On This Day in 1917 – Dr. Arthur Warren Waite, the ‘Playboy Poisoner.’

To mark the release of my third book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California,’ here’s a criminal classic from my files.

Look at the photograph and ask yourself ‘What kind of man was he?’ Handsome? Attractive? Smartly dressed? Perhaps very plausible to anyone who didn’t know him very well? Maybe he looks superficially charming with a witty, entertaining, debonair approach that men admire and women find difficult to resist. Dr. Arthur Warren Waite had all of these character traits. He was also a textbook psychopath who figured that if all his in-laws should pass away his wife would become a very wealthy woman. Not long after, he schemed, Waite himself would become a very merry widower.

Waite was a fake dentist with fraudulent medical qualifications and dark motives. Born into an impoverished family of Michigan farmers, his lack of wealth and status bruised his ego and fueled his lifelong resentment. An ironclad sense of absolute entitlement to whatever he wanted just because he wanted it and a total lack of conscience made Arthur Waite an extremely dangerous man.  

The Pecks of Grand Rapids, on the other hand, were one of the leading families in Michigan. John Peck had made the family fortune in the timber trade and the Pecks were worth millions. Their social standing and extreme wealth gave them an equally high profile. It also made them prime targets for Waite, who saw as clearly as anybody their place in the world. Only he saw their wealth as something to covet rather than celebrate, something to be relentlessly acquired by any means necessary.

The Pecks had two children, Percy and Clara. Waite had courted Clara for a while before embarking for Glasgow in 1909 and moving onto South Africa. Upon returning to Michigan in 1914, Waite renewed his relationship with Clara. She was more than attracted to him. Percy, on the other hand, instinctively disliked him and felt that there was something not quite right about him. What inspired Percy’s dislike was that Waite was just that little bit too plausible, unnecessarily charming and overly ingratiated himself with the Peck family. To Percy his would-be brother-in-law was greedy social climber, a parvenu.

Unfortunately for Percy (and the Peck family as a whole) he was outnumbered. Clara loved Waite and quickly married him. Her parents and Aunt Catherine were all very impressed by Waite’s tales of foreign travel, apparently-flourishing dental practice in New York City and his talent for tennis. All these things supposedly spoke volumes for his professional talents, sporting ambition, hard work and outward respectability. He was certainly ambitious (if only for their money and status) and he had been outside the US so wasn’t entirely lying. He was, however, being extremely economical with the truth.

In reality, Waite had been thrown out of dental school in Michigan in 1909 for plagiarism. He then had used fake qualifications from Michigan to enter postgraduate dental study in Glasgow, an eminent school at the time. Cheating his way through Glasgow’s exams saw him become the resident dentist with a major mining company in South Africa albeit only for two years. His employment was terminated when the mining company discovered large quantities of money were missing and one of the mine managers suspected Waite of embezzlement.

That manager promptly died, officially of apoplexy. Apoplexy at the time could have easily been mistaken for cyanide poisoning, cyanide being used by, among others, gold miners to extract gold from ore. Waite certainly had the means, motive and opportunity and his former manager may well have been his first kill. Waite, as we shall see, was not a man with overwhelming regard for either the law or human life. With his mining days now firmly played out Waite sought a new hunting ground safely beyond British jurisdiction. Had he been convicted of the manager’s murder he would very likely have been hanged. It would have been better for the Peck family if he had been. New York’s social scene and rich marital opportunities saw him take ship shortly after his former manager died. He would re-invent himself and his past along the way.

By the time he re-united with old flame Clara Peck Waite’s consummate fakery extended as far as a British accent that any British citizen would almost instantly have spotted. His ‘flourishing dental practice’ consisted of a few disgruntled patients (largely dissatisfied with both his poor dentistry and his spending more time playing tennis than fixing teeth). When not playing tennis while pretending to earn an honest living Waite secretly conducted a torrid affair with society beauty Margaret Horton, wife of a prominent New York businessman. As it was his fakery went undetected until it was far too late.

So did his rather strange interest (for a dentist) in bacteriology. Waite, still claiming to hold a postgraduate degree in dentistry from Glasgow University, started private study at Cornell Medical School without ever being formally enrolled. He was able to do this through his personal connections within the medical fraternity and because private study was not governed by the same rules as regular admission.

