The trial of (that other) century
One late December morning in 1898, a woman named Katherine Adams woke up with a hangover. A package of bromo seltzer had recently been sent to her cousin and boarder, Harry Cornish, and Mrs. Adams turned to the potion to relieve her splitting headache. Two minutes after taking the seltzer, she was violently ill and a sickly blue color; minutes later she was dead, a victim of poisoning by cyanide of mercury.
Adams' death, unusual as it was, was only the beginning of one of the strangest, longest and most sensational episodes in legal history. True crime writer and novelist Harold Schechter details the crime and the trial in his exhaustive book The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century. The gentleman of the title was one Robert Molineux, an amateur athlete, son of a revered Civil War figure and successful businessman. As investigators soon found, he was also a chemist with a knowledge of potent poisons, an unapologetic snob capable of carrying a grudge and had recently married a woman whose previous lover had recently died under mysterious circumstances. But was he guilty of Mrs. Adams' death?
Schechter casts The Devil's Gentleman as much as a narrative of New York's Gilded Age as of a single trial. Molineux's trial was the first to occur at the height of Joseph Pulitzer's and William Randolph Hearst's battle for dominance in yellow journalism, and the sensational mix of sex, power and devious plotting whipped the public into such a frenzy that mobs fought for seats in the crowded courtroom. (One paper, realizing the true purpose of the trial, sent its theater critic to cover the story.) As the trial dragged on, the entire nation hung on to the question of whether Molineux would win his case, or become the most famous victim of Sing Sing's electric chair.
Schechter has a number of first-hand sources to draw upon such as newspaper accounts and the purple prose memoir of Molineux's wife. But at times, Schechter puts so much detail into his account that the narrative becomes much too dense. I skimmed through the middle portion of the book, but it was only the final twist at the end that recaptured my interest and justified plowing through the mundane middle. Much like the media circus trials in its wake, the Molineux case (and Schechter's retelling) prove that the devil is in the details.