Death Dealing Doctor
Where: New York, USA
When: January-March 1916
Culprit: Dr. Arthur Waite
Victims: Mr. and Mrs. John Peck
Cause of death: germs and poison
Forensic technique: toxicology
When the body of a possible murder victim is given a
post-mortem to determine the cause of death, one of the first signs
examiners look for is the presence of any known poisons. But what
happens when the lethal ingredients that led to the victim's demise are
not chemical poisons, but germs spread by diseases, some of which can
prove fatal through natural misfortune rather than murderous intent? If
a murderer could harness these germs and bacteria as an effective murder
weapon, how could investigators possibly determine whether a victim had
died from natural causes or purposefully been exposed to the deadly
germs by a human assailant?
This was the line of thought that influenced Dr.
Arthur Warren Waite, a dentist in New York who shared his luxury
apartment on Riverside Drive with his wife's retired parents. His father-in-law,
John Peck, had built up a sizeable fortune after a career as a
pharmacist in the Middle West, and Waite longed to inherit as much of
the money as possible.
The problem was that neither parent seemed in poor
health, but it occurred to Waite that it might be possible to give
nature a helping hand, by causing Peck to ingest harmful bacteria which
would trigger an entirely convincing onset of a serious disease,
followed by a severe physical decline and ultimate death, without anyone
being held responsible.
Waite began by setting his sights on John Peck's wife.
He carefully isolated a mixture of diphtheria and influenza germs, and
added these to her food. After a series of doses, the elderly woman
became ill, and her condition steadily deteriorated, until she finally
died in January 1916. Waite then shifted his efforts to her husband, but
his method did not work so effectively on his second target. It seemed
John Peck's constitution was disconcertingly immune to a whole range of
nasty bugs, and every weapon in Waite's locker was proving ineffective.
First he tried the diphtheria mixture, with no
results. Then he prescribed a nasal spray to aid his victim's breathing,
which he had contaminated with tuberculosis germs, but even this failed
to produce the planned result. He tried influenza and typhoid, but still
the old man remained obstinately healthy.
Finally, Waite's impatience overcame all the care and
caution he had taken so far in his efforts. Determined to hasten his
father-in-law's death, he added a dose of what he described to their
family servant simply as 11 medicine" to tea and soup served to Peck one
evening. The "medicine" did exactly what he hoped it would do. A man who
appeared to the family doctor as healthy only the day before died on
March 12, 1916, just two months after his late wife.
The medicine administered to the unfortunate John
Peck was nothing less than a lethal dose of arsenic. Unluckily for the
devious dentist, there was a reliable test for the presence of this
poison which had been developed by James Marsh, a London chemist, in the
1820s, and this was well known to the investigators.
The first step of the test is to place tissue samples
from the victim, together with any stomach contents, on to a zinc plate.
Then sulphuric acid is poured on to the plate, and in the ensuing
reaction any arsenic present in either tissue or stomach contents
absorbs the hydrogen from the acid and is given off as a gas. This is
collected and passed down a heated tube and then allowed to cool, where
the mixture forms white crystals of arsenious oxide. When samples were
taken from John Peck's body, the crystals showed exactly what Dr. Warren
Waite had turned to in his haste to be rid of his father-in-law.
With evidence as clear as this, the trial was
something of a formality. Dr. Arthur Warren Waite was convicted of John
Peck's murder, and before his execution he admitted the ingenious and
successful methods he had used for poisoning his mother-in-law without
incurring any suspicion at all. Had he persevered with these ideas, in
time Mr.Peck may have suffered the same fate as his wife without anyone
being the wiser.
Excerpted from Little Book of
Forensics by David Owen Copyright © 2008 by David Owen.
Excerpted by permission.
Charles Hoy Fort's Book
Of all germ-distributors, the most
notorious was Dr. Arthur W. Waite, who, in the year 1916, was an
embarrassment to medical science. In his bacteriological laboratory, he
had billions of germs, Waite planned to kill his father-in-law, John E.
Peck, 435 Riverside Drive, New York City. He fed the old man germs of
diphtheria, but got no results. He induced Peck to use a nasal spray, in
which he had planted colonies of the germs of tuberculosis. Not a cough.
He fed the old man calomel, to weaken his resistance. He turned loose
hordes of germs of typhoid, and then tried influenza. In desperation, he
lost all standing in the annals of distinctive crimes, and went common,
or used arsenic. The old-fashioned method was a success.
Arthur Warren Waite was also impatient with the
arsenic method. He stated: "Then I gave him arsenic. I don't remember
what day it was. I gave him a lot of it in his food. One night I was
left to watch by his bedside while my wife got some rest. The old man
was groaning with pain. I looked over the medicine bottles beside his
bed and found a small vial of chloroform. I saturated a rag with some of
this and went over to him and said: `Father, here is some ether and
ammonia which will relieve your pain.' I gave him a smell and then I
gave him another dose. At last he fell asleep. I continued to put on
more until he became unconscious. Then I got a pillow and placed it over
Mr. Peck's face and held it there until he died." What brought Dr. Waite
under suspicion were an anonymous letter, (received before Mr. Peck's
body was to be buried), and the discovery of arsenic in the body during
"Dr. Waite slew two and boasted of it." New York
Sun, November 29, 1930, p.46 c.1-2. Denis Clark. "The Jekyll and
Hyde murders: The case of A.W. Waite." J.M. Parrish, and, John R.
Crossland, eds. The Fifty Most Amazing Crimes of the Last 100 Years.
London: Odhams Press, 1936, 699-711.