New York, NY, USA
|Portrait of Arthur W. Waite
With mahogany dining rooms, wall safes, a chauffeur’s lounge, and a curved façade designed to catch summer breezes off the Hudson River, Manhattan’s Colosseum apartments set a new standard of elegant living. Newlyweds Clara and Arthur W. Waite chose one of the deluxe full-floor, four-bedroom suites when they arrived in October 1915. Arthur radiated charm and was equally gifted—it was said—as a tennis player and oral surgeon. Clara hid her beauty behind a veiled hat, but was gracious to their many visitors, such as Franklin Pierce Adams, a columnist for The World, and Samuel L. Martin, executive secretary to Mayor John Mitchel. These friends and others would later testify they saw “doc” go to work at Bellevue and other Manhattan hospitals but never saw him working. That’s because the doctor was not attending patients but shooting craps with orderlies in the basement.
Arthur W. Waite was a master of disguises but to Hannah Peck, his mother-in-law, he had seemed a terrific catch. Instead of courting Clara in their hometown of Grand Rapids, he had first won over Hannah with stories of his land holdings and adventures in South Africa, speaking with an accent he had picked up in Cape Town. After getting Hannah’s blessing, he proposed to Clara, who thought it strange the classmate who had ignored her in public school suddenly wanted her hand in marriage.
It was not Clara who made Waite’s heart flutter but the fortune her father, John Peck, had accumulated as a drug wholesaler. Had Clara taken her brother Percy’s advice and investigated Waite’s claims, she would have uncovered a serial liar. If malfeasance is a virtue, her suitor had an impressive resume. Waite had been caught stealing many times at the University of Michigan but was allowed to graduate in 1909. By falsifying his academic records, he managed to complete a two-year course at Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in two months. With his new dental surgery degree, it was off to Cape Town to practice dentistry for Wellman & Bridgeman, a well-known American firm. Waite sent $7,000 to his family in Grand Rapids (almost certainly stolen) and in 1914 was fired for theft.
Waite was a young man in a hurry, in a hurry to inherit the Peck millions by any means necessary. Once settled with his new bride in Manhattan, “doc” focused his attentions on Clara’s aunt Catherine, who lived nearby on Claremont Avenue. She had already given him the diamond for Clara’s engagement ring and now gave him $40,000 to invest in the stock market. For her generosity, Arthur decided Catherine would be his first victim.
As a fake physician, he had access to laboratory cultures from sources such as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and the Cornell Medical Center. Detectives later found hidden in his apartment hundreds of test tubes and glass slides with labels such as “typhoid,” “diphtheria,” “pneumonia,” “tetanus,” and “asiatic cholera.” Disgustingly, the old lady refused to sicken when Waite added germs to her soup, so he put ground glass in her Dundee marmalade. She complained to her grocer, who apologized and gave her a refund.
Fortunately, for Catherine, Waite’s in-laws arrived in January 1916. Less than a week later Hannah Peck was dead. Clara would later describe how her husband had sent flowers to his ailing mother-in-law, warming her feet when she complained of chills. As the attending physician, Waite had Hannah’s poisoned body cremated to dispose of the evidence. Then he turned his attention to Clara’s seventy-two-year-old father.
But John Peck, like Catherine, was impervious to Waite’s microbes. At his murder trial, Waite recalled how he dosed his father-in-law’s food and drink daily with germs and calomel, had the old man spray his throat with diphtheria and pneumonia germs to “prevent colds,” wet his bedsheets, and tried to simulate chlorine gas when he read it was killing World War I soldiers. Nothing worked. Desperate, Waite bought arsenic and administered ninety grains—two to three grains is considered a fatal dose—until his victim took to his bed. Still Peck would not go quietly so in the early hours of March 12, while Clara slept next door, Waite silenced his father-in-law’s groans with chloroform and a pillow pressed to his face.
The trial of Dr. Arthur W. Waite for first-degree murder of John E. Peck, as covered by The New York Herald, The World, and other local press, had all the sensational elements news editors love—a cold-blooded killer pleading insanity as his defense, a plucky heroine who caught on to his crimes, a duped wife who immediately filed for divorce, and (best of all) a beautiful playmate, who insisted their relations were “platonic.” Mrs. Ottila Margaret Weaver Horton (known as Margaret), a twenty-four-year-old singer, shared suite 1105 at the Plaza Hotel with Waite, who registered as Walters. By her testimony, the two met there every afternoon to practice foreign languages and read Romeo and Juliet.1
Though he was not being charged with her death, Waite confessed to killing his mother-in-law to bolster his plea of insanity. There was not much the twenty-nine-year-old did not confess to, including that he intended to kill his wife and claim half the Peck fortune of $1 million and spend it with Margaret in Paris (where they could practice their French). Waite called Margaret his real soulmate; Clara simply was not his equal.
