Dr Arthur Warren Waite: The "Happy Poisoner" Who Murdered His In-Laws

Dr Arthur Warren Waite poisoned his in-laws, Hannah and John Peck in 1916. The case shocked the country and the trial made news headlines across the world. The man dubbed the "Happy Poisoner" was executed by electric chair.

Dr Arthur Warren Waite was executed by electric chair.
Dr Arthur Warren Waite was executed by electric chair.

A man being tried for a double murder might be expected to show a certain degree of strain and anxiety, particularly after having pleaded not guilty. Dr Arthur Warren Waite, a 28-year-old dentist, was exactly the opposite. Throughout the hearing, he remained relaxed, urbane, and amused. At times during the prosecution case he laughed heartily, and when his own turn came to give evidence he admitted cheerfully - despite his not-guilty pleas - that everything the prosecution had said about him was true. Not to put too fine a point on it, he added, he was really even more outrageous and contradictory a character than they had made out.

Yes, he had indeed murdered his mother-in-law, Mrs Hannah Peck, wife of a drug millionaire, when she came to visit her daughter, Clara. Waite had married Clara in September 1915. Mrs Peck arrived at their home on fashionable Riverside Drive, New York, just before Christmas of that year. By January 30, 1916, this apparently healthy woman was dead. A doctor-certified kidney disease.

But now Waite, with the air of a man relating a diverting story at a cocktail party, was confessing: "I started poisoning her from the very first meal after she arrived. I gave her six assorted tubes of pneumonia, diphtheria, and influenza germs in her food. When she finally became ill and took to her bed, I ground up 12 five-grain veronal tablets and gave her that, too, last thing at night." And then? "Why I guess I went back to sleep," he shrugged. "I woke up in the small hours. My mother-in-law was dead. I went back to bed again so that it would be my wife who would discover the body."

Tubes of Typhoid

He then went on, in the same bantering manner, to outline his six-week struggle to kill his father-in-law. Mr Peck came for a visit early in February to cheer himself up after his wife's funeral. By March 12, this sturdy old man of 71 was dead as well.

"I used to insert tubes of typhoid, pneumonia, influenza, and diphtheria in his soups and rice puddings," Waite continued gaily. "Once I gave him a nasal spray filled with tuberculosis bacteria. Nothing seemed to affect him, so I used to let off the occasional tube or two of chlorine gas in his bedroom, hoping the gas would weaken his resistance like it did with the soldiers at the front. I used to put some stuff on the electric heater so that if he noticed a funny smell I could say it was something burning.

"Still nothing happened. I tried to give him pneumonia by putting water in his Wellingtons, damping his sheets, opening his window, and wetting the seat of the automobile before taking him out for a drive. That didn't work either."

Becoming desperate, he had toyed with the idea of faking a car accident. Finally, unable to bring himself to resort to such violence, he had settled for arsenic. However, even after a full 18 grains - far more than the fatal dose - the tough old man was still alive although in a bad way.

"On the night of March 12 he was in great pain," Waite explained, "and he wanted some ammonia and ether. I couldn't find any, but in Clara's medicine chest there was some chloroform, so I gave him that. It did him good, so I gave him a second dose to make sure, and then I held the pillow over his nose and mouth until he was finished."

The jurors, who had regarded Waite with some horror at the start of his recital, had by now become infected with his bonhomie. They swopped smiles with him, and some even gave vent to hysterical giggles as Waite went on to reveal that the two murders were only part of the story. He had also tried to kill his wife's aunt, the rich Miss Cathrine Peck - despite the fact that he was something of a favourite of hers.

Germs and Arsenic

"I gave her repeated doses of germs, then some arsenic, and after that some ground glass," he related, "I also injected live germs into a can of fish before presenting it to her." He had abandoned this attempt at murder, he explained, because Mrs Peck had come to stay for Christmas, and he couldn't see the point of murdering the aunt when there were so much richer pickings to be obtained by murdering his mother-in-law.

Given time, he also confessed, he would almost certainly have murdered his wife, Clara. "She was not my equal in anything," he said. "When I had got rid of her I meant to find a more beautiful wife."