Something else also slipped under Cornell’s radar. Waite’s studied only the deadliest germs. Typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, anthrax and others were on his shopping list, complaining regularly that Cornell’s germs were simply not lethal enough for his experiments he was. Again, nobody seemed to think this odd, but they didn’t know his studying lethal diseases wasn’t to cure the sick and dying, but to create them.

Having successfully wormed his way into the affections of most of his in-laws and already gaining a decent allowance and rent-free Riverside Drive apartment from his wife’s parents, he was still not content. No matter how much Waite conned out of his in-laws it wasn’t enough and probably couldn’t be enough. Waite’s thought process was simple (for an intelligent man) but was also typically psychopathic: His in-laws had money. Waite had an insatiable desire for money. If all his in-laws died wife Clara would inherit millions. When Clara died suddenly, and she certainly would have, Waite would pocket the entire Peck fortune.

Waite possessed a thoroughly chilling, twisted logic reflecting the complete lack of conscience of a textbook psychopath, but logical nevertheless. Psychopaths tend to be endlessly acquisitive and greedy. They live for the hunt, securing things and people they want or need then discarding them as soon as they’re no longer useful. People have no intrinsic value, merely serve some purpose. They exist to be bartered, used and sacrificed.

The classic psychopath treats life as their personal chessboard and other people as pieces, playing the game for the game’s sake. Hence, even the most forward-thinking psychiatrists tend to agree that, currently, a full-blooded psychopath can only be diagnosed. At best little or nothing can be done to treat what is nowadays called “Antisocial Personality Disorder.”

In a sense, the Pecks were perhaps partly responsible for their own soon-to-come downfall. After only a few months of their daughter’s marriage, they started becoming increasingly impatient with what they regarded as Waites lack of discernible success and equal lack of motivation. They increasingly shared Percy’s disapproval of Waite, though not his outright suspicions of Waite’s motives for marrying into a wealthy family. Clara found herself fending off increasingly disapproving remarks in letters and conversations about him.

On one occasion Clara was reduced to defending her husband having won the New York Metropolitan Amateur Tennis Championship, as though preferring tennis to honest work was some sort of virtue. His other principal defender was Clara’s Aunt Catherine, who was charmed by her niece’s handsome husband. Almost fatally so, in fact. His in-laws’ increasing disapproval meant that Waite increasingly risked exposure as a fraud and gold-digger. Something had to give and Waite decided mother-in-law Hannah was first on his hit list. She came to stay with her daughter and son-in-law just after Christmas, 1915. Only weeks later she was wheeled out of their apartment having died of what started as a bad cold and became a fatal case of diphtheria.

Waite had studied diphtheria at Cornell using his fake medical credentials and the apparent credulity of the staff. He’d also stolen samples of diphtheria and several other diseases. During Mrs. Peck’s illness Waite had been the soul of kindness and compassion. He warmed her feet, mopped her brow, played her favorite records while crooning the lyrics in a smooth, soft tenor voice, he couldn’t have seemed kinder. He was also the one who’d caused her cold by leaving windows open and dampening her bedsheets. Ever the caring in’law and good doctor, he’d given her a specially made nasal spray of his own devising. Unknown to anybody else at the time it contained diphtheria and anthrax. To use Waite’s own words:

“I started poisoning her from the very first meal after she arrived. I gave her six assorted tubes of pneumonia, diphtheria and influenza germs in her food. When she finally became ill and took to her bed I ground up 12 five-grain Veronal tablets and gave her that too last thing at night… I woke up in the small hours. My mother-in-law was dead. I went back to bed again so that it would be my wife who would discover the body.”

Mrs Peck died on January 30, 1916 and was certified as having died of ‘natural causes.’

Her devastated son-in-law was also the soul of compassion for his bereaved relatives. He advised a swift funeral and equally swift cremation, citing his desire to make things as quick as possible, limit everybody’s grief and ensure Hannah’s decent interment. In their grief (and over Percy’s strong disapproval) the Pecks allowed Waite to organize the funeral and cremation which he managed with surprising and suspicious speed.

