By Jim Harmon

I see in the paper that Miss Daisy Dawson hosted the Calamity Whist club at her home in Butte last Tuesday evening and Mrs. George F. Lyman of Anaconda visited Butte friends yesterday.

But such social-calendar reporting was rather mundane and unremarkable compared to what I found on page eight of the Butte Daily Inter-Mountain newspaper of February 4, 1899.

“Death in the mail,” was the headline on a story detailing the return of “the lost art of poisoning.” Forget about Lucretia Borgia. In 1899, all sorts of poisons were readily available to those prone to the darker side of life.

Plus they discovered that using the U.S. Postal Service was a perfect way to distance themselves from the scene of the crime.

Butte Daily Inter-Mountain newspaper - February 4, 1899
Butte Daily Inter-Mountain newspaper - February 4, 1899

Among the most prominent of the medicine-murderers were Dr. Thomas Thacher Graves of Providence, Rhode Island, and Mrs. Cordelia Brown Botkin of San Francisco.

Dr. Graves, by all accounts a well-liked man in his community, met Mrs. Josephine Barnaby of Denver while she was vacationing in New England. (The Barnaby family is an important part of Providence, Rhode Island history; its Victorian mansion, a castle like structure, is available these days to rent as an event space).

Graves became her physician and, later, when Mr. Barnaby died, became her financial advisor as well. Graves advised the widow to move to Colorado where the fresh mountain air would benefit her health. She was accompanied by Mrs. Edward S. Worrell of Chester, Penn.

Soon she received a “strangely shaped” bottle of liquor in the mail, with a note saying, "With best wishes. Accept this fine old whiskey from your friends in the woods." She naturally assumed it was from her friends back East in the Adirondacks.

Within hours of opening the bottle, Mrs. Barnaby was dead and Mrs. Worrell dying. The whiskey, investigators determined, was laced with deadly “arsenite of sodium.”

Skektch of Dr. Thomas Thacher Graves, Butte Daily Inter-Mountain newspaper
Skektch of Dr. Thomas Thacher Graves, Butte Daily Inter-Mountain newspaper

Dr. Graves demanded “no effort be spared to apprehend the guilty person.” It backfired. Police could find no “other person who could have wished for her death.”

In her will, Mrs. Barnaby had left him a large sum of money. They also found “irregularities in the management of her estate.”

Then a Boston Herald newspaper investigative reporter discovered Dr. Graves (as a young physician) was skilled in making patent medicines. He also found a similar type of container from years earlier which was used specifically to package arsenite of sodium.

Dr. Graves was arrested, taken to Colorado, tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Before the sentence could be carried out, though, Graves killed himself with the very poison with which he was so familiar (apparently smuggled into jail by a visitor).

attachment-Drawing - Mrs. Cordelia Brown Botkin

In another case involving “death by mail,” Cordelia Brown Botkin sent poisoned candy to her ex-lover's wife to get back at her cheating husband.

Let’s unwrap that complicated story: Cordelia married a man named Welcome Botkin. They had one child, a boy. Over time, Cordelia became estranged from Botkin. Despite that, he continued to supported her financially.

Cordelia met John Preston Dunning in San Francisco. She was 41. He was 32. Dunning, a well-known newspaper reporter with a drinking problem, was immediately smitten.

Apparently this was nothing new. Dunning was known for his “marital indiscretions.” Botkin, too, was smitten. Their affair went on for three years.

It ended when Dunning abruptly told Botkin he had reconciled with his wife and was off to Cuba to cover the Spanish–American War.

She did not take it well and began sending anonymous letters to Elizabeth Dunning describing her husband's affairs. She followed up by sending Elizabeth and her sister a box of candies (anonymously) with a note reading, "With love to yourself and baby."

Both Elizabeth and her older sister died from the arsenic poisoning. It was Elizabeth's father who broke the case, pointing out that the handwriting on the candy-box note matched all those “taunting letters” she had received, and which he kept filed away.

Sketch of Poisoned Candy
Sketch of Poisoned Candy

Botkin was tried and convicted in 1898. She appealed and won a new trial, but was once again convicted and sentenced to life. She died in 1920 while in San Quentin Prison, near San Francisco.

Today, a poisoning death using the U.S. Postal Service has become virtually impossible to commit without being caught, given our modern scientific methods of detection.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at