Mr and Mrs Peck were both killed by Arthur Waite
Mr and Mrs Peck were both killed by Arthur Waite

Earlier, the prosecution had filled in the background to Waite's life and the circumstances which led to his arrest. In the fall of 1914, he had returned to his birthplace, Grand Rapids, Michigan, after an absence of several years, during which he had worked as a dentist in South Africa. He had a dental surgeon's degree from Glasgow University in Scotland, a British accent, and a ferocious talent for tennis which soon made him the local champion. In the bank, he also had $20,000, a useful sum in those days.

"Waite met and began his courtship of his wife almost immediately," said the prosecution, "and they were married the following September." Waite's charm and slender good looks made an immediate hit in the New York social circles to which his new wife introduced him. Two people with whom he quickly became intimate friends were Dr Jacob Cornell, of the Cornell Medical School, and Dr Cornell's sister, Mrs Henry Hardwicke.

In addition to setting himself up in dental practice, Waite began to do serious research at the Medical School where later - as the need arose - he was able to lay hands on a plentiful supply of germs to slip into his in-law's food.

Mrs Waite told the court of her surprise, after her mother's unexpected death, when Waite said it had been Mrs Peck's last wish to be cremated. "It was the first I'd heard of it," she said. On the night of March 12, she heard Arthur, who had been sitting up with her father, ring the doctor. Later he came into the bedroom in his robe, looking disturbed, and said: "I don't think Dad's too good."

Already Dead

She rushed to her father's room, but he was already dead. Once again she was surprised when Arthur told her: "It was Dad's wish to be cremated." Nevertheless, she accepted his word. The next day Arthur busied himself having the body embalmed and making arrangements for it to be taken, first to Grand Rapids, then to Detroit.

The only time he did not seem his normal charming, helpful and urbane self was when Dr Cornell called to pay his respects. Arthur was irritable and offhand with him. In fact, he refused initially to let him see the body of his old friend who, according to the death certificate, had died, like Mrs Peck, of kidney disease. His behaviour was so uncharacteristically brusque that Dr Cornell commented upon it that evening to his sister. That comment was to lead to Arthur's undoing.

Arthur and his wife - plus the coffin - set out by train for the Middle West at five o'clock the next morning. The Family party waiting at Grand Rapids station included Percy Peck, Clara's elder brother, and Aunt Catherine Peck. Aunt Catherine - unaware at this stage that Arthur had set out at one time to kill her with germs, arsenic, and ground glass - was her usual friendly self. But Percy seemed hostile and withdrawn.

Nobody thought that too strange. Percy had lost his father and mother in the space of six weeks. Over and above the natural grief and shock, he and Arthur had never really got on too well. Percy had something else on his mind, however. That morning he had received an anonymous telegram, later discovered to have come from Mrs Hardwicke, saying; "Don't allow cremation until an autopsy has been carried out."

"Everything's fixed," Arthur announced efficiently. "I've arranged for poor Dad's body to go right on to Detroit to be cremated. I'll go with it and see this sad business finished. Would any of you folks like to come with me?" Percy, however, wanted to do more than that. "Just a minute," he said bluntly. "I guess we aren't in all that hurry to see the last of Father. I'll see to the coffin."

Arthur professed to be puzzled. "I can't understand what that brother of yours is up to," he said to Clara, as they hurried off to see the family lawyer about her father's will. "Why can't he let poor old Dad have this last wish carried out?" Then, as they travelled back to New York later that day, Arthur had recaptured his customary good spirits. Dad had left more than a million dollars, including a bequest of $2000 to Arthur's father "out of regard for his son."

Bombshell News

Back on Riverside Drive, Arthur's high spirits did not last long. First came the bombshell news that Percy asked for an autopsy. Newspaper reporters descended on Arthur's doorstep. Others were let loose in New York, Michigan, Glasgow, and South Africa. Gradually it emerged that Arthur was by no means the straightforward pillar of respectability that he claimed to be. There was another, and twisted, side to his personality.

As a boy, he had been in trouble several times over thefts from his parents, relatives, employers, schoolmates, and others. While at the dental college at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he had been expelled from his fraternity for an act of dishonesty. He had used false papers to help him get a quick degree at Glasgow University so that he could practice in South Africa.

