The young woman, still new to San Francisco, descended onto Market Street with a dangerous shopping list.
She was slim and very pretty, with a long neck, wide cheekbones, and a sharp chin. She likely would have been dressed in a frilled blouse with a high neckline, a meticulously tailored coat, and a long flowing skirt that just cleared the ground, like most of the women shopping along the busiest commercial street in the city. Her hair would have been pinned up and tucked under a brimmed hat trimmed with flowers or bows.
She came from a distinguished family, was educated at pricy schools, and carried herself with an easy grace, though on the inside she was heartsick, anxious, and desperate.
It was 1899. At this time John Rathom was still an ace reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco was thriving, still seven years from the great earthquake. Market Street slashed across the city through a wide canyon of distinguished granite and marble buildings, packed with stores and restaurants on the street level and offices above. At the far end of the canyon the tall outline of the clock tower on the Union Ferry Depot marked the edge of San Francisco Bay. It could seem everyone in the city had crowded into Market Street at the same time, in a loud, smoky, barely controlled chaos. Men in dark suits and bowler hats jumped out of the way of streetcars. Horse buggies, motorcars, and delivery trucks weaved around each other like they were making braids. People pedaled in every direction on bicycles, swerving around those on foot.
At a Japanese shop on Market Street, the woman bought a small, oblong wicker basket; a dainty craft item, suitable for giving as a part of a gift.
She also stopped at the Emporium, at Fifth Street and Market, maybe the most magnificent department store on the West Coast. It had opened three years earlier, in a massive seven-story building with a façade full of columns and arches. Inside were a tiered restaurant under a glass dome and fifteen acres of retail space.
At the Emporium, the woman bought a bag of candy-glazed cherries.
Two blocks away, at the fifteen-story Baroque tower that was home to the Call newspaper, she left the Market Street bustle behind, turned onto Third Street, and went into Blake’s Drug Store for the poison.
Arsenic, please, she told the clerk—half an ounce. For killing vermin, she explained, and then asked if the powder would mix up well with turpentine.
That should mix up fine, the clerk said.
The woman gave the clerk a fake name, and an address that did not exist, then paid a dime for the poison. Now she had all the ingredients for a sinister plot that would become the biggest threat yet to Rathom’s career.
The genesis of the plot that came together on Market Street dated back two years to late 1897.
Rathom, an ace Chronicle reporter, took a week’s vacation to Santa Cruz, a beach town about seventy-five miles south of San Francisco on Monterey Bay. Traveling without his wife, Mary, he checked in around November 13 to the finest hotel in the city, the Pacific Ocean House.
The Ocean House was a leisure spot for the upper classes of California society. It packed about a hundred rooms in a thick, redbrick building, with a long veranda above the first floor, like an elevated walkway. Guests reclined along the veranda in armchairs, listening to the thump of women’s heels on the wooden sidewalk below. The hotel made up for a lack of water view with a backyard that opened into aromatic gardens of roses and orange trees. Guests dined in the hotel restaurant on fresh trout pulled from local streams and fresh duck blasted out of local lagoons. Men puffed cigars to the clack of ivory in the billiard room and pounded drinks at the hotel’s mahogany bar, watching themselves in a wall of mirrors. Framed oil paintings hung on the opposite wall of the barroom, including one of a naked woman painted by A. D. M. Cooper, a California artist with a drinking problem who sometimes settled bar tabs with art. He would be known as the Rembrandt of the saloon nude.
At some point during his stay, Rathom met another Ocean House guest, a young West Virginian named Florence Mildred Campbell. Florence was twenty-four, unmarried, strikingly good-looking, ambitious, a feminist ahead of her time—educated at Hiram College in Ohio. She was politically active, too, having organized West Virginians behind Republican William McKinley in the presidential election of 1896.
Rathom did not know it then, but he was destined to be with Florence for the rest of his life. The love story they would write together would be entangled with lies, betrayal, and a sensational attempted murder plot.
