The Merry Widower: Dr. Arthur Warren Waite

Oct 14, 2013 - by Robert Walsh - 0 Comments

Dr. Arthur Warren Waite

Dr. Arthur Warren Waite was a consummate fake. Everything about him, including being a dentist, was a fake. A gold digger par excellence, he married into the Pecks of Grand Rapids family with a plan to murder the entire lot and inherit its considerable fortune.

by Robert Walsh

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 and, not long after, Waite himself would be a very merry widower.

Waite was a fake dentist with fraudulentmedical qualifications and dark motives.Born into an impoverished family of Michigan farmers, his lack of wealth and status bruised his ego and fuelled his lifelong resentment. Couple that with an ironclad sense of permanent entitlement to things he wanted (for no other reason than he wanted them) and a total lack of conscience.  

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 as leading figures in Michigan industry and extreme wealth gave them an equally high profile. It also made them prime targets for Waite, who saw as clearly as anybody the Pecks’s 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, roundly disliked Waite and was suspicious of him for no other reason than he 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 ingratiating himself with the Peck family, especially Clara and her parents.

Unfortunately for Percy (and the Peck family as a whole) he was outnumbered. Clara loved Waite and married him. Her parents and her Aunt Catherine were all very impressed by Waite’s tales of foreign travel, a flourishing dental practice in New York City (well, he’d been outside the United States so he wasn’t being entirely dishonest) and his talent for tennis (Waite was New York Metropolitan amateur champion at one time). All these things supposedly spoke volumes for his professional talents, sporting ambition, hard work and outward respectability (he was certainly ambitious, at any rate).

A Consummate Fake

In reality, Waite had been thrown out of dental school in Michigan in 1909 for plagiarizing another student’s work. He then had used fake qualifications from Michigan to enter postgraduate dental study in Glasgow, which allowed him to take up the position of company dentist with a major mining company in South Africa.  He was only able to hold that position for two years. His employment was terminated when the mining company discovered large quantities of money were missing and suspected Waite of embezzlement.

Waite’s consummate fakery even extended as far as adopting a British accent that any British citizen would almost instantly have spotted. His “flourishing dental practice” in New York consisted of a few disgruntled patients (largely dissatisfied with both his poor dentistry and that he spent more time playing tennis than fixing teeth) and, when he wasn’t playing tennis, he was secretly conducting a torrid affair with society beauty Margaret Horton, wife of a prominent New York aeronautics businessman.As it was, his fakery went undetected until it was far too late.

So did the rather strange habit (for a dentist) of suddenly taking a strong interest in bacteriology. Waite, claiming to hold a postgraduate degree in dentistry from Glasgow University, started private studies at Cornell Medical School without ever being formally enrolled there. He was able to do this by using 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 studies centered only round the deadliest of germs. Typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, anthrax and others were on his shopping list and he developed a habit of complaining that the bacterial strains available at Cornell were simply not lethal enough for the experiments he was conducting. Again, nobody seemed to think this was odd, but they didn’t know the real reason for his studying lethal diseases. It wasn’t to cure the sick and dying.

A Textbook Psychopath

Having successfully wormed his way into the affections of most of his in-laws and already gaining a decent allowance and rent-free apartment on exclusive Riverside Drive from his wife’s parents, no matter how much Waite obtained 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 and he had an insatiable desire for money. If all his in-laws died then his wife would inherit millions and, should his wife die suddenly, Waite himself would have picked up 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 and for securing things and people they want or need, only to dispense with them as soon as they cease to be useful. People don’t have any intrinsic value, they merely serve some purpose. Once they’ve served it they can be bartered, used and sacrificed. The classic psychopath treats life as his or her personal chessboard and other people as pieces and enjoys 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 and, at best, little or nothing can be done to treat what is nowadays described as “Antisocial Personality Disorder” or “ASD.”

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 began to become increasingly impatient with what they came to regard as their son-in-law’s lack of discernible success and equal lack of motivation to achieve it. They began increasingly sharing Percy’s disapproval of Waite, though not his outright suspicions of Waite’s motives for marrying into a wealthy family and their daughter found herself fending off increasingly disapproving remarks in letters and conversations about him.

On one occasion Clara was reduced to defending her husband by citing his having won the New York Metropolitan Amateur Tennis Championship, as though spending more time playing tennis than building his dental practice was some sort of virtue. His other principal defender was Clara’s Aunt Catherine, who was charmed by her niece’s handsome husband. 

The Mother-in-Law Dies First

His in-laws’ increasing disapproval meant that Waite was under ever-greater risk of exposure as a fraud and a gold-digger. Something had to give and Waite decided that his mother-in-law was the first to be marked for death. She came to stay with her daughter and son-in-law just after Christmas, 1915and, only weeks later, 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 and then pressed her to use a specially made nasal spray of his own devising that, unknown to anybody else at the time, contained a toxic blend of 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. John 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 fellow bereaved relatives. He advised a swift funeral and equally swift cremation, citing his desire to make things as quick as possible, limiting everybody’s grief and ensuring his former in-law was decently interred as soon as possible. In their grief (and over Percy’s disapproval) the Pecks allowed Waite himself to organize the funeral and cremation which he managed with surprising (and suspicious) speed.

