1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities 1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger

1917: Dr. Arthur Waite, the Playboy Poisoner

May 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1917, a 29-year-old former dentist took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair — his poisoning career nipped in the bud by woman’s intuition.

Here’s the scenario, as sketched in the rip-roaring Criminal Poisoning: Investigational Guide for Law Enforcement, Toxicologists, Forensic Scientists, and Attorneys (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease on the eyes):

The first dentist in our collection, Dr. Waite, was a good looking raconteur, who most likely preferred playing tennis to practicing dentistry. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and after graduating from dental school went to South Africa to practice. Waite eventually left Africa under some suspicious accusations and returned to Michigan, where he wooed and married the daughter of John and Hannah Peck.

John Peck was a millionaire pharmacist who owned a reputable drug company in the city. The newlyweds were furnished with posh accommodations in New York City by the grateful Pecks. There, Arthur spent much of his time dabbling in the area of bacteriology, and also took on a mistress.

In January 1916, shortly after Hannah Peck arrived to visit the Waits in New York, she suddenly became ill and died. Her body was immediately cremated and returned to Michigan for burial. In March of the same year, John Peck also went to New York to console his daughter and her husband over the death of his wife. He too soon became ill and died. However, before his body could be cremated an anonymous telegram was received in Grand Rapids stating “suspicion aroused, demand autopsy.” Surprisingly, the autopsy indicated that John Peck was loaded with arsenic, and an investigation ensued.

The accusing finger eventually pointed to the playboy dentist, and he was taken in for interrogation. A search of his dwelling revealed numerous bacterial cultures, as well as texts dealing with toxicology. Under interrogation, Dr. Waite changed his story numerous times. First he stated that he had obtained arsenic for his father-in-law, who wanted to commit suicide to end his grief over the loss of his wife. Then 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. Eventually, Dr. Waite felt if he told what had actually happened the courts would find him insane, so he revealed the whole story of administering typhoid, pneumonia, diphtheria organisms, and arsenic while the Peck’s [sic] were undergoing work in his dental chair.

It did not take the jury long to see through the manipulations of Dr. Waite, and they convicted him of the murders. Dr. Waite was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison on May 24, 1917.

That decisive anonymous tip, it emerged, came from a New Jersey schoolteacher named Elizabeth Hardwick, whose father, one Dr. Cornell, was cousin to the victim. Here’s how the New York Times reported it (pdf) a few years later, ruminating on the chancy breaks that sometimes solve criminal cases:

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.

This set the seal on the suspicions which Miss Hardwick had always harbored. Saying nothing to any one she hurried to the telegraph office and sent a telegram to Percy Peck, the murdered man’s son, in Grand Rapids.

“This case,” said Commissioner Faurot, “was interesting because a woman’s intuition seized upon a moment’s carelessness on the part of one of the most fiendish murderers in police records to undo the criminal. Without her, the authorities never would have investigated the case. Waite certainly would have murdered his wife and perhaps others before he got through.”

Long forgotten now, Waite — who had smooth-talked his way into New York society seemingly with designs of cutting a swath of bodies through it* — made quite the infamous figure in his day. This Times article (pdf again) from days after his arrest suggests a whiff of the case’s sensation to contemporaries.

* The authorities, who naturally had no incentive to downplay the menace of their killer, figured his wife, his mistress and his mistress’ husband were next in line — though there was also no obvious way Waite could have cashed in on the latter two.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,USA

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3 thoughts on “1917: Dr. Arthur Waite, the Playboy Poisoner”

  1. Emily Caulfield says:

    Clara Peck was my Grandmother

    1. Thomas R. Dilley says:

      I am finishing a book on the Peck murders, and would like very much to speak with you. Please contact me.

      Thank you.

      Thomas R. Dilley

      1. emily caulfield manley says:

        Please e mail, maybe we can talk on the phone..i am in San Diego, CA 92009

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