Poison through the US Mail

Mercury cyanide* would seem to be a particularly lethal combination of poisonous components. Cyanide is a deadly poison which acts rapidly and it might be thought that death would always be due to this rather than the mercury. However, the chemical bond between mercury and cyanide is strong, and what kills the victim may ultimately depend on the acidity of his or her stomach. In a famous American poisoning case this chemical killed two people, one by virtue of the mercury it contained, the other by virtue of the cyanide. The murderer who used it was Roland Burnham Molineux, the 32-year-old son of a famous American Civil War general, Edward Leslie Molineux, and a member of New York's high society. Despite his social advantages, Roland Molineux was a murderer. His method of delivering the mercury cyanide to his intended victims was via the US Mail, a somewhat hit-and-miss method; indeed his first attempt was a hit, but his second was a definite miss, although it did succeed in killing an entirely innocent victim.

In late October 1898, Henry Barnett of New York received a bottle of Kutnow's Powder through the post and took some of it. Kutnow's Powder was obtained by the evaporation of Carlsbad mineral water and was believed

to be good for all kinds of stomach upsets. Barnett was soon vomiting and had severe diarrhoea. Later he displayed the symptoms we can recognize as due to mercury poisoning and his mouth and kidneys were particularly affected. However, the doctor who attended him diagnosed diphtheria, and Barnett died on 10 November 1898, 12 days after taking the free sample of Kutnow's Powder. Jealousy was Molineux's reason for wanting Barnett out of the way. The two men were rivals for the affections of a Miss Blanche Cheseborough and she married Molineux only 11 days after Barnett had died.

The Kutnow's Powder that Barnett had received was later sent for analysis and shown to be 48% mercury cyanide. His body was exhumed several months later and certain organs analysed, and mercury found in the kidneys (56 ppm), liver (20 ppm), intestines (20 ppm), and brain (trace). That Barnett did not immediately die of cyanide poisoning can be attributed either to the fact that the solution he drank was not acidic, or that his stomach contents weren't. This latter state of affairs is very rare, but not unknown, and indeed it had saved the infamous Russian monk, Rasputin, who survived an attempt to poison him with potassium cyanide in 1916. The deadly form of cyanide is hydrogen cyanide (HCN) which requires acid for its formation.

Thinking he had got away with murder, Molineux struck again, this time sending a sample of Emerson's Bromo-seltzer to Harry Cornish, athletic director of the prestigious Knickerbocker Athletic Club at the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street. It arrived on Christmas Eve, 1898, together with a pretty silver stand to hold it in, and it was this which caused Cornish to give it to his widowed aunt Catherine Adams, because it was similar in style to other silver ornaments she had in her home, located near Central Park. Cornish lived at his aunt's house and he was there when she took some of the Bromo-seltzer for a headache on the morning of 28 December. Immediately she screamed and started writhing in agony; 30 minutes later she was dead. The contents of the bottle were later analysed and found to contain 42% mercury cyanide.

Among its various ingredients Bromo-seltzer contained tartaric acid. When it was dissolved in water this chemical reacted with the mercury cyanide to generate hydrogen cyanide, and it was from this that Catherine Adams died. But who had put the mercury cyanide in the bottle of Bromo-seltzer? It had to be someone with access to the chemical. And on what basis had the murderer chosen his victims? Both poisoned packages had been sent to members of the Knickerbocker Club, of which Barnett had been a prominent member, and officials of that club informed the police that they suspected Molineux of being responsible. He had been its champion gymnast, but he had resigned after rows with Cornish and Barnett in March 1898. Suspicions were confirmed when detectives learned that Molineux worked as a chemist in the laboratory of a paint manufacturer, and so had easy access to chemicals including mercury cyanide.

Police investigations eventually led to Molineux's arrest, and he was put on trial on 4 December 1899; in February 1900 he was found guilty of murder, entirely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. In 1901 his appeal came up before the New York Court of Appeals and they overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. This took place in October 1902 and Molineux was acquitted. On his release from jail he did not return to his old job but became a writer of short stories and novels, and he even penned a play about prison life. Some of his works were favourably reviewed, but he was eventually certified insane and died in 1917 in a mental hospital. The underlying cause of Molineux's insanity was syphilis contracted from one of the many prostitutes he frequented - his wife Blanche had divorced him several years earlier.

So why did Molineux choose mercury cyanide? It seems odd that he selected this poison when he could simply have used potassium cyanide, which was a commonly available chemical reagent. Maybe he wanted to be doubly certain that death would ensue, and indeed had he simply used potassium cyanide it is more than likely that Barnett would have survived.

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