In late 1898 in New York City, a Mrs. Katherine Adams suffered a headache and took a proffered dose of Bromo-Seltzer (a common late 19th century pain reliever), fell violently ill, and died. Her distant cousin, Harry Cornish, who had received the medication in the mail from an anonymous sender, also sampled the powder and became dangerously sick but eventually recovered. The coroner ruled that both Mrs. Adams and Harry had inadvertently ingested cyanide of mercury, a lethal poison.
The police arrested Roland, a son of the acclaimed former Union General Edward L. Molineaux. Roland was a dandy, a wealthy man who worked a low-level job in a paint factory while professing great athletic prowess. The trial began with the prosecution claiming Roland’s probable involvement in an eerily similar poisoning that occurred one month earlier. Harry Barnet, a onetime friend of Roland Molineaux’s, became a rival for Roland’s affections with one Blanche Chesebrough, a woman whom Roland married quite abruptly after Barnet’s sudden and untimely death. An exhumation of Barnet’s body later confirmed that Barnet had also ingested cyanide of mercury. (The case itself is lengthy and detailed – too involved to fully explain here, but a detailed overview of Roland’s legal battles can be found here.) This, the very beginning of the 20th century, was the dawn of modern journalism, when Hearst and Pulitzer paid for stories, filled their pages with lurid, overly dramatic, details, and courted controversy in order to increase sales.
The Molineaux case was to be monumental for many reasons. First, it was the infancy of forensic science, a time where handwriting experts, eyewitness testimony, and autopsies were first being used in trials, some to greater success than others. (Forensic stumbles here were echoed many years later during the O.J. Simpson trial. Who remembers the botched DNA evidence and glove-fitting episode?) This was also the first time the press was so heavily involved, both in reporting and in investigating the crime (Hearst and Pulitzer paid investigative reporters to “assist” the inquiry). Molineux was one of the very first criminal celebrities. Public sentiment against homosexuals, “deviant behavior”, justice for the wealthy vs. the poor, and the “effeminate crime of poisoning” were to play significant roles throughout the legal battles. Additionally, the events called into question common “medicines”. For the first time, people began to pay closer attention to what they were ingesting – the medications’ contents, quality, claims, and sources were no longer taken at face value. Finally, the case created legal precedents still in use today, one of which, called the “Molineux Rule” states that if a suspect has not been formally charged with other, previous crimes, then those instances may not be introduced as evidence in a current trial.
Roland was eventually found not guilty (the frailty of early forensics and eye witness testimony did not stand up under intense scrutiny) but was ultimately committed for insanity (according to his death certificate, he died as a result of the consequences of undiagnosed syphilis). His long-suffering wife Blanche divorced him but went on to have more difficulties of her own. The true victims, besides the poison victims, were almost certainly Roland’s parents, who never stopped believing in their son’s innocence though they spent years and much of their fortune trying to prove it.
The case itself is fascinating, but this book altogether was a chore. Every possible tangent and parallel (such as the first woman to die by the electric chair, detailed accounts of Roland’s prison meals, Blanche’s exact whereabouts at each time point, the activities of Hearst and Pulitzer’s agents, and other similar contemporary trials) are all explored at great length, which makes this a tome. The Molineux trials’ outcomes are not hard to predict, even half-way through the book, so the endless side bars simply prolong the inevitable. I think the historical importance of the case and the players’ stories could be told much more succinctly in a way that better places the events in context. Read the Cliff’s Notes version – this book takes far too long to say what is clearly evident early on.
Amazon link is here.