People v. Molineux

Citation168 N.Y. 264,61 N.E. 286
Decision Date15 October 1901
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


Appeal from court of general sessions, New York county.

Roland B. Molineux was convicted of murder, and appeals. Reversed.

John G. Milburn, Bartow S. Weeks, George Gordon Battle, and H. Snowden Marshall, for appellant.

Eugene A. Philbin, Dist, Atty. (David B. Hill, of counsel), for respondent.


In various forms and in several separate counts the indictment herein charges the defendant with the crime of murder in the first degree. The substance of the charge is that defendant killed one Katharine J. Adams while engaged in the commission of a felony upon and against the body of one Harry S. Cornish. The agency charged to have been employed for this purpose is cyanide of mercury, a rare and deadly poison, which is said to have been sent through the mails by the defendant to said Cornish with the intent that it should be taken by the latter. Direct evidence was adduced upon the trial to establish the fact that Cornish received by mail a package which contained cyanide of mercury, and that he innocently administered to said Katharine J. Adams a portion of its contents, thereby causing her death. The legal questions which it is our duty to consider upon this appeal cannot be intelligently discussed without a clear understanding of the complicated facts and circumstances upon which the prosecution seeks to sustain the judgment of conviction against the defendant. In the effort to simplify the recital of these facts and circumstances we shall classify them into the several separate co-ordinate groups to which they belong, without reference to their chronological relation to each other, and without discussing the competency of the evidence by which they are claimed to have been established.

