The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century

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9780345476791: The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century

From renowned true-crime historian Harold Schechter, whom The Boston Book Review hails as “America’s principal chronicler of its greatest psychopathic killers,” comes the riveting exploration of a notorious, sensational New York City murder in the 1890s, the fascinating forensic science of an earlier age, and the explosively dramatic trial that became a tabloid sensation at the turn of the century.

Death was by poison and came in the mail: A package of Bromo Seltzer had been anonymously sent to Harry Cornish, the popular athletic director of Manhattan’s elite Knickerbocker Athletic Club. Cornish barely survived swallowing a small dose; his cousin Mrs. Katherine Adams died in agony after ingesting the toxic brew. Scandal sheets owned by Hearst and Pulitzer eagerly jumped on this story of fatal high-society intrigue, speculating that the devious killer was a chemist, a woman, or “an effeminate man.” Forensic studies suggested cyanide as the cause of death; handwriting on the deadly package and the vestige of a label glued to the bottle pointed to a handsome, athletic society scamp, Roland Molineux.

The wayward son of a revered Civil War general, Molineux had clashed bitterly with Cornish before. He had even furiously denounced Cornish when penning his resignation from the Knickerbocker Club, a letter that later proved a major clue. Bon vivant Molineux had recently wed the sensuous Blanche Chesebrough, an opera singer whose former lover, Henry Barnet, had also recently died . . . after taking medicine sent to him through the mail. Molineux’s subsequent indictment for murder led to two explosive trials, a sex-infused scandal that shocked the nation, and a lurid print-media circus that ended in madness and a proud family’s disgrace.
In bold, brilliant strokes, Schechter captures all the colors of the tumultuous legal case, gathering his own evidence and tackling subjects no one dared address at the time–all in hopes of answering the tantalizing question: What powerfully dark motives could drive the wealthy scion of an eminent New York family to foul murder?

Schechter vividly portrays the case’s fascinating cast of characters, including Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a prolific yellow journalist who covered the story, and proud General Edward Leslie Molineux, whose son’s ignoble deeds besmirched a dignified national hero’s final years. All the while Schechter brings alive Manhattan’s Gilded Age: a gaslit world of elegant town houses and hidden bordellos, chic restaurants and shabby opium dens, a city peopled by men and women fighting and losing the battle against urges an upright era had ordered suppressed.

Superbly researched and powerfully written, The Devil’s Gentleman is an insightful, gripping work, a true-crime historian’s crowning achievement.

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About the Author:

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, the City University of New York. He is widely celebrated for both fiction and true-crime writing, including The Serial Killer Files. He lives in Brooklyn and Mattituck, Long Island, with his wife, the poet Kimiko Hahn. Visit the author’s website at www.haroldschechter.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

On July 15, 1852, Edward Leslie Molineux--still three months shy of his nineteenth birthday--began what he called his "scrapbook." It was not a pasted-in collection of newspaper and magazine clippings (though in later years, when his own name began to appear regularly in the press, he would assemble several of those, too). Rather, this ledger-sized volume was a handwritten miscellany of striking facts, inspirational sayings, and practical information on everything from military tactics to medicinal recipes.

There is nothing remotely confessional to be found in this journal. His book has all the introspective quality of the official Boy Scout Manual, which it resembles in its single-minded emphasis on self-improvement and the cultivation of the higher civic virtues: industry, tolerance, charity, and a keen sense of duty to one's country. The very look of the pages--inscribed in a flawless hand, perfectly free of blots or corrections, and meticulously labeled with solemn headlines ("The Importance of Physical Exercise," "Useful Rules," "Maxims for the Wise")--speaks vividly of the young writer's capacity for self-discipline, concentrated effort, and high moral seriousness.

"Be virtuous in mind & body & let your thoughts be pure," he counsels himself in an early entry labeled "Rules for Living." This injunction is followed by a score of precepts designed to promote physical, mental, and moral soundness:

Use dumbbells twice a day.

Bathe every morning.

Always get up when you first awake, no matter what time it is. One hour in the morning is worth two at night!

Do everything in a cool, active, and energetic manner.

In times of danger or trouble, first think--then act coolly and decisively.

Never be idle--always have something to do.

Never shrink from an unpleasant duty.

Persevere--never give up a thing until you have tried it every

possible way. Perseverance is the best school for every manly virtue.

Never be prejudiced nor allow yourself to be led by others.

If you are in the wrong, acknowledge it frankly.

Harden in every possible way your body but not your conscience.

Give up all bad habits.

Use no slang language.

Speak kindly.

Be truthful.

Be truly polite.

In studying, concentrate your thoughts solely upon the subject

before you.

Be charitable in thought as well as action.

Love your God & read his doctrines & fail not to address him night & morning.1

Elsewhere in the journal, he transcribes the rules laid down by Benjamin Franklin as a prescription for happiness and success: "Eat not to dullness," "Avoid trifling conversation," "Waste nothing," "Let all things have their place," "Use no hurtful deceit," "Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation," and so on.

Fascinated by every aspect of warfare, he fills his journal with extensive notes--often accompanied by his own diagrams and hand-drawn maps--on a sweeping array of military matters: the proper construction of field fortifications, the organization of the Hungarian army, the strategic deployment of troops in the battle of Waterloo.

