Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Playboy Poisoner

Peck Family - Oakhill Cemetery - Grand Rapids, Mi.
True Crime: Michigan: The State's Most Notorious Criminal Cases - In March 1916, the U.S. Army  chased Pancho Villa into Mexico, and the Imperial German Army tangled with British and French forces at Verdun  But it was the murder of millionaire druggist John E. Peck that dominated headlines in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and New York City. The poison plot of Peck's son-in-law, Dr. Arthur Waite, was so shocking that it briefly pushed the Mexican bandit and trench warfare to the margins.

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: 


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.

Peck's Drugs stood at the corner of Monroe and Division Avenues - one of the busiest intersections in the city. A smart businessman. Peck invested his profits wisely and his nest egg grew. He later became the president of several banks and a major stockholder in local furniture companies. As John Peck's fortune grew, so too did his family with the birth of a son, Percy, and a daughter Clara Louise. 

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.

From Scotland, Dr. Waite went to Cape Town, South Africa, where he worked for Wellman and Bridgman Dental Company. During his time in Africa, he amassed some money and sent $7,000 to his family in Grand Rapids - some of it stolen. Eventually, Waite was caught, red-handed, stealing from his employer. The company didn't renew his contract, so when World War I began. Waite left Cape Town and returned to Grand Rapids with $25,000 in bank checks, a colorful past, and a new South African accent. While still in South Africa, Waite began corresponding with a young socialite he met in Grand Rapids named Clara Louise Peck. 

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.

At first, he tried the same strategy that worked so effectively with Hannah. He spiked his father-in-law's food with pneumonia, typhoid, and tuberculosis. John was strong and in excellent health, and to Waite's dismay, he didn't become sick. "Then I tried to make him sick by giving him big doses of calomel," Waite later said. "I gave him half a bottle at a time in his food," Waite admitted, along with a steady diet of more germs. Still, John appeared unfazed by this attack on his system. Waite's attempts became bolder and more creative. "I gave him pneumonia germs." Waite said, "and took him riding in the rain. I wet the sheets of his bed at night to give him a cold." Still, the scheme didn't work.

The next day. Waite read a news item about soldiers gassed with chlorine, so he decided to try a chemical weapon on his father-in-law. Waite mixed chlorate of potash with hydrochloric acid and released the homemade chlorine gas in Peck's room. Even this didn't work.

So Waite tried something less creative. He purchased ninety grains of arsenic from a local pharmacy. He dosed everything Peck ate or drank—hot milk, soup, oatmeal, pudding - until Peck had ingested the entire ninety grains. When Arthur poisoned his father-in-law's tea, Clara noticed peculiar bits floating in the mug. The substance eventually dissolved and changed the tea's color. It was suspicious, but Waite dispelled her fears when he told her that he was giving her father medicine in his tea.

Finally, on March 11, 1916, John became deathly ill after a dinner of oysters. Clara made him some eggnog, but she had to run an errand, so Waite agreed to give it to John. When Clara returned two hours later, John was so sick that he couldn't keep down the eggnog.

Clara later said that she saw the same peculiar substance floating in the eggnog as she saw in his tea. That night, the seemingly concerned son-in-law placed a couch outside of Peck's room to keep a vigil. When he heard his father-in-law groan, Waite soaked a rag in chloroform and pressed it over Peck's face. Waite later explained that the chloroform was to ease John's pain, but the real reason may have been to stifle the sick man's groans so Clara didn't hear them. If she heard her father moan, Clara may have called a real doctor, who could have exposed her husband's poison plot. Sometime early in the morning of March 12, John Peck died at the age of seventy-two. His fortune passed in equal shares to Percy and Clara. With the Pecks now out of his way, the smooth-talking Arthur Waite attempted to pressure Clara into willing her entire fortune to him in case she died unexpectedly. 

Waite's diabolical plan was working perfectly. All he needed to do now was to get rid of the evidence. Waite signed Peck's death certificate and sent the body to a Manhattan mortuary for embalming. He then tried to convince Clara that her father should be cremated in Detroit after the family service in Grand Rapids.

Waite was getting away with murder, but he was about to become trapped by a secret he kept from his wife. Every afternoon for several months, he visited Room 1105 at the Plaza Hotel for a rendezvous with a cabaret singer named Margaret Horton. Margaret, the twenty-four-year-old wife of an electrical engineer named Harry Mack Horton, came to New York to pursue a career as a singer. She first met Waite at the Academy of Music where she was performing. Waite became infatuated with the beautiful contralto and introduced himself. Horton was immediately impressed with the multi-talented doctor, who could speak French, play the piano, and talk about theater and opera. The two became good friends. Later, they both attended a local language school where they spent a few hours a day together.

