The Poison Papers

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, a lot of headlines in the NJ Digital Newspaper Project papers deal with deaths and tragedy. I suppose this is to be expected, after all, tragedy nets an increase in views, or–at least in the age before computers–buys! Stumbling upon the headline below unleashed greater curiosity in our office regarding stories of poisoning in the papers! The image below is taken from the March 8, 1910 edition of the Perth Amboy Evening News.

Headline that reads "Mrs. Botkin dies in jail. She murdered wife of man she loved with poisoned candy"

Poisoning has a long history, with many infamous poisoners selecting arsenic as their concoction of choice. The above headline showcases a national criminal case regarding Cordelia Botkin’s crimes using arsenic-laced chocolates. Mrs. Cordelia Botkin was married to Welcome A. Botkin in 1872, but had an affair with John Preston Dunning in 1895. Welcome Botkin resided in Stockton, California but he and Cordelia later became estranged. Mr. Dunning was an Associated Press war journalist who worked in San Francisco while his family—including his wife— resided in Delaware.

When the affair ended, less than amicably, Mrs. Botkin had chocolates delivered to Mr. Dunning’s wife, the daughter of a former Congressman. Mrs. Dunning and her sister had sampled the box of chocolates and fell violently ill for two days before dying. Mr. Dunning, who was in Puerto Rico at the time, rushed back to Delaware for the investigation. Mr. Dunning admitted to three affairs in San Francisco and pinpointed Mrs. Botkin as a viable suspect which was proven to be true after a police investigation. After the court case was settled and the jury deemed Mrs. Botkin guilty, Mrs. Botkin spent the rest of her life in a women’s ward of San Quentin.

Headline that reads "Child poisoners Girls of Seventeen and Thirteen Gave their mother Paris green. Wayward and Wicked False charge against their brother-Insurance money the motive."

Poisoning by arsenic can be traced back to ancient Greek times and it is fascinating to read that it happened in New Jersey as well. Below is a headline describing the court proceedings in New Jersey of two sisters who had poisoned their mother, who survived . As described in the January 21, 1902 edition of the Jersey City News the teen girls accused their 15 year old brother of having purchased the Paris Green, which he vehemently denied. The Hoboken sisters ultimately admit to the older sister purchasing the poison and the younger slipping the powder into their mother’s tea.

Paris Green is an inorganic compound which utilized arsenic in its formulation that was developed by Carl Scheele in approximately 1775, so it is a fairly recent discovery in terms of poisons. Its original use was as a pigment for paint formulations, wallpaper formulations, and fabrics. Its lethalness was not recognized until the end of the 1800s. It is even speculated that Napoleon’s death in 1821 can be partially attributed to his Paris Green wallpaper in the house he resided in toward the end of his life. 

Below are some of the headlines from articles that tell the story of the the two teen poisoners as they go through the court proceedings!

From the March 28, 1902 edition of the Jersey City News, below reports on the court case as it progressed, including more details than the original article regarding motive and means.

Headline that reads "Hardened young prisoner Girl who tried to kill her mother pleads not guilty"

From the April 10, 1902 edition of the Jersey City News:

Headline that reads "Child Borgia Hoboken girl attempts to poison her mother with Paris green. Indifferent to her crime Parents punished her because she stole from her to buy theatre tickets."

The April 23, 1902 edition of the Jersey City News reports below on the results following the court case involving the older daughter named Annie.

Headline that reads "Annie is Free. Girl accused of poisoning her mother released from the county jail"

Below, the May 9, 1902 edition of the Jersey City News reports on the younger sister’s new housing situation following the court proceedings.

Headline that reads "Lizzie Thomas's New Home Little girl who tries to poison her mother goes to a day nursery"

If you’re interested in reading more about Paris Green in wallpaper, take a glance at this Smithsonian Magazine article!

(Contributed by: Natalie Lau)


Dartmouth toxic metals. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2021, from

Dowd, K. (2016, October 11). Murder by mail: The story of San Francisco’s most INFAMOUS female poisoner. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from

History magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2021, from

Monroe, H. (2020, May 09). The heinous crimes of cordelia botkin. Retrieved April 11, 2021, from

2 comments for “The Poison Papers

Leave a Reply