The Devil's Gentleman : Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century
From renowned true-crime historian Harold Schechter comes the riveting exploration of a notorious New York City murder in the 1890s, the fascinating forensic science of an earlier time, and the grisly court case that became a tabloid spectacle.
The wayward son of a revered Civil War general, Roland Molineux enjoyed good looks, status, and fortune-hardly the qualities of a prime suspect in a series of shocking, merciless cyanide killings. Molineux's subsequent indictment for murder led to two explosive trials and a sex-infused scandal that shocked the nation. Bringing to life Manhattan's Gilded Age, Schechter captures all the colors of the tumultuous legal proceedings, gathering his own evidence and tackling subjects no one dared address at the time-all in hopes of answering a tantalizing question: What powerfully dark motives could drive the wealthy scion of an eminent New York family to murder?
Starred Review. True-crime historian Schechter (co-author, The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers) delivers a thrilling account of a murder case that rocked Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. Roland Molineux, a socially ambitious chemist,was a proud member of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, where he was considered a talented but snooty sportsman, repeatedly instigating spats with the club's athletic director, Harry Cornish. Pursuing women with the same determination he brought to sports, Roland doggedly wooed Blanche Chesebrough, an equally ambitious young woman with operatic aspirations. But when one of Molineux's romantic competitors, Henry Barnet, died, Cornish was poisoned (he survived) and his landlady died, Roland topped the list of suspects. The ensuing investigation and sensational trial became one of the costliest in New York State history. Schechter expertly weaves a rich historical tapestry--exploring everything from the birth of yellow journalism to the history of poison as a murder weapon--without sacrificing a novelistic sense of character, pacing and suspense. The result is a riveting tale of murder, seduction and tabloid journalism run rampant in a New York not so different from today's. B&w photos. (Oct)
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September 29, 2008
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Excerpt from The Devil's Gentleman by Harold Schechter
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.
Be truly polite.
In studying, concentrate your thoughts solely upon the subject
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.