“We believe that the prosecution has failed to establish its charge”
The son of Edward Leslie Molineux, an American Civil War Union general and a big shot in the Republican Party, 30-year-old Roland Burnham Molineux was born into a wealthy and distinguished family. A handsome playboy, he was also an inveterate snob. A member of the elite Knickerbocker Athletic Club at Madison Avenue and 45th Street, he demanded that the club secretary bar anyone whose pedigree was not quite smart enough. In 1898 Molineux fell for the young and sexy opera singer Blanche Cheeseborough who, despite having only one eye, was regarded as a catch.
He soon found himself competing for her affections with Henry C. Barnet, a successful New York City stockbroker. In November of that year Mr Barnet received in the post Kutnow Powder, a popular stomach remedy. Believing it was a reputable free sample, he took the powder. He fell violently ill and died on 10 November. The official cause of death: cardiac asthenia induced by diptheric poisoning. Less than three weeks later, on 29 November, Molineux married Blanche Cheeseborough. In April 1897, Molineux lost a weightlifting competition to Harry Cornish, the Knickerbocker Athletic Club’s 35-year-old athletic director. In December Molineux insisted that Mr Cornish be expelled from the club but the committee refused. On Christmas Eve 1898, a small, blue bottle of headache medicine, Bromo Seltzer, was delivered to Mr Cornish who passed it on to his landlady, Katharine J. Adams, when she suffered a headache on 28 December. She took the medicine and went into violent convulsions and died. An autopsy showed that she had died of mercury cyanide poisoning. A police investigation revealed forged letters to the drug companies supposedly written by Mr Barnet and Mr Cornish. The handwriting bore a remarkable similarity to Molineux’s, so he was charged with the murder of Mrs Adams on 27 February 1899.
The trial began on 14 November 1899, with Judge John Goff on the bench. Prosecutor James W. Osborne produced more than a dozen witnesses to testify that the handwriting on the letters was Molineux’s. The defence, led by George Gordon Battle and Bartow Weeks, called no witnesses and presented no evidence, merely stating, “We believe that the prosecution has failed to establish its charge and we rest the defence upon the People’s case.” Mr Osborne in his final summing-up unfortunately made a number of legal errors. On 11 February 1900 the jury returned a verdict of guilty and Molineux was sentenced to the electric chair. The appeal took 18 months to be heard, which time he spent in Sing Sing. On 15 October 1901 the verdict was overturned and a new trial ordered.
61 West 86th Street, New York City, USA
Wednesday 28 December 1898
The second trial opened in October 1902 before Judge John D. Lambert. The time-lapse meant much evidence was unavailable and the jury acquitted Molinuex on 12 November after deliberating for just four minutes. Following his acquittal, Molinuex earned a living as a writer, having written one book The Room With The Little Door while incarcerated. He and Blanche Cheeseborough were divorced in 1903 and in 1913 he married Margaret Connell. Shortly, afterwards, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was sent to the New York Hospital for the Insane at King’s Park, Long Island where he died on 2 November 1917.