Mr. Peck Was Almost Immune

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 to the anthrax and diphtheria) 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.

One evening, after failing in multiple attempts to make John Peck die in a conveniently plausible (if not natural or lawful) manner, Waite simply slipped the old man a massive dose of white arsenic, no less than 18 grains. John Peck still didn’t die, instead lingering in terrible pain. Insatiable greed having now entirely outweighed logic and planning, Waite opted to finally finish the job. He muzzled his annoyingly lively father-in-law with a chloroform-soaked rag, firmly holding a pillow down over that. Everybody has a breaking point and even as tough a victim as John Peck can only take so much. He died not long after receiving the chloroform, but it was as much the sealing of Arthur Waite’s doom as John Peck’s.

Again, to use Waite’s own words regarding his six-week struggle to murder 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.”

Undone by a Letter from “K. Adams”

Waite tried for another quick funeral and cremation, the same as for Mrs. Peck. Unfortunately for Waite, Percy Peck’s suspicions were now not only aroused by Waite’s pressing for a swift funeral and cremation, 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 held a similar 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 and when Mr. Peck promptly passed away as well she could see only two common factor in their deaths, unexpected lethal diseases and Arthur Warren Waite.

Percy Peck immediately went to see homicide detectives of the New York Police Department, showing them the letter and describing in detail his now abject suspicions regarding the deaths of his parents. It wasn’t long before the detectives were as convinced as Percy Peck and promptly headed directly 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 at the scene, Waite was rushed to Bellevue Hospital and promptly arrested on two charges 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.”

An Insanity Gambit

Under questioning Waite’s first line of defense was ludicrous at best, indicating that he was either so arrogant that he thought he’d never be caught (so had no need to prepare any defense in advance) or so desperate that he’d try absolutely anything, no matter how outlandish. In the end he opted for a pathetic plea of 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 and Waite eventually delivered something rather more clever and calculated. He thought, quite rightly, that the police would soon have enough to see him tried and, since the criminally insane weren’t considered fit to stand trial (especially not in capital cases, New York State at the time provided mandatory death sentences for murderers) his best route to showing he was mad was to confess his every crime while laughing, smiling and joking with investigating officers. Waite’s motive was simple and his act almost worked. He gave detailed descriptions of the murders of the Pecks, described his attempt to murder Aunt Catherine (one of his staunchest defenders) by putting ground glass in marmalade (it didn’t work, but did little to encourage her to further support him).

Describing his attempts to kill perhaps his second-most staunch defender: “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.

Waite even admitted that he’d tried to get his wife, Clara, to try his “special nasal spray” during a cold she’d had only for her to refuse point-blank to use it (suggesting that some of Percy Peck’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 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.

Her testimony proved the only evidence the judge needed to deny Waite’s plea of insanity and rule him fit to stand trial for his life. Criminals don’t usually discuss faking insanity or 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 is predicated on whether a defendant knows the nature of his or her acts and knows that those acts are wrong. Waite undoubtedly knew his acts were criminal, for otherwise he’d have had no reason to attempt to conceal the murders as ordinary illnesses or pretend to be psychotic when he obviously wasn’t.

The Trial and a Date with “Old Sparky”

The trial was a mere formality. There was solid medical evidence that John Peck had been poisoned with both arsenic and chloroform. There was Waite himself confessing and openly describing his crimes to the somewhat shocked jury (no doubt hoping that the jury would think anybody facing the electric chair simply must be mad to sit in court describing every detail while freely confessing guilt). There was solid witness evidence from Percy Peck, Clara Peck, Aunt Catherine and Margaret Horton and, barring some major botch in trial law or other legal procedures, Waite was a step further down his “last mile” with every day that passed.

Throughout the trial, which lasted from late-April until early May, Waite kept up an able pretence of somebody too calm and open about his crimes to be considered sane, but neither judge nor jury were buying. It probably didn’t help his case that Mr. Peck’s embalmer, Eugene Kane, and Dora (Arthur Waite’s housemaid) both testified that Waite had offered them sizeable bribes. Dora stated that Waite offered her $1,000 not to admit she’d seen him putting white powder (probably arsenic) into Peck’s food. Kane testified that Waite had cornered him by a phone booth and stuffed $9,000 into his pocket and demanded that 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 and the New York State Lunacy Commission, a three-man body that would have the final say over his mental and psychological state only days before his scheduled execution in May, 1917. The commission’s belief in Waite’s sanity under the law was solid and the governor refused to intervene.

It was May 24, 1917 when Arthur Waite began the somber ritual. When guards, the prison warden and the prison chaplain approached his cell he was calmly reading the Bible, interspersed with passage from his favorite poet, John Keats. Waite remained in total control as he sat in the chair, watching the straps and electrodes as they were attached to his body. His last words seem almost disinterestedly curious, as though he were watching an execution instead of suffering one: “Is this all there is to it..?”

Warden Osborne raised his hand and the executioner 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 previously suffered from during childhood and which may 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: He had an abnormally large heart.

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