|Peck Family - Oakhill Cemetery - Grand Rapids, Mi.|
While the armies of Europe battled in the trenches. Dr. Arthur Waite declared war on his in-laws with an arsenal of dangerous germs and poisons. He would have gotten away with it and kept murdering, if it were not for a mysterious telegram sent to Peck's son, Percy, by an armchair detective in New York. Percy Peck was still mourning the unexpected loss of his mother when his father died less than two months later on March 11. 1916.
John E. Peck, the seventy-two-year-old pharmacist and self-made millionaire from Grand Rapids, enjoyed perfect health until he went to visit his daughter and her husband in New York City. But he became severely ill and passed away in his sleep in their Manhattan apartment. Peck's body was on a train headed to Grand Rapids for the funeral, and from there, to Detroit for cremation. While he waited for the arrival of his fathers body. Percy Peck received an alarming telegram from New York:
SUSPICION AROUSED - STOP
DEMAND AUTOPSY - STOP
KEEP TELEGRAM SECRET - STOP
Who was K. Adams? Percy Peck had never heard of him or her. Suspicion aroused? Demand autopsy? The language of the telegram hinted that John Peck might have been the victim of foul play. K. Adams's cryptic message led to an investigation that uncovered what the Grand Rapids Herald of March 23, 1916. called "one of the subtlest, and at the same time, most daring poison plots that the criminal history of the country has known." The motive for the plot was John Peck's seven-figure fortune, which he began accumulating when he moved from New York to Grand Rapids in the 1860s.
Grand Rapids, a quiet, subdued city in the western part of Michigan, was just what the doctor ordered for John Peck and his new bride, Hannah. The son of an affluent surgeon and drug manufacturer from upstate New York, Peck served in the Union army during the Civil War. When the war ended. John decided to join his older brother Thomas, who had established a pharmaceutical business in Grand Rapids. The sleepy frontier town must have seemed quiet when compared to the battlefields back east, but it wouldn't stay quiet for long.
When John and Hannah Peek arrived in Grand Rapids, the city was on the verge of a population explosion. Westward expansion created a need for timber, causing lumber camps to appear all over Michigan. Grand Rapids became a lumber trade depot and eventually evolved into the furniture capital of the United States. Business thrived. John E. Peck amassed a fortune making and selling drugs and various sundries to the citizens of the boomtown.
|1905 view at corner of Division Ave. and Monroe Ave. The Peck Drug Store is on the right.|
The Pecks lived in a Victorian mansion on the eastern edge of the city, on top of a hill that sloped gently downward to the Grand River. Percy and Clara Louise grew up with the children of lumber barons, bankers, and other prominent citizens. Like her high-society chums, Clara traveled east for a formal education. She went to a finshing school in Washington, D.C., and then went to Columbia University. Intelligent and gentle in demeanor, Clara dedicated much of her time after college to charity work at a local rehabilitation clinic for the physically disabled.
The Waites lived a short distance from the Pecks, but their lives couldn't have been more distant from the affluent lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthy druggist's family. Warren Waite supported his wife, Jennie, and three children as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. They lived in a modest, two-story dwelling. One of the Waite boys, Arthur, would become one of the state's most infamous characters.
Arthur Warren Waite was born in 1886. He grew up around Michigan Avenue and attended Grand Rapids Central High School. By the time he graduated in 1905, he had developed a persona that women would find irresistible. Tall and athletic, Waite played baseball and football in school. Off the field, he participated in several school activities, including the high school literary society. But young Arthur Waite also had a sinister side. He later said that as a child, he had tortured and killed animals, and he began at an early age to steal things and defraud people. He pilfered money from his job as a newsboy, and as a high school student, he climbed a fire escape to steal a test off of a teacher's desk. After high school, Waite attended the University of Michigan, where he studied dentistry. He had a crafty intelligence, but he also continued to steal things. When he got behind in classes, he stole another student's work and submitted it as his own. He also swiped $100 from a friend's trunk. Arthur was caught both times, but was allowed to remain in school and managed to graduate. Waite also graduated to larger, more complex deceptions. After college, he traveled to Scotland to attend medical school at the University of Scotland, where he learned dental surgery. Waite doctored his University of Michigan diploma to appear that he had earned an advanced degree, so he could then complete a two-year program in only six months.
She would become the victim of Waite's biggest, most grandiose deception. At some point during their youth, their worlds had collided: the dashing Arthur Waite and the pharmacy heiress. The two likely knew each other briefly as children, but at some point, Waite set his sights on the Michigan debutante and her family's fortune. When Waite returned from Africa, he visited Clara and her family. Tall, handsome, and a accomplished tennis player, Waite's charm was irresistible. He came with a travelogue of stories about his adventures. With an elongated "a" - a brogue he acquired in Africa - Waite told exciting stories about practicing dentistry in South Africa, about two sizable farms he purchased in East Africa, and about life on the Dark Continent. He won over Clara's mother, Hannah Peck, who considered him a prize for her only daughter. After a while, Clara fell for Arthur Waite. Likewise, Waite had found his soul mate, or at least that is how it appeared to the Peck family. Waite played the role of love-struck suitor well, but he later admitted that he never loved Clara. He did, however, love her family's considerable fortune. With his eyes on the Peck money, Waite worked his charms.
They began a courtship that ended a year later in September 1915 with a wedding at the Fountain Street Baptist Church, a high-society affair that captured the headlines of local newspapers. Clara didn't know it when she ambled down the aisle to meet her Prince Charming, but her family's name would soon dominate the headlines for weeks to come.