Next on Waite’s list – only two months after killing his mother-in-law – was his father-in-law. John Peck proved far more resistant to Waite’s laundry list of germs and poisons. Waite put ground glass in his food, soaked his bedsheets and left windows open to induce pneumonia, let off small canisters of chlorine gas in Peck’s bedroom after he had fallen asleep, fed him calomel to further weaken him, tried his patented nasal spray (now with tuberculosis added) and absolutely nothing worked. John Peck seemed to have more lives than a cat. Eventually, Waite’s insatiable desire for money outweighed his icy logic. It proved as fatal for him as for his father-in-law.

After failing repeatedly to murder John Peck in conveniently plausible fashion Waite simply slipped the old man eighteen grains of white arsenic. To Waite’s astonishment (as little as a quarter-grain of arsenic can be lethal) John Peck stubbornly remained alive albeit in terrible pain. Insatiable greed having now entirely outweighed logic and planning, Waite finally muzzled his annoyingly lively father-in-law with a chloroform-soaked rag, firmly pressing a pillow over that. Everybody has a breaking point and even as tough a victim as John Peck can only take so much. He died shortly after receiving the chloroform, sealing Waite’s doom as his own. Again, to use Waite’s own words regarding his maddeningly stubborn father-in-law:

“I used to insert tubes of typhoid, pneumonia, influenza and diphtheria in his soups and rice puddings. Once I gave him a nasal spray filled with tuberculosis bacteria. Nothing seemed to affect him so I used to let off the occasional tube of chlorine gas in his room hoping the gas would weaken his resistance like it did with the soldiers at the front. I used to put some stuff on the electric heater so that if he noticed a funny smell I could say it was something burning.Still nothing happened. I tried to give him pneumonia by putting water in his rubber boots, damping his sheets, opening his bedroom window and wetting the seat of his automobile before taking him out for a drive. That didn’t work either.”

Describing how he finally finished his deadly work, Waite stated:

“On the night of March, 12 he was in great pain and he wanted some ammonia and ether. I couldn’t find any, but in Clara’s medicine chest there was some chloroform, so I gave him that. It did him good, so I gave him a second dose to make sure and then I held the pillow over his nose and mouth until he was finished.”

Waite tried for another quick funeral and cremation just as he’d arranged for Mrs. Peck. Unfortunately for Waite, Percy Peck’s suspicions were not only aroused by Waite’s haste, they were positively inflamed, especially when a letter arrived bearing the words: “Stop funeral. Demand autopsy. Suspicions aroused.” The letter was signed “K. Adams.”

‘K. Adams’ was actually Elizabeth Hardwicke, sister of Dr. Cornell (head of Cornell Medical School) and who shared Percy’s distrust of the deadly dentist. She’d known Waite through his strange appearances at the medical school and was one of the few people there who thought it odd that a dentist would be so keen on lethal germs. She became more suspicious when Mrs. Peck died. When Mr. Peck promptly passed away as well she could see only two common factors; unexpected lethal diseases and Arthur Warren Waite.

Percy Peck immediately visited the New York Police Department, showing them the letter and describing in detail his suspicions. NYPD detectives needed little convincing, heading quickly to Waite’s dental practice. They found him unconscious, having attempted suicide with an overdose of Veronal (the same pills he’d used on Mrs. Peck). After emergency treatment Waite was rushed to Bellevue Hospital and arrested on two counts of capital murder. With the scale of evidence that would be presented this was one of only two temporary delays that Arthur Waite was going to get before meeting his fate in Sing Sing Prison’s most notorious resident, the infamous electric chair grimly nicknamed “Old Sparky.”

Under questioning Waite’s first line of defense was ludicrous at best, indicating he was either so arrogant that he thought he’d never be caught (so needed no credible defense in) or so desperate he’d try absolutely anything no matter how outlandish. In the end he opted for periodically losing his mind to another personality Waite described as a reincarnated Egyptian Pharaoh:  

“I believe that, although my body lives in America, my soul lives in secret in Egypt. It is the Man from Egypt who has committed these foul crimes…”

NYPD homicide detectives quickly discounted this hokum. Realising as much, Waite eventually delivered something rather more clever and calculated. He rightly thought that the NYPD would soon have enough to try him and New York State at the time delivered mandatory death sentences for murderers. Since the criminally insane were considered unfit to stand trial (especially not in capital cases) his best chance to cheat the chair was confessing his every crime while laughing, smiling and joking with detectives.