Waite persuaded the young singer to rent an apartment with him at the Plaza Hotel under the name of Dr. and Mrs. A. M. Walters. In their "studio" they conversed in French and read scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Horton later described her relationship with Waite as "platonic," but they spent every afternoon together and Waite even gave her a diamond ring. Margaret's older husband, Harry, later said that he knew of Margaret's relationship with Waite but considered it harmless. The friendship, however, would doom Waite, who didn't know that his Juliet would cause his murder plot to unravel.

While lunching with Margaret at the Plaza on February 22, 1916, Waite bumped into an acquaintance named Elizabeth Hardwick, a schoolteacher and the niece of longtime Peck family friend Dr. Cornell. Flustered, Waite introduced Margaret as a nurse. Elizabeth immediately became suspicious.

But when Elizabeth heard about John Peck's untimely death from her uncle, her suspicion grew into fear. Waite's marriage to Clara, followed by the deaths of Hannah and then John Peck in close succession, put the Peck fortune in Waite's hands - a powerful motive for murder. She raced to Central Station and sent a telegram to Grand Rapids. Unsure of her suspicions, she used a pseudonym - K. Adams. ***The day after Mr. Peck’s death, Dr. Cornell called at the Waite apartment to pay his respects. Waite, with the Peck millions almost in his hands, forgot his suavity for a moment and greeted his father-in-law’s cousin so rudely that Dr. Cornell was hurt. At home that night the doctor expressed his amazement at the demeanor of the erstwhile gracious Waite.***

While Waite and Clara were en route to Grand Rapids with John Peck's body, Percy Peck received K. Adams's telegram. Percy Peck took K. Adams's advice. When the train arrived, he took charge of his father's remains. He consulted two trusted allies: the family's pastor, Dr. Alfred Wishart, and longtime family physician. Dr. Perry Schurtz. Schurtz did the autopsy and removed key organs from John Peck's body, including the stomach, spleen, and lungs, which he sent to the University of Michigan's medical school.

While Percy eagerly awaited the toxicology results, Wishart and Schurtz traveled to New York and met with assistant district attorney Frank Mancuso and Dr. Otto Schullze, a New York medical examiner. They discussed the possibility of a plot to murder the Pecks. Mancuso sent a wire to Dr. Victor Vaughn at the University of Michigan to obtain the results of the toxicology tests done on John Peck's organs. Vaughn's response was shocking: Peck's organs contained enough arsenic to kill ten men.

 At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of March 18, Mancuso and the two men from Grand Rapids searched the Waite apartment. They found some provocative evidence of a possible poison plot: In the library, they found a book about drugs. Wood's Therapeutics and Pharmacologywith the bookmark in the page that described the effects of arsenic on the human body. But they didn't have enough for an arrest; a book wouldn't do it

Meanwhile, a nervous Arthur Waite boarded a train headed for New York while his grief-stricken wife stayed in Grand Rapids. As soon as Waite arrived in New York, he began an attempt to cover up his crimes. He knew that doctors would discover arsenic during the autopsy, and he needed a way to explain how the poison got there.

So, he attempted to bribe the undertaker to say that he used arsenic when preserving the body. Waite knew that in 1907, the state of New York banned the use of arsenic in embalming. The law resulted from a case in which a man accused of poisoning another man claimed that the presence of arsenic in the victim's lungs was the result of embalming, not poisoning. Waite didn't know that by 1916 doctors could determine if arsenic was ingested before or after death. Waite also didn't know that detectives were trailing him. The detectives witnessed the acts of a guilty man on the run. When Waite stopped to make a call from a telephone inside a pharmacy, a detective stood in the next booth and eavesdropped. "Pack and get out at once," Waite said. The call was to a Mrs. A. M. Walters in Room 1105 at the Plaza Hotel.

As Waite tried to cover his trail. Mancuso and Drs. Schultze. Schurtz, and Wishart traveled to Grand Rapids to continue the investigation. On March 21. Schultze and Schurtz conducted a second post mortem on John Peck's remains. It was decided that a second examination was needed to eliminate the possibility that the arsenic found in Peck's organs was the result of the embalming fluid used in New York. They removed the brain and sent it to the University of Michigan's medical school. Once again, the toxicology test revealed a huge quantity of arsenic. This second autopsy sealed Waite's fate.