The ink on their marriage certificate wasn't even dry when Waite hatched a plan to steal the Peck fortune. The happy couple moved into an apartment at the Coliseum, one of the most expensive residences in New York City, where they lived on a $300-a-month allowance from John Peck. Waite told family and friends that he performed surgeries at local hospitals. He even took Clara to several New York hospitals, where he told her he performed oral surgeries. He would go inside and emerge twenty minutes later, having completed his work.
But it was all just a front. Behind the facade of a hard-working doctor, Waite lived the life of a millionaire playboy. He dined with young ladies, attended the theater, and played tennis. He also acquired samples of dangerous bacilli. Waite read books about deadly poisons and bacteria. Posing as a doctor studying bacteria, he amassed a collection of dangerous germs. His collection eventually contained pneumonia, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and others that he planned to use on his in-laws. With Hannah and John out of the way, his wife Clara would inherit John's considerable wealth, and Waite could live in comfort for the rest of his life.
His first target was his father-in-law's sister, Catherine Peck. Wealthy Aunt Catherine lived in a posh apartment in New York City. Like the other Pecks, she fell for Waite's facade as a debonair gentleman suitor. When Waite asked Aunt Catherine for money, she never denied him. She even gave him the diamond for Clara's engagement ring.
In a devious twist, Waite tried to make Aunt Catherine his first victim, perhaps believing that Clara would inherit a portion of her aunt's fortune. Waite read about arsenic in flypaper, so he burned a few sheets and mixed the residue into her food, but it didn't work. Next, he spiked her food with doses of anthrax, typhoid, tuberculosis, and other deadly germs. Aunt Catherine still didn't get sick, so Waite searched for more deadly strains. He even ground up glass and mixed it with her favorite marmalade. Waite tried something new almost every day, but still Aunt Catherine did not succumb.
His attempts on his wealthy patroness came to an end when John and Hannah Peck visited the couple in January 1916. Waite immediately turned his attention to his mother-in-law. "I had everything ready for her before she arrived," Waite later admitted. Everything consisted of influenza, pneumonia, streptococcus, and typhoid, which he mixed into the food of the first meal she ate. Waite slipped into the dining room ahead of the others with his test tubes and dumped their contents into Hannah's soup.
Unlike her sister-in-law, Hannah became sick. Waite played the role of concerned son-in-law. When Hannah got the chills, he brought her a foot warmer. He even had fresh flowers delivered every day. As his mother-in-law's condition worsened, he stayed by her side. She died less than a week after she arrived of what was presumed to be kidney disease.
Clara and her father John were crushed by the sudden, unexpected death of the Peck matriarch. They were also surprised when Waite said Hannah had told him she wanted to be cremated. Clara was slightly suspicious about her mother's death and wanted an autopsy, but John Peck said such a thing went against his wife's wishes. So after a funeral in Grand Rapids, Waite accompanied the body to a crematorium in Detroit. Hannah's ashes were brought back to Grand Rapids and buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery.
The bereaved John Peck returned to Grand Rapids, but the house was empty and memories loomed around every corner. Lonely and depressed, he traveled east to New York to visit family. In early March 1916, he was once again in the Waite residence at the Coliseum Apartments. Waite immediately commenced attempts to murder John Peck.
Waite's lawyers were going to try to emphasize the depravity of the defendant, while the prosecutors were going to show that he wasn't as disturbed as he appeared. Waite began his testimony with a sketch of his early days. He colored himself as a juvenile criminal who stole anything he could. He pilfered from his family, friends, and later, employers. He also said that he tormented the family cat and drowned her kittens. Waite proceeded to detail the various attempts he made to murder his in-laws. He described the various germs he dumped into John Peck's food and his attempt to gas his father-in-law with homemade chlorine gas. When he described the outrageously diabolical ways he tried to infect John with pneumonia, such as placing ice water in his boots, one juror broke out laughing. Waite, though, didn't break a smile as he described his cold-blooded murders. Exactly what Waite actually did to the Pecks is clouded by his own admissions. Waite's defense strategy was to prove his own depravity; therefore, he may have embellished, although his motive in the crimes and the end result remained clear.
Margaret Horton destroyed Waite's insanity defense when she testified for the prosecution. The twenty-four-year-old walked up to the stand in a black dress, black hat. and veil, as if dressed for a funeral. The New York Times of May 25, 1916, remarked that when she raised her veil, "it could not be denied that she possessed her share of a certain appealing beauty."
She described the history of her relationship with Waite and explained how they came to share their "studio" apartment together at the Plaza Hotel. When asked about the nature of her relationship, Horton testified that it was purely platonic. Horton also described the contents of a letter Waite wrote her from Bellevue Hospital. In the note, Waite said that he expected to spend some time in an asylum for his crimes, but would eventually be free. He also acknowledged the possibility that he could get "la chaise" - the chair - for his crimes and said that he would light for his life out of his love for her. This letter, the prosecution argued, proved that Waite was attempting to feign insanity. Margaret's testimony was devastating to Waite's defense. The jury convicted Waite of first-degree murder and the court sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Waite stood calmly when he heard the sentence. He thanked the court and said he only wished that he had two bodies to give for the two victims he murdered.
On May 24, 1917, war raged in Europe. Congress passed the Selective Service Act, giving President Woodrow Wilson the ability to conscript soldiers. But once again, these stories were pushed to the margins in Michigan and New York newspapers by the Waite case.
|"la chaise" at Sing Sing.|