Equal or not, twenty-four-year-old Clara Waite owed her life to a distant relation, a New York schoolteacher named Elizabeth G. Hardwicke. After John Peck’s death, Hardwicke’s uncle Dr. Jacob B. Cornell and her cousin Arthur C. Swinton paid a condolence call to the Waite’s apartment. They were sent away by a very irate Arthur and reported the disturbing experience to Elizabeth. All three thought Waite was acting odd, but only Elizabeth decided he was a murderer. Perhaps her confidence was jarred by Waite’s lunches at the Plaza with a gorgeous brunette he described as his “nurse.” The next day on her way to classes, Hardwicke sent a telegram to Percy Peck in Grand Rapids. Signed “K. Adams” to protect herself, the telegram read: “Suspicion aroused. Demand autopsy.”
When he got Hardwicke’s telegram, Percy knew that within hours the Waites would arrive by train with John Peck’s body, and Arthur would have it cremated as he had done with Hannah Peck. He quickly hired Dr. Perry Schurtz, the family physician, to perform an autopsy and met the train carrying his father’s remains with a local undertaker. While waiting for autopsy results, Schurtz and the family pastor Dr. Alfred Wishart traveled to Manhattan, where they consulted with assistant district attorney Frank Mancuso and a New York medical examiner. When the autopsy results confirmed their fears of a murder plot, Mancuso, Wishart, and Schurtz searched the Waite apartment and found Arthur’s stash of bacterial cultures and toxicology books.
Meanwhile, the murderer had spent a frustrating week in Grand Rapids trying to get access to the morgue. When he gave up and returned to Manhattan, he called Horton and warned her to pay their bill at the Plaza and “get out at once.” Unfortunately for the panicky Waite, a detective hired by Schurtz overheard his phone call in an adjoining booth at Grand Central Station. Waite then tried to bribe an undertaker to say that he had used arsenic to preserve John Peck’s body.
In court Waite presented a winning figure with his athlete’s trim body attired in “a dark blue sack suit, neatly pressed, a turned down collar, and a black four-in-hand tie.”2 When he was not on the stand, the defendant dozed off until poked by his counsel Walter R. Deuel or laughed loudly at his own expense. Waite’s farmer father, Warren, often in tears, listened as his son told a remorseless tale of criminal depravity. “I wanted them to die,” he explained. “I wanted their money.”3 He admitted he had deceived his wife about his work habits and stole from her aunt Catherine “whatever I could get my hands on.”4 He also admitted feeding his mother-in-law Hannah “millions, billions of germs” until she expired. Finally, Waite detailed his many bacterial assaults on John Peck, perhaps the world’s most uncomplaining houseguest.
As Waite recounted his criminal career, five alienists (psychologists) listened to his every word and watched his every gesture. Drs. Morris Karpas and Allen Diefendorf for the defense would testify that the defendant suffered from “moral imbecility” or the inability to distinguish right and wrong. They recommended he be committed to an asylum. But three state experts testified Waite was only acting as if his crimes meant nothing; in fact, he knew their severity full well. Moreover, he had planned his poisonings carefully, even if they did not go as smoothly as he had hoped.
It took one hour for the twelve-man jury to return a verdict of “guilty of first-degree murder.” In all, the trial lasted six days, a new record for speed, noted the New York Herald. Crucial to his conviction was a test for arsenic poisoning developed by chemist James Marsh in 1836 (as the germs “doc” administered would not have sealed his guilt) and a brave schoolteacher who acted on her intuitions. The jury had heard much damning evidence against him, but no witness made more of an impression than Grand Rapids undertaker Joseph Sprattler. After Hannah Peck’s cremation, he had accompanied Waite to the train station for the doctor’s return trip to NYC. He told the defendant: “I hope you may have a pleasanter journey back to the city than on your way to Grand Rapids.” Waite replied “Oh, don’t worry. There will probably be another one in about three months.”
- Buhk, Tobin T. Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids, The History Press, 2014, p. 76.
- New York Herald, May 23, 1916. p. 4, column 1.
- New York Herald, May 26, 1916. p. 1, column 4.
- New York Herald, May 26, 1916. p. 1, column 5.
LISA MULLENNEAUX is a journalist and poet based in Manhattan. She teaches advanced writing for the University of Maryland UC. More about her books and articles can be found at lisamullenneaux.com.