In South Africa itself, his attempt to marry an heiress had been foiled by her father on the grounds of Arthur's "unsavoury reputation". As the dossier built up, the New York newspapers suggested pointedly that the $20,000 he had brought home from South Africa could not have been come by honestly. Finally, the press broke the story that - married less than six months, and in the process of murdering his father-in-law - Arthur had also been carrying on a passionate affair with a married singer named Margaret Horton.

Mrs Clara Peck & Mrs Percy Peck
Ms Clara Peck & Mr Percy Peck

In the middle of this trial by publicity, Arthur, beginning to feel desperate, telephoned Aunt Cathrine at her New York apartment. His voice sounded strained. "What is the best thing for a man to do who has been cornered?" he asked... "Do you think suicide would be the right thing?"

Aunt Catherine counselled him against it. But it was the course he decided to take when the news was ultimately released that five grains of arsenic had been found in old Mr Peck's body after several days of tests. On March 23 police, who had him under surveillance by now, broke into the Riverside Drive apartment and found Arthur dying from a drug overdose. He was rushed, sobbing "not to be taken to prison", to Bellvue Hospital, where his life would be saved.

In the dock, Arthur listened good-humouredly - very much the man of the world - as witnesses unfolded this tale. From time to time he gave an amused chuckle. As a dentist, it was explained, he had bought the arsenic quite openly, claiming that he wanted it to "kill a cat". Books about the uses and effects of arsenic had been found in his flat with the pages marked. Initially, however, he had claimed to buy the arsenic at Mr Peck's request.

"He was so wretched about his own life after his wife's death that he implored me to provide him with the means of self-destruction," he explained. "That was all I did. I did not administer the poison to him, nor did I see him take any. But, of course, you won't believe me. I suppose I'll go to the chair."

Arthur, the court learned, had also been caught out in an attempt to bribe two witnesses to keep silent. One was Dora, his maid. He had offered her $1000 not to reveal that she had seen him "putting white powder into Mr Peck's food". The other was Eugene Kane, an embalmer, who asserted that Arthur had given him $9000 to say there had been arsenic in the embalming fluid injected into Mr Peck's body.

Small Embalmer

The appearance of the small, bespectacled embalmer clearly tickled Arthur's fancy, and he burst out laughing several times during Kane's testimony. Kane explained how Arthur had come out of a telephone booth and "pushed a roll of notes in my pocket".

Prosecution: Did you know what it was for?

Kane: No, I thought it must have been for something I had done.

Prosecution: He told you, though, didn't he?

Kane: He said: "Put some arsenic in that fluid and send it down to the District Attorney."

Prosecution: Were you nervous?

Kane: I certainly was

Prosecution: Did you count the money when you got home?

Kane: No. I tried to, but I was too nervous. I saw some fifties and some hundreds and that's all.

Prosecution: Any large bills?

Kane: Yes sir. Two five-hundred-dollar bills. I hid the money in a closet. I tried to count it two or three times. Finally, I went to Long Island and buried it. I went to Greenport, 'way to the east end of the island. I don't remember just how long I stayed. I was too nervous.

Prosecution: Did you deliver a sample of embalming fluid to the District Attorney's office?

Kane: Yes.

It was after this exchange that Arthur himself went into the witness box. He did not refuse any of the testimony given against him. Rather, with the aid of his attorney, he did everything in his power to embellish it and blacken himself still further. After he had confessed to the murder of his in-laws, the start of his attempt to murder Aunt Cathrine, and his intention one day to murder his wife, his counsel asked: "Why did you want to kill them?"

"For their money," he answered laconically, "I've always needed lots of money, and it has never worried me how I get a hold of it." Into his evidence dropped various asides about himself and the world around him. He confided that he had always considered himself "attractive and charming". "Everyone liked me," he said disarmingly.

Reincarnation was a topic to which he returned frequently. "I believe," he explained, "that, although my body lives in America, my soul lives in secret in Egypt. It is the man from Egypt who has committed these foul crimes." When the prosecution pressed him for the details of his other life by the banks of the Nile, however, there was not much he could recall. He mentioned Caesar, Cleopatra, and the pyramids - to the last of which he applied the improbable adjective "voluptuous".