Waite’s motive was simple and his act almost worked. He gave detailed descriptions of murdering the Pecks and cheerfully described his attempt to murder Aunt Catherine (one of his staunchest defenders) by putting ground glass in marmalade. It hadn’t worked, but did little to encourage her further support. Waite described his attempts to murder her in equally calm and casual fashion:

“I gave her repeated doses of germs, then some arsenic and after that some ground glass. I also injected some live germs into a can of fish before presenting it to her.”

Waite admitted giving up his attempts to murder Aunt Catherine, but then dug the hole deeper for himself by admitting that he’d only given up trying because his mother-in-law represented bigger, more lucrative prey. He even admitted trying to get wife Clara to try his special nasal spray during a cold she’d had only for her to refuse point-blank (suggesting some of Percy’s suspicions had started rubbing off on Clara as well). Waite chillingly described his attitude towards Clara:

“She was not my equal in anything. When I had got rid of her I meant to find a more beautiful wife…”

The principal issue now was whether or not he was fit to stand trial at all. Re-enter his now very scared and very angry old flame, Margaret Horton. Horton described how Waite had invited her, while he was already under suspicion, to his lab and had shown her various germs before answering her simple question about his guilt with the words:

“Yes, it’s true. I did.”

Horton also described the contents of a damning letter Waite had written to her (which she had then destroyed) in which Waite stated that he thought he’d be executed, but lived in hope of being regarded as insane and being confined to an institution for a few years before being released to rejoin her. Quite why he thought she would be anything but terrified by that prospect is incomprehensible under the circumstances.

Her testimony proved the only evidence the judge needed to deny Waite’s insanity plea and rule him fit to stand trial. Criminals don’t usually discuss faking insanity in so calculated a manner unless they’re not actually insane. Waite might have been considered mad in a strictly medical sense, but being legally insane depends on whether a defendant understands what they have done and that it was criminal. Waite undoubtedly knew exactly, he just didn’t care.

The trial, a media sensation at the time, was also a virtual formality. Solid medical evidence proved John Peck had been poisoned with both arsenic and chloroform. Waite himself confessed, openly describing his crimes, no doubt hoping the jury would think anybody facing electrocution must be insane to describe every detail while freely confessing guilt. There was solid witness evidence from Percy Peck, Clara Peck, Aunt Catherine and Margaret Horton. Barring some major botch in trial law or other legal procedures, Waite went nearer the electric chair with every day that passed.

Throughout the trial, from late-April until early May, Waite kept up an able pretense of being too calm and open to be considered sane, but neither judge nor jury believed him. Mr. Peck’s embalmer Eugene Kan, and Dora (Arthur Waite’s housemaid) both testified Waite had offered them large bribes. Waite had offered Dora $1,000 to deny having seen him putting white powder into Peck’s food. Kane testified that Waite had cornered him by a phone booth, stuffed $9,000 into his pocket and demanded Kane contaminate the sample of Falcon embalming fluid he was to deliver to the District Attorney by adding some arsenic.

Arthur Waite was found guilty and given the mandatory death sentence in May, 1916. His case would drag on for another year through appellate courts. Psychiatrists and Sing Sing’s resident medic would have the final say over his mental and psychological state only days before his scheduled execution in May, 1917. Their belief in Waite’s sanity under the law was solid. Waite’s last hope, Governor Charles Whitman, also refused to intervene.

It was May 24, 1917 when Arthur Waite began the somber ritual. When guards, Warden Osborne and the prison chaplain approached his cell he was calmly reading the Bible interspersed with passage from his favorite poet John Keats. Waite remained totally calm as he seated himself, watching the straps and electrodes as they were attached. His last words seem almost disinterestedly curious, as though he were watching an execution instead of suffering it:

“Is this all there is to it..?”

Warden Osborne raised his hand and State Electrician John Hurlburt immediately threw the lever. Arthur Waite received two jolts of up to 2,000 volts each before being certified dead moments later. The autopsy conducted immediately after his execution revealed two curious facts about his physical state. One was a scar from meningitis, a disease Waite had suffered during childhood which might partly account for his psychopathic disposition. The other was perhaps the last thing anyone expected in so cold-blooded and remorseless a killer as Arthur Waite:

An abnormally large heart.

One thought on “On This Day in 1917 – Dr. Arthur Warren Waite, the ‘Playboy Poisoner.’

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