Strangers with Candy: Delaware‘s Chocolate Box Murders of 1898

Beware of any gifts from Mrs. “C.”
Beware of any gifts from Mrs. “C.” / Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images (chocolates); CSA Images/Getty Images (skull); aromanta/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (lace); Kat Long/Mental Floss (illustration)

Mary Elizabeth Dunning waited until after dinner was over to open the box.

It was August 9, 1898, and Mary was living with her father and her young daughter, Mary, in a lush mansion in Dover, Delaware. Her husband John, a war correspondent, had been called away on an assignment in Puerto Rico. Perhaps he’d sent the package, which had arrived by U.S. mail earlier in the day and been left at her father’s post office box. Or perhaps not: Their marriage was, to put it mildly, troubled.

Mary tore away the brown paper wrapping. Inside was a box of chocolate-covered candy, artfully arranged and perfect for dessert. Mary also found a handwritten note:

With love to yourself and baby

Mrs. “C.”

Mrs. C? Mary considered it. It might be Mrs. Corbaly, whom Mary had befriended back when she lived in San Francisco.

“Oh, papa,” Mary told her father. “See what a present I have got and I don’t know who it came from.”

Did it even matter? It was a gift of chocolate. Relaxing on the veranda that evening, Mary grabbed one of the candies and took a bite. Others in the household also reached in, including Mary’s sister, Ida; niece Leila, and friends of the family.

Within hours, all of them began to feel ill.

A physician summoned to tend to the family would later explain the scene he encountered. As The San Francisco Call summarized: “He found [Mary] in a state of collapse with cold, clammy perspiration, her eyes and face swollen and congested, with a livid condition of the skin, not fully developed lips, livid, mucus membrane of the mouth reddened and covered with slimy substance; no pulse could be detected at wrist ... respirations were labored and irregular, showing a threatened paralysis of nerve centers.”

Soon, Mary would be dead. Ida, too. A dose of tasteless, odorless arsenic had been added to the candy with the very deliberate intention of killing the box’s recipient. And though it would be too late for Mary, the murderer’s identity wouldn’t remain secret for long.

A Poisoned Pen

Mary Pennington and John Dunning had married seven years prior, in 1891. Mary was the daughter of former Delaware Congressman John Pennington; Dunning, 27, worked for the Associated Press and traveled often. So did his eye, which wandered in the direction of one woman after another. According to author Katie Dowd in, John was a serial cheater, and his new position as a West Coast bureau chief for the AP in San Francisco did little to slow him down.

A streetcar in San Francisco in the 1890s
A streetcar in San Francisco in the 1890s / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1895, John was biking through Golden Gate Park when his ride gave out. As he bent over to repair it, he began chatting with a woman sitting on a nearby bench. Her name was Cordelia Botkin, and she struck John as worldly—at 41, she was 10 years older—and charming. The two seemed to bond over the fact they both felt misunderstood by their spouses. Best of all, her estranged husband, Welcome Botkin, seemed indifferent to extramarital affairs.

Mary was not. After discovering her husband’s latest indiscretion, she packed her things and took their daughter, Mary, back to Dover to live with her father.

John and Cordelia continued their affair; they even moved in together, to a residence at 927 Geary Street, where they lived with Cordelia’s son and his mistress. (Welcome Botkin maintained his own separate place in Stockton.) Despite John’s infidelity and her own, Cordelia seemed to believe things would be different between them—that John would somehow remain faithful.

“She is jolly company but has raised merry hell several times,” John later said. “She wants me all to herself and gets jealous if I look at another woman.”

The two carried on until 1898, when John was asked to cover the Spanish-American War in Puerto Rico. It was an assignment he could hardly afford to turn down: The Associated Press had already fired him for embezzling funds to feed a gambling addiction. This was an opportunity to start fresh, not only professionally but personally.

At the train station, John declared his intentions to Cordelia. Assuming he were to survive covering the war, he would return to Dover to try and repair his marriage. Despite Mary’s relocation, the two had continued writing to each other, and John held out hope he could reconcile with her. John was through with Cordelia.

But Cordelia was not through with John.

Distraught over John’s relocation, she wrote a taunting letter to Mary, whom she knew was in Dover. Writing in the third person, Cordelia prodded her with details of her husband’s infidelity—how he carried on with an “interesting and pretty woman,” and how Mary should hardly bother taking him back.

The letter was followed by the chocolates. According to the statement given by Harry Pennington, John Pennington’s grandson who had fetched the box from the post office, a total of seven people ate the arsenic-laced candies, including Mary, Mary’s sister Ida, Mary’s daughter, Mary’s niece Leila Deane, Harry himself, and two family friends, Josephine Bateman and Ethel Millington. Only Josephine seemed to detect something was amiss: She found the candies to have some kind of crystal substance on them, which she kept spitting out of her mouth.