Streak of Piety

The whole purpose of this charade - carried through with unflagging style, laced with wit and laughter - was to implant in the minds of the jury the thought: "surely such a civilized and intelligent man could not have carried out the crimes to which he has confessed so freely and, at the same time, be so sane?" One entire day towards the end of the trial was taken up with a series of witnesses paying tribute to Arthur's impeccable manners and gentle heart.

He had a strong streak of piety in him, some stated, and had attended church regularly while in the process of poisoning his relatives. An alienist told the court that Arthur had informed him: "Miss Peck, said that when she remembered how beautifully I had sung hymns in church while my wife's relations were visiting us, she could not believe that I committed the crimes. It was my real self that appeared then."

"Whatever they may say of me," he announced on one occasion. "I pride myself on being kind and always giving water to flowers so they will not die. They are beautiful. This is nature,"

There were, of course, experts for the defence to say that a man who could murder in such cold blood, and talk about it afterwards in such a carefree manner, could not be sane. And there were prosecution experts to assert that Arthur gave the normal responses and was sane. The judge finally ruled in favour of the prosecution. He had, in part, been swayed by his irritation over Arthur's constant smile. But far more vital was the evidence of Margret Horton.

Between February 22 and March 18, Arthur and the singer had spent many hours together in a studio she rented at the Hotel Plaza in New York. According to her husband, Harry Horton, a 56-year-old dealer in war supplies: "They were brought together by a mutual interest in art and modern languages. She made the kind of mistake any young woman might be guilty of. I personally am ready to forgive her."

Arthur Waite's guilty verdict made headlines across the country
Arthur Waite's guilty verdict made headlines across the country

It was Mrs Horton's disclosures that robbed him of any slender chance he might have had of escaping the death sentence. At the time when rumours and innuendos about Arthur were being voiced, she remembered him inviting her to his laboratory - where he showed her various tiny germs wriggling under a microscope.

She had brought everything out into the open by asking: "You didn't really do it did you, Arthur?"

"Yes," he had answered. "It's true, I did."

After his arrest, Arthur had sent her a letter which she subsequently destroyed on the advice of his attorney. Under pressure, however, she had to admit that she could remember some damning words from it. "If they prove it. I suppose it will mean la chaise, but I hope and expect to spend a while in detention as an imbecile, and then I'll be free again to join you..."

It was this, more than anything else, that impelled the judge to rule that Arthur was not a moral imbecile but was fit to plead: madmen do not, as a rule, show so calculated a faith in the benefits to be derived from their insanity.

Waite was found guilty in May 1916 and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing. The case dragged on, however, until the following spring, pending hearings in the Court of Appeals and before a lunacy commission. In the third week of May 1917, both bodies decided that there were no grounds for interfering with the verdict of the lower court.

The condemned man responded with a gesture matching the performance he had put on in court a year earlier. He sent the following letter to Warden Moyer from the death cell:

"Dear Sir: In one of the newspapers today is the statement: 'A. W. Waite to die next week.' On inquiry, I learn that you have power to name the day. I am sure you would not be averse to obliging me if you found it possible and reasonable to do so, and I wonder if we could not arrange for Monday of next week. There really is a reason for asking this, although I will not trouble you with explanations. I would be very grateful indeed for this favour. Yours respectfully, Arthur Warren Waite."

This latest touch of bravado convinced many outsiders that, despite what the experts said, he must surely be abnormal to crave as early a death as possible and show so little fear. They were even more convinced when he walked calmly to the chair on the morning of May 24, 1917, with a boyish smile on his somewhat effeminate lips. He was in full control of himself right to the end, reading the Bible and Keats before he was finally taken to the execution chamber. In his cell was later found the beginning of a poem he had started to write. The first two lines read:

"Call us with morning faces, Eager to labour, eager to be happy"

At the autopsy - after Waite had been killed with two shocks of 2000 volts each - doctors found the scars of an old meningitis operation on the right side of the cerebellum. This they thought could be the result of a fall or a blow on the head in childhood. But, they added, they did not think that would affect Waite's sanity.

The other discovery they made was that he had an abnormally large heart.

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