Florence was the daughter of a Civil War veteran from back east, Milton L. Campbell, a Union Army lieutenant in the war. He died when Florence was sixteen. Her uncle, John A. Campbell, a well-wired lawyer, professor, banker, Republican politician, and judge in New Cumberland, West Virginia, took a role in raising her.
Three months before she met Rathom, Florence received an invitation to join a star-studded, fifty-four-member West Virginia delegation that crossed the country by train to witness the commissioning of a new gun-boat, the USS Wheeling, in San Francisco. The ship had been named for what was then West Virginia’s capital city. The mayor of Wheeling was part of the cross-country mission. So were the sheriff, county commissioners, local businessmen, and several journalists—it seemed everyone who could plausibly defend joining the junket was on the train. Six sitting congressmen headlined the delegation, including an ex-Confederate general, James A. Walker, who represented neighboring Virginia’s 9th District.*
When the delegation swept through Santa Cruz on a California tour in September, Florence Campbell stayed at the Pacific Ocean House, where she struck up a quick friendship with the proprietor, E. B. Pixley, who ran the hotel with his wife. A few weeks later, Florence wrote to Pixley for advice. The rest of the West Virginians were going home, but Florence wanted to spend the winter in California. She intended to support herself as a paid public speaker, presenting a talk she had originally delivered in West Virginia on the “new woman,” a hot-button term for the women’s liberation movement of the 1890s.
Pixley was a respected local businessman and show promoter, and he pulled strings for Florence. As it happened, the Santa Cruz Fourth of July and Encampment Committee had partied too hard in celebration of Independence Day 1897, America’s 121st birthday, and overspent itself into a $400 deficit. With Pixley’s coaxing, the committee agreed to host Florence’s lecture as a fundraiser at the Santa Cruz Opera House on November 12.
Florence’s talk was advertised in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Tickets cost fifty cents for good seats, about $16 today. It was a provocative topic, the new woman, more than two decades before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. It took some courage for Florence to lecture a packed house of strangers, some three thousand miles from home, on a pointed political and social controversy. The Irish writer Sarah Grand is credited with coining the term new woman, originally referring to women who objected to the power imbalance of marriage, though the term had evolved to include women who wanted equality in work and civic life. Traditionalists of the late nineteenth century despised the new woman the way social conservatives loathed the feminists of the 1960s, or, for that matter, the feminists of today.
Reporters covering Florence’s speech figured on being harangued for a miserable hour. They were happily surprised. “It was imagined that she would appear in bloomers or mannish costume,” the Sentinel reported the next day. “Instead an attractive young lady gowned in white, which was relieved by a bunch of carnations, stood before the audience. There was not a trace of the new woman as she is generally represented about her. She looked more like a sweet girl graduate at commencement exercises.” Florence spoke nervously, a little too softly for the big room, and in her gentle southern accent. There is no known transcript of her remarks, and only the barest summary in the paper: “Miss Campbell contended that women have the right to engage in any of the professions or in business if they were capable of doing so.”
Reviews of her speech were polite, though some attendees came away thinking they had just heard “a schoolgirl’s essay,” and the show marked the beginning and end of Florence’s California tour.
She went back to her room at the Ocean House, and at some point over the next several days made the acquaintance of a certain big-boned Australian.
Florence cultivated a friendship with Rathom. She moved to San Francisco. Rathom helped Florence get some light newspaper work, possibly at the Oakland Enquirer. He encouraged her in journalism, coached her, and for a short time Florence stayed with John and Mary Rathom, outside San Francisco in Mill Valley. The women became close, confiding in each other and often exchanging letters.
Rathom and Florence became even closer. They began having an affair.
Around the time Rathom and Florence were first getting together, another San Francisco journalist was already eyebrows-deep into an extramarital affair that would have deadly effects. It would blow up his career and reputation, put his liberty at risk, titillate newspaper readers across the nation, and unintentionally inspire a copycat that would push John Rathom’s life to the edge of a precipice.
