The Molineux Rule: Getting Away with Murder

Roland Burnham Molineux by all appearances had everything a young man of the Gilded Age could desire. He was handsome, well built, wealthy, and socially prominent. He came from an old, distinguished New York family and moved in the best social circles. His father, Edward Leslie Molineux, had been a decorated general in the Civil War. He was a member in good standing of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, whose membership was comprised of only the wealthiest and most elite old New York families. Unfortunately, he was also the worst sort of snob, an inveterate playboy, and did not like being told no. In other words, he was a spoiled brat who thought everyone should bow to his will because he was more special than everyone else. When his initial demand that certain Knickerbocker Club members be expelled due to their social inferiority was rejected, he was undaunted and continued to harass the management. If one has seen the movie The Magnificent Ambersons the character Georgie Minafer could have been based on Roland. Their behavior and personalities are identical, with one major exception. If being a snob and playboy had been his only faults, he might have been just one more minor Gilded Age figure of little interest.

Roland and father

Unlike the mega wealthy of the era, Roland was not among the idle rich. After high school, he studied chemistry at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and found employment with dye manufacturer Morris Herrman and Company. He followed in his father’s footsteps. Leslie was president of a dye company. In his position, Roland had access to all of the chemicals used in the dying process and production of dye. This would figure large in what was to come.

In 1898, Roland fell in love with a beauty, Blanche Cheeseborough. He was not her only suitor, however. A man named Henry Barnet also sought the young woman’s hand. In November, Barnet received a package containing a bottle bearing the label of an over-the-counter stomach remedy. Barnet believed it was a free sample sent as an advertisement and took some. He became violently ill and died. Two weeks after his funeral, Roland married Blanche.

Another antagonist arose in the figure of a Knickbocker Athletic Club director, Harry Cornish. The sources I have consulted do not say whether they argued about Roland’s accusations of social inferiority against some fellow members. What is clear is that they were competitors in physical activities. Being vain about his physical prowess, Roland did not take defeat in a weight-lifting match with good grace. Roland demanded that his opponent, Cornish, be expelled from the club. Roland’s demands were rebuffed by club management.

Knickerbocker Athletic Club, New York City

In December 1898, Harry Cornish received a present from an anonymous source. He took the manila paper wrapped package, sealed with wax to his home where he resided with his aunt, Kathryn Adams, and her daughter and son-in-law. Inside the package was an easily recognizable blue Tiffany’s box. It contained a bottle of Emerson’s Bromo-Seltzer in a silver holder. Cornish thought little of it because he often received gifts in his position with the club. On the morning of December 28, his aunt awoke with a terrible headache and Harry gave her a draught from the Emerson’s bottle. Within moments she was grabbing her stomach in pain. She rushed to the bathroom where she collapsed and died within minutes.

Although the Barnet death did not raise suspicion, Adams’ death certainly did. While awaiting the arrival of a doctor, Cornish tried the Bromo-Seltzer and became ill. When the doctor finally arrived, he attended his surviving patient and tasted the suspected lethal substance. He discovered the tale-tell signs of cyanide: the smell of almonds and a metallic taste. Adam’s autopsy and an analysis of the Bromo-Seltzer confirmed death by cyanide poisoning. It became clear that the intended victim was Cornish, but he could not name anyone who might wish him dead. In the meantime, the doctor who had treated Barnet became suspicious. He sent the bottle of stomach remedy for testing and had Barnet exhumed. Again, cynanide poisoning was found to be the cause of death. When investigators learned of the incidents at the Knickerbocker Club, his romantic rivalry with Barnet, his training, his access to chemicals, his Tiffany’s account, and his rage at being defeated by Cornish, suspicion fell on Roland Molineux as prime suspect. His fate was sealed when a handwriting expert’s analysis of the labels on the anonymously gifted packages confirmed that Molineux was the author. Interestingly, he was only charged with Adams’s murder.

Molineux ended up being tried for murder three times. During his first trial, the prosecution brought in the evidence found in the Barnet murder even though Roland was not charged in that death. His attorney felt there were enough holes in the prosecution’s case to not even mount a defense and he rested his case without calling witnesses. That turned out to be a mistake. On February 10, 1900, Roland was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Understandably, Roland hired new attorneys to file his appeal with the New York Court of Appeals. In June 1901, the verdict was reversed based on a simple principle dating from the time of the Magna Carta: evidence of other crimes is not admissible. Roland was tried a third time in the fall of 1901, but this time his defense team used a very different strategy from the original. They called many witnesses, including the defendant himself. The jury was out for one hour and returned a verdict of not guilty.

One must wonder if Roland Molineux would have been acquitted if he had been tried today. The circumstantial evidence was so very strong against him. One must wonder if modern investigative techniques might have established a firm link between Molineux and the deaths. In my option, there were simply too many facts pointing to him as the author of the carnage to be simply coincidences.

Whether he was a very lucky murderer or a very unlucky, innocent victim of circumstance, courts ever since have observed what became known as the Molineux Rule. Evidence of other crimes is still not admissible as evidence of the crime for which a person is being tried.

Related Nonfiction

I have been unable to locate any historical fiction based on the Molineux story.

Resources

https://jimfisher.edinboro.edu/forensics/mol1.html

https://jimfisher.edinboro.edu/forensics/mol1.html

https://law.jrank.org/pages/2728/Roland-Molineux-Trials-1899.html

https://guides.loc.gov/chronicling-america-roland-molineux

https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/roland-molineux-trials-1899

https://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/archives/p_molineux.htm

https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/the-knickerbocker-murders/3009755.article

Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.

Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.

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