That night, all developed stomach trouble and began vomiting. John Pennington fetched a doctor to see what was wrong. (Fortunately for him, he had no interest in the chocolates.) The physician was perplexed and assumed it was food poisoning. When Pennington informed him about the candy, however, the doctor knew it was something far more serious. Testing later confirmed the chocolate contained arsenic.

Within days, Mary and Ida were dead, likely from having consumed the most candies.

Dunning was called back to the States, knowing little other than his estranged wife had been poisoned. When he saw the note from “Mrs. C,” his heart sank further. The handwriting was unmistakable. So was the fact that John had once told Cordelia that Mary loved candy. His affair had stretched from California to Delaware to strike a fatal blow to his family.

Unjust Desserts

Mary’s father made the connection as well, noting that the letter included with the candy matched the writing of the letters Mary had previously received about a mystery woman carrying on with John in San Francisco. The newly widowed John directed authorities to Cordelia, who was staying with her husband in Stockton. She put up little fight at being placed into custody.

Postcard showing the Green in Dover Delaware
The Green in central Dover, Delaware, adjacent to the Pennington Mansion / The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, Print Department, Flickr // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Two details made the story worthy of national headlines. A jilted lover poisoning a common gesture of love—a box of chocolates—was too sordid to ignore. And it was likely the first time in American history that someone had used the postal service to commit murder, leading to a series of confounding legal entanglements.

First, Mary’s relatives and friends had to travel from Delaware to California to testify, which proved logistically difficult. So did transporting evidence like the candy box.

Then, prosecutors struggled with the notion that Botkin could be tried in California for an offense committed in another state—one in which Botkin had never set foot in. That left them filing motions to attempt to keep a detained but not yet indicted Botkin in the state while waiting for evidence to arrive from Delaware, even as Botkin’s attorneys attempted to secure her release before her trial was scheduled to start.

“Thus far practically no evidence of value has been discovered here,” wrote The San Francisco Call. “The police have learned fully the relations that existed between Mrs. Botkin and Mr. Dunning. This relation, involving a double life on the part of Dunning, gives something of a motive for the offense of which the woman is accused. Her papers and letters have also been seized and will be used to compare specimens of handwriting. The police hope also to identify Mrs. Botkin as the woman who purchased candy under mysterious circumstances at Stockton. Beyond this the police have nothing.”

That changed when a thorough search of her apartment revealed the smoking gun: the seal to the chocolate box along with the string that had to be cut to open it. Presumably, Cordelia’s smile faded upon hearing that news.

Still, she put up a strong front. As her trial commenced, she remained steadfast in her innocence while offering a glimpse of her hedonistic ways. No, she didn’t deny the affair with Dunning. But no, she didn’t kill his wife and sister-in-law. “I admit I have led a gay life,” she said in court. “I have lived for the pleasure of the world, letting none, absolutely none, of its pleasures pass me by. I would stop at nothing to gratify my desires.”

Of her alleged motive of feeling jilted, Cordelia insisted she was happy to part company with John Dunning, describing him as “the poor little fellow” who was “the most pitiful object I ever saw.”

Though Cordelia maintained she was traveling at the time the package was sent, an employee at Star Drug Store offered particularly damning testimony. Clerk David Green said that in May or June a woman matching Cordelia’s description had come in asking for arsenic. When he asked her why she needed it, Cordelia told him she wanted it for “bleaching straw.”

“To the best of my impression and recollection she is the same woman,” Green stated.

One Last Twist

In January 1899, Cordelia Botkin was found guilty by a jury, which needed just four hours—including one hour for dinner—to come to their conclusion. She was sentenced to life in San Quentin but was remanded to a local jail while her appeal was heard.

Incredibly, she managed to enjoy her freedom once more. In May 1900, Judge Carroll Cook, who had presided over Cordelia’s trial, was dumbstruck by the sight of the prisoner riding the same streetcar. Jail officials denied that it could have been Cordelia, asserting that Judge Cook had to have been mistaken. Rumors swirled that Cordelia was once more exerting her charms, this time on prison guards in order to secure a brief furlough; speculation rose that Cordelia could use Cook’s insistence he saw her to claim she had some kind of body double roaming about, thus lending her claim of innocence some credibility. Perhaps the double had been the one seen buying the arsenic or the chocolates. (Later, Judge Cook would insist he had seen Cordelia but that he would let the matter drop.)

In the end, it may not have mattered: Cordelia received a new trial anyway. That same year, a Supreme Court decision that changed how circumstantial evidence is treated led to a 1904 retrial, where Cordelia was again found guilty and received the same life sentence.

That turned out to not be a terribly long time. She died in 1910 at age 56 of what doctors called “softening of the brain,” an indelicate description of depression.

The story remains a morbid source of curiosity in Dover, which in 2018 hosted a walking tour of the Pennington mansion grounds where Mary fell ill as well as her gravestone. Organizers sold boxes of candy with a promise none were poisoned. It was a macabre remembrance of both Mary Dunning and Cordelia Botkin—a woman who, by her own admission, would stop at nothing to have her desires fulfilled.