The facts which bear immediately upon the death of Katharine J. Adams and its cause are as follows: On the morning of December 24, 1898, Cornish received through the mail a package in which was found a pale blue box containing a silver bottle holder and a blue bottle bearing a ‘Bromo Seltzer’ label, and filled with a powder purporting to be ‘Bromo Seltzer.’ The bottle fitted into the bottle holder. Accompanying these articles was a small envelope of the kind in general use for inclosing cards which are sent with gifts. There was no card in the envelope. Cornish, believing that some person had sent him a Christmas gift, and finding no card, recovered the outside wrapper of the package, which had been thrown into the waste basket, and found written upon it the address Mr. Harry Cornish, Knickerbocker Athletic Club, Madison Avenue and Forty-Fifth St., New York City.’ He cut, or tore, this address from the wrapper and placed it in his desk, together with the envelope, the bottle, and silver bottle holder. On the following day, December 25, 1898, Cornish, who was a member of the household of Katharine J. Adams, mentioned the receipt of these articles to the latter and her daughter, Mrs. Rodgers, and on the 27th of December, 1898, he took them home with him and exhibited them to the same persons. As a result of the conversation which ensued, Cornish presented the silver bottle holder to Mrs. Rodgers, who had other toilet articles resembling it in design. Cornish placed the ‘Bromo Seltzer’ bottle on the dresser in his room, and retired for the night. On the next morning, December 28, 1898, Cornish arose shortly before 9 o'clock, and went to the door for his morning paper. In passing the kitchen door he observed Mrs. Adams with her head bandaged, and a few minutes later Mrs. Rodgers informed Conish that her mother had a headache, and asked him for some of the Bromo Seltzer he had brought home. Cornish gave the bottle to Mrs. Rodgers, who attempted to open it, without success, and she thereupon returned it to Cornish, requesting him to do so. He opened the bottle, and, after reading the directions upon the label, he poured a teaspoonful of the contents into a glass held by Mrs. Adams, and stirred it while she poured water upon it from another glass. After the dose had been prepared Mrs. Adams drank from it. As she put down the glass she commented upon the peculiar taste of the mixture, whereupon Cornish remarked, ‘Why that stuff is all right,’ and swallowed a portion of what remained in the glass. Meanwhile Mrs. Adams had started for the kitchen, and in less than a minute Mrs. Rodgers called from the bathroom for help for Mrs. Adams. As Cornish arose from his chair to respond to the summons, his ‘knees went out from under him,’ but by an effort he succeeded in reaching Mrs. Adams just as she dropped to the floor in a state of collapse. Cornish, being unable to lift Mrs. Adams, the daughter called a Mr. Hovey, who was in the house, and together they carried Mrs. Adams to a couch in the dining room. Cornish dispatched a hall boy for a physician, returned for his coat and hat, picked up the bottle from which the dose had been taken, and ran to a neighboring druggist, who gave him aromatic spirits of ammonia, with directions for administering it. Cornish returned to the house, and Dr. Hitchcock closely followed him. The doctor hurried to Mrs. Adams, who was breathing hard, her face overspread with a dark blue pallor and exhibiting evidence of great pain. Restorative measures were employed without avail, and upon the arrival of Dr. Potter, who had also been sent for, Mrs. Adams was dead. During the period which elapsed between the taking of the does and the death of Mrs. Adams, Cornish had been retching and trying to vomit. After the death of Mrs. Adams, Dr. Hitchcock went in to see Cornish, who told him that Mrs. Adams had taken a dose of Bromo Seltzer, and handed the bottle to the doctor. Mrs. Rodgers informed Dr. Hitchcock that Cornish had taken some of the same stuff that Mrs. Adams had taken. The doctor put his finger into the bottle, and, extracting some of the powder, tasted it. He detected the odor of almonds, which is the characteristic odor of the cyanogen group of poisons, of which prussic acid is the base. He began to feel ill, and took whisky to counteract the effect of the powder. Dr. Hitchcock then took possession of the Bromo Seltzer bottle, the silver bottle holder, and the address. He and Cornish left the house together, and went to an undertaker. There they separated, the doctor returning to his home, and Cornish going down town to see Assistant District Attorney McIntyre, to notify him of Mrs. Adams' death. After seeing McIntyre, Cornish called upon a personal friend named Yocum, a chemist by profession, who noticed that Cornish looked ill, and prevailed upon him to take a drink of whisky, which he was not able to retain. Then Cornish proceeded to the office of his cousin, Louis H. Cornish, who was also a cousin of Mrs. Rodgers, the daughter of Mrs. Adams, and informed him of the latter's death. From thence Cornish went to the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, where he lay down upon the bed in Yocum's room. During the whole of his trip down town and return Cornish had been ill, the journey being marked by frequent interruptions necessitated by the condition of his stomach and bowels. Soon after arriving at the clubhouse he sent for Dr. Phillips, who could not be found immediately, and Dr. Coffin, who happened to be in the clubhouse, was requested to see Cornish. He found Cornish in bed, belching gas from his stomach, and his bowels and stomach considerably distended. The patient's pulse was weak and intermittent. There was no odor which the doctor recognized. He diagnosed the case as one of gastric enteritis. He sent for stomach and rectal tubes, and, while waiting for them, Dr. Phillips arrived. The two doctors, Phillips and Coffin, treated Cornish. The latter was pale and ashen. He had the appearance of having passed through a long illness. The first police officer to arrive at the Adams house was Patrolman Palmer. This was in the afternoon of December 28, 1898. From there he went to Dr. Hitchcock and got the Bromo Seltzer bottle, the bottle holder, and the address taken from the wrapper. These he turned over to Dr. Weston, the coroner's physician. The latter visited the Adams house and viewed the body of Mrs. Adams. On the following day, December 29, 1898, Captain McClusky, chief of the detective bureau of New York, took charge of the police investigation. On the same day Dr. Weston performed an autopsy on the body of Mrs. Adams, as a result of which he later concluded that the death of Mrs. Adams was due to poisoning which resulted from hydrocyanic acid, or one of its salts, which is produced by the combination of cyanide of mercury with the ingredients of Bromo Seltzer. On the following day, December 31, 1898, Prof. Withaus, an expert chemist, made an anaylsis of the contents of the Bromo Seltzer bottle, and later reported that it contained a mixture of Bromo Seltzer and cyanide of mercury. The same chemist also analyzed the sediment of the glass from which the dose administered to Mrs. Adams, and tasted by Cornish, had been taken. This was found to contain cyanide of mercury. The organs of Mrs. Adams were also subjected to an analytical examination by Prof. Withaus, which demonstrated that Mrs. Adams had bied from mercuric cyanide poisoning. A pathological examination of these organs by Dr. Ferguson disclosed the presence of corrosive poison, which he described as cyanogen, or prussic acid, which is a poison resulting from cyanide of mercury. The death of Mrs. Adams and its immediate cause were, therefore, clearly established.

The logical and orderly narration of this grewsome tragedy naturally leads, next, to a consideration of the facts and circumstances which are relied upon by the prosecution to connect the defendant with the death of Mrs. Adams. We will first address ourselves to those which have no relation to handwriting or to the commission of any other crime than the killing of Mrs. Adams. In 18...

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