Journalists, even competitors, are tight-knit, and it is likely that Rathom, a reporter for the Chronicle, would have known John Dunning, the San Francisco bureau chief for the Associated Press. Dunning was a plain-faced guy with a half-hearted mustache. He was a drunk, a problem gambler, and an insatiable womanizer. In 1897 Dunning was thirty-three and married to Mary Elizabeth Pennington, the daughter of a former Delaware congressman. Dunning was also two years into a raucous affair with a married woman.
Dunning had met his paramour, Cordelia Botkin, in Golden Gate Park, while fixing his bicycle after it had broken down during a ride. Botkin was stout, frumpy, and ten years older than Dunning, but fun and flirty. She lived a largely separate life from her estranged husband, a grain broker. Dunning asked Botkin out on a date, and soon they were shacking up among empty whiskey bottles at her apartment on Geary Street in San Francisco, laying bets together at the racetrack, and hosting booze and card parties like a frat house. Dunning’s life quickly ran off the rails. He gambled himself into debt and was fired for embezzling money from the Associated Press. His wife left him, took their child, and moved home to Dover, Delaware. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898 revived Dunning’s career. The Associated Press gave him another chance, rehiring Dunning to cover the war in the Caribbean. He bid good-bye to Botkin at a train station in Oakland, where he dropped some bad news. He missed his wife and wanted to save his marriage. When his war assignment was done, he was moving to Delaware to reconcile with his family. Botkin wept and begged him to reconsider. Dunning was firm—it was over.
It was not over for Botkin.
Soon, Dunning’s wife in Delaware began receiving bitter, anonymous letters in the mail, handwritten in messy swirls, as if by someone who was drunk, describing wild affairs her husband had enjoyed in California. The letters warned Mary not to take John Dunning back.
Then, on August 9, a package from California arrived by mail in Dover, addressed to Mrs. John P. Dunning. Inside was a lady’s handkerchief, a box of chocolates, and a note:
With love to yourself and baby—Mrs. C.
Mary had a couple of friends in California with names beginning with C, and she did not know which one had sent the package. All of Mary’s friends knew she was a chocaholic. Relaxing on the veranda at her parent’s home, Mary ate some candy and passed the box to her sister, her sister’s children, and a couple of family friends.
Everyone who ate the candy fell violently ill.
The children and friends recovered, but Mary’s sister died after two days. A doctor visiting on the morning of August 12 found Mary deathly ill, “in a state of collapse,” drenched in a cold sweat, her eyes and face swollen. Her lips were blue, and the membrane in her mouth and nose was inflamed and slimy. Her pulse was too weak to read at the wrist and she struggled to breathe. She told the doctor of a tingling throughout her legs and feet and “a burning and boiling sensation” in her stomach. The symptoms intensified throughout the day, until Mary died in agony around 8:45 that evening.
In the midst of the tragedy, Mary’s father realized the handwriting on the note that had come with the candies was similar to that of the angry anonymous letters Mary had received. He began to investigate. A chemist who examined the leftover candies concluded they had been laced with arsenic, a deadly poison both tasteless and odorless.
Mary Dunning and her sister had been murdered.
John Dunning received the news of his wife’s death while in Puerto Rico. He immediately left for Dover. Botkin had written Dunning hundreds of letters over the course of their affair. The moment he saw the anonymous notes sent to his wife, he knew who was responsible.
Cordelia Botkin was indicted in San Francisco on two counts of murder. The newspapers, not overly concerned with the presumption of innocence, dubbed her “the Dover Assassin.”
Botkin’s trial in December 1898 was a massive spectacle. No one had ever seen a case like it. Murder by mail. A steamy story of sex, booze, and adultery. Newspapers blew out their entire front pages chronicling the testimony. Wire services reported the happenings nationwide. Spectators jammed the court gallery every day and overflow crowds by the hundreds lingered around the courthouse waiting for morsels of news to leak out.
On December 30, 1898, Botkin was found guilty. She was spared the noose and sentenced to life in prison.
* Already famous for his war exploits, Walker would become an even bigger name, when, after losing reelection in 1898, he contested the vote and was wounded when a gunfight broke out during a deposition.
Excerpted from The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda and the Newman Who Battled for the Minds of America, by Mark Arsenault. Copyright, 2022. Published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.