Inside the impressive portals of New York's Knickerbocker Athletic Club no love was lost between Roland Molineux and Harry Cornish. They continually quarrelled over how the club's activities should be run and Molineux had even threatened to resign unless Cornish was removed as athletics director.
Naturally when Cornish burst into the club just before Christmas 1898 doubled up with laughter over a joke someone had played on him Roland Molineux did not join in the general merriment.
"Look at this," Cornish said. "Someone must imagine I'm going to have a pretty wild Christmas." He held up a small box containing a bottle of bromoseltzer - a well known hangover remedy - fixed into a handsome silver casket. The present had been sent anonymously, but Cornish had taken off the address thinking that he might sometime be able to recognise the handwriting.
That evening he took the present back to the house he shared with his aunt, Mrs Katherine Adams, and her daughter, presenting it to his aunt saying she might find some use for it! Indeed, the next morning, when Mrs Adams awoke with a headache, she gratefully poured herself a dose of the seltzer saying how lucky she was to have it in the house.
She soon changed her mind. "How bitter it tastes," she remarked. A few moments later she was unconscious on the floor. By the time a doctor had arrived she was dead. A post-mortem revealed she had died from cyanide poisoning. The mysterious Christmas present had contained enough cyanide to kill at least two dozen people.
Police inquiries soon produced some interesting clues. A jeweller reported that he had sold a silver bottle container to a "man in a sandy beard" and a wig maker claimed that he had sold a false beard to a customer who said he wanted it for a fancy-dress party.
Shown a series of photographs of acquaintances of Harry Cornish, both shopkeepers picked out the same picture as being "something like the man in the beard." The man they picked was Richard Molineux. After a number of handwriting experts had identified Molineux's handwriting on the mysterious present he was arrested and charged with the murder of Mrs Adams.
"I am absolutely and entirely innocent," he said in an alleged statement. "I don't like Cornish, that is true, but it never entered my mind that I should kill him."
The authorities thought otherwise and on November 14, 1899, Molineux, appeared before Judge John Goff and a jury at New York's Central Criminal Court accused of first degree murder. "The motive," declared Prosecutor James Osborne, "was one of utter hatred for Harry Cornish for whom the poison was undoubtedly intended." He said that seven experts had declared that the writing on the poison package was Molineux's even though he had made efforts to disguise it. And the accommodation address to which the ingredients of the poison had been sent had been rented from a Mr Heckman by a man who "looked remarkably like Molineux." In court, under cross-examination by Mr John Weekes for the defence, Heckman admitted that he had accepted $350 from a newspaper in return for identifying the accused.
"You see so many people," he said with a shrug. "Maybe it was him, maybe not. I can't be certain any more." Similar doubts plagued the sales girl who had actually sold the bottle holder. "Was Mr Molineux the purchaser?" asked Mr Weekes. "Looking at him here, I don't think so," she replied. "I am almost positive of that."
In court Roland Molineux, at 32 a powerful and athletic figure, gave his evidence with impressive simplicity. "The handwriting experts who have testified against me have said what they think is the truth," he told the jury. "But I know that these hands never put pen to paper to address that poison package." He maintained that Harry Cornish had actually murdered Mrs Adams. "Remember that it was Cornish not me who gave her the poison," he reminded the jury. He claimed that he had been the victim of circumstances and there was not a shred of evidence to connect him with the poison bottle ... "which I had absolutely nothing to do with is not surprising."
The jury were out for nearly 10 hours. What would your verdict have been?
Roland Molineux was found guilty of the murder of Katherine Adams and sentenced to death. He appealed and a new trial was ordered. Two years later he was found not guilty and released. He died in 1917 while a patient in a hospital for the insane.