At the same time, he had a lifelong love of poetry. He read Chaucer and Milton for pleasure and had a boundless admiration for the writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

He came honestly by his love of reading. His father, William, was a printer; his mother, Maria Leslie, a "remarkably intelligent woman [who] took great delight in reading French and German and was also a close student of English and American literature."2

Young Edward's enthusiasm for all things military was also a family legacy. His ancestors included soldiers who had taken part in the Norman invasion, fought alongside King Henry V at Agincourt, been slain on the battlefield during the War of the Roses, and received personal commendations for bravery from Henry VIII.

It was (and is) a proud and ancient line, whose origins can be traced to one Robert de Moulin--the son (according to family legend) of Abelard and Heloise.3 At the time of Edward's birth in October 1833, his father still retained the traditional spelling of his last name--Molyneux. It was only two years later--when William brought his wife and eight surviving children to the United States--that he adopted the somewhat less exotic-looking spelling.

Though the historical record is hazy, indications are that they settled in Manhattan, where William opened a print shop on the corner of Ann and Nassau streets, and where, two years later, the Molineuxs' youngest child, Arthur--just twenty-two months old--died and was laid to rest in the vault of the Methodist Church on First Street.

William himself died in 1857 at the age of sixty-eight. By then, he was no longer living with his wife and children. Exactly what caused this estrangement is a mystery, though given the stigma attached to broken marriages in those days, the reasons could not have been trivial. What is known is that by 1851 William was separated from his family and living on Staten Island. Maria and the children, in the meantime, had moved to the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Edward Leslie Molineux would reside for the remainder of his long and eventful life.

At seventeen, Edward was a handsome youth--brown-haired, blue-eyed--whose erect, aristocratic carriage made him seem taller than his five feet three inches. He had been educated at the Mechanics School on Broadway and Park Place. (Despite its name, the Mechanics School was not a vocational institution. Run by the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, it provided a tuition-free general education to the children of its members at a time before New York City had a municipal public school system. As the son of a printer, Edward was eligible for admission.)

That year, 1851, seventeen-year-old Edward found a job at the paint-manufacturing firm of Daniel F. Tiemann & Company, whose owner was active in New York City politics and would eventually serve a two-year term as mayor.4 Within this bustling concern, young Edward--with his brains, ambition, and indefatigable energy--thrived. In the manner of a Horatio Alger hero, he quickly rose to a position of responsibility, handling all of the firm's voluminous correspondence and occupying the front office with several other clerks.

In 1854, even as Edward continued to establish himself in business and (partly through his association with Daniel F. Tiemann) involve himself in city politics, the twenty-year-old Molineux commenced what would be a long and illustrious military career.

On June 15 of that year, he enlisted in the New York State Militia as a member of the Brooklyn City Guard, a celebrated light-artillery company whose smartly executed drills and dress parades had inspired a popular parlor tune, "The Brooklyn City Guard Quick Step." The few extant records from this period in Edward's life show how quickly he advanced through the noncommissioned ranks--no surprise, given his ferocious drive and exceptional abilities.

In 1858, when the U.S. government needed a courier for an important diplomatic mission to Venezuela, the Department of State chose Edward, who discharged his duties with his usual professional grace. It was not long after his return in January 1859 that he was introduced to Hattie Davis Clark of East Hartford, Connecticut. Exactly where and under what circumstances they met is unknown, as are all details of their courtship. By the following December, however, they were betrothed. That Christmas, Edward gave her an illustrated volume of Schiller's poetry, inscribed "To Hattie from Ned." For the emotionally reserved, unremittingly proper Molineux, his use of his pet name--employed only by his family and closest friends--was a mark of the intimacy that had developed between them.

In the meantime, he continued to make himself indispensable to his employers--so much so that in 1860, he was made a partner in the firm. Business was bad for the Tiemanns, however. Most of their customers were Southern merchants, and sales fell off dramatically as tensions rose between the North and South following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November.

In late December of that year, Edward began a new journal, this one composed of his own philosophical musings. One of the earliest entries is dated January 1861. Titled "The First Day of the New-Year," it is written in Molineux's loftiest style, full of high-minded sentiments about the opportunities afforded by the coming year "to correct past errors, to cultivate new virtues, to accomplish greater things."

It is not until the end of the essay that the twenty-seven-year-old deals directly with the momentous events of the day and their immediate implications for his own happiness and well-being. Here, the tone becomes deeply affecting as he contemplates two radically different futures, and girds himself to face the worst with his usual courage, honor, and gallantry:

And for myself, how far in this year of 1861 I may proceed, God alone knows; for who can tell what this eventful year may bring forth!

If to happiness and peace, all thanks to the Almighty! But if plain visible duty points to the other path--where men's passions rage & where patriotism demands us to defend principles & secure future happiness at the bitter price of present suffering, danger & if needs be life itself--then let me rise superior to all considerations in defense of the right & let me recollect that "His Hand is above me" & let my foot be firm to do His Will.

It didn't take long for Edward Molineux to learn what the future held. On April 12, 1861--less than four months after he penned his New Year's essay--Confederate forces under General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter.

The Civil ...

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