love to yourself and your baby. — Mrs. C.”

Mary was having a family dinner with her parents, her sister-in-law, Mrs. Deane, and other assorted friends and children. After dinner, she passed around the chocolates. That evening everyone who ate the candies were stricken with stomach pains and vomiting. Most of them recovered, but Mary and Mrs. Deane, who had consumed the most candy, died.

Pennington had the candies examined and they were found to be loaded with arsenic. Pennington also noticed the similarity between the handwriting on the package and the handwriting on the anonymous notes. Dunning was summoned, and he immediately recognized the handwriting on the notes as that of Botkin.
Botkin denied authorship of the notes, but evidence against her was mounting quickly. She was arrested and brought to trial. The trial was standing-room-only, and hundreds of people waited outside the courtroom. Dunning testified that Botkin knew that his wife loved sweets and had a friend named Mrs. Corbally in San Francisco. A handwriting expert testified that Botkin had written the note accompanying the poisoned chocolates. Witnesses also identified Botkin as the person who bought the chocolates and the arsenic. Botkin, described by a San Francisco Examiner reporter as “a smug, self satisfied cunning little woman,” confidently denied all charges and produced a host of alibis, none of which could be confirmed. After four hours of deliberation, the jury found Botkin guilty. Judge Carroll Cook sentenced Botkin to life in prison.

Botkin’s escapades seemed to catch the public’s imagination and at least two women sent poisoned candy to themselves to gain their 15 minutes of fame.

Botkin was lodged in a well-furnished cell in the city jail while her case was appealed. In 1900, Judge Cook was riding on the Guerrero streetcar when he was astounded to see that Botkin was riding on the same car. Though it appeared that Botkin had been trading favors for freedom with the prison guards, jail officials denied the charges and claimed that Judge Cook had mistakenly identified a Botkin lookalike. Botkin suggested that her doppelganger might have sent the poison. In 1904, Botkin was granted a new trial on a procedural error by the judge. The verdict was the same: guilty as charged.

In 1906, after the San Francisco earthquake, Botkin was sent to San Quentin where she died of “softening of the brain, due to melancholy” on March 7, 1910.

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