The next day, detectives arrived at the Waite apartment in New York to arrest Arthur for murder. They pounded on the door, but no one answered. Inside the apartment, they found Waite on the bed, unconscious. He had overdosed. Investigators rushed him to Bellevue Hospital, where he remained in a coma for two days before regaining consciousness. ***Click HERE to read a March 26, 1916 New York Times article about the arrest and evidence against Dr. Waite.***

When Waite became conscious, he denied murdering John Peck or ever purchasing poison. But Waite couldn't explain a signed druggist's receipt dated March 9, which proved he bought arsenic, so he changed his story. He said that Peck was depressed after his wife's death and wanted to commit suicide. According to Waite. Peck asked for his help, so he bought the arsenic at a local pharmacy and gave it to him in a sealed envelope.

But the pile of evidence was mounting against Waite. Detectives found a former maid who Waite paid $1,000 to say that John Peck wanted to commit suicide. And they found the Manhattan undertaker Waite attempted to bribe. The man led detectives to a sandbank on Long Island, where he hid the wad of banknotes that Waite gave him to say he used arsenic when embalming John Peck's body.

Faced with the evidence, Waite changed his story again. He confessed to everything but added a bizarre accomplice. "The man from Egypt" made him do it, he told astonished prosecutors. "I never saw him," Waite said. "But he has been with me always. He made me do evil." ***Dr. Waite claimed his own body was inhabited by the spirit of an evil Egyptian priest, who had instructed him to kill his in-laws in order to gain their wealth.*** 

Clara followed the news with horror as the truth about her husband began to emerge. In the newspapers, Waite's biography of deception and fraud grew with each new edition. More and more people came forward to expose Waite as a cheat and a philanderer. On March 25, Clara broke her silence and issued a statement to the press. "When I was informed of the serious charges against my husband," she said, "I could not believe them. It seemed impossible that a man who had been so uniformly gentle and kind to me and apparently so loyal could be guilty of the crime with which he was charged." 

"My faith began to be shaken," Clara explained, "when it was practically proved to me that Dr. Waite was living with another woman at the Plaza Hotel." Then came the details of the arsenic plot, and Clara could no longer stand by her man. In April Clara filed for divorce. In her divorce suit, she cited the murders and her husband's tryst with Margaret Horton, who insisted that her relationship with Waite was never intimate - they were just friends who met at the Plaza Hotel to study together in their studio. Margaret and her husband Harry gave a detailed statement to prosecutors. Margaret knew nothing of Arthur's plot to murder the Pecks, and when the details of his crimes emerged, she began to suspect his motives. She believed that Waite intended to poison both her and her husband to obtain their money.

According to Margaret, Waite believed that the Hortons were well off. Waite had also wanted to give her medicine, which now looked like a prelude to murder. Prosecutors speculated that Waite's real motive for murdering Margaret, if indeed he planned to murder her, was to cover up his involvement with the pretty cabaret singer. They also speculated that Waite may have planned on running away with Horton after he finished off the Pecks.

Waite's body count would have included three others: Clara, Percy, and Aunt Catherine. According to Percy, after John Peck's funeral, Waite told him that Clara looked ill and would only live a few more months. Later that same day, Waite told Clara that he didn't think Percy had much time left. And he told both Percy and Clara that Aunt Catherine was near the end. These comments suggest that Waite planned to murder the entire Peck family to steal their fortune.

Waite ultimately did more than hint. The New York Times of April 3, 1916, carried the headline "Waite Now Admits Intent to Kill Wife." According to the article, Waite confessed to his lawyer that Clara was going to be his next victim. Waite also said that he never loved Clara, only her money. Adding insult to injury, he said that with his plain-Jane wife out of his way, he could marry a more attractive woman, possibly referring to Margaret Horton. 

By the time the murder trial began in late May, Waite had abandoned the "man from Egypt" story. His life now depended on a bold defense strategy. If he told the graphic details of his crimes in a cool, detached tone and insisted he was sane, the jury would consider him a "moral imbecile" and send him to an institution. In a strange twist, the usual roles of the prosecutor and the defense were reversed.

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.

On that day, Waite went to "la chaise" in Sing Sing. He was a cool customer, even for his executioner. He kept his composure, smiled, and said nothing as he took his place on the hot seat. After the first jolt of 2,000 volts, a prison doctor detected a faint heartbeat. A second jolt of 2,000 volts ended the story of Dr. Arthur Warren Waite's "subtle" and "daring" poison plot.


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