Poisoning The Pecks of Grand Rapids by Toblin T. Buhk
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Were it not for a mysterious telegram from New York, poisoner Arthur Warren Waite might have gotten away with it.
“To Mr. and Mrs. Percy Peck: Suspicion aroused, demand autopsy, do not reveal telegram.”
Signed “K. Adams,” the terse message launched an investigation that exposed an insidious murder plot by Waite, son-in-law of John Peck, a wealthy Grand Rapids businessman who, along with wife Hannah, died by poisoning in 1916.
The deaths, subsequent investigation and trial of Waite made national headlines at the time. Nearly 100 years later, the case is still famous famous in West Michigan and talked about regularly in historical circles.
This month, The History Press published a detailed, 180-page historical narrative of the case, written by Jenison author and true crime novelist Tobin T. Buhk.
“Poisoning The Pecks of Grand Rapids: The Scandalous 1916 Murder Plot” traces the footsteps of poisoner Arthur Waite from his marriage to Clara Peck at Fountain Street Church in 1915 to his death by electrocution at Sing Sing Prison in 1917.
The book details the run-up to the murders, the investigation and trial, as well as Waite’s desperate attempts to cover-up his acts — which he later described in astonishing detail on the witness stand. It delves into the poisoner’s lavish double-life and includes a glimpse into his last days on death row.
“This case is still studied by students,” said Buhk, who made extensive use of trial transcripts and investigation records held by the Lloyd Sealy Library at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.
“It left a dent in everyone’s life,” said Buhk. “Anyone involved in the prosecution of Waite considered it a key moment in their careers.”
Major points of the case are well known.
Waite, son of a wholesale grocer, grew up in Grand Rapids and graduated from dental school at the University of Michigan. He wooed Clara Peck, daughter of millionaire pharmacist and entrepreneur John Peck, whose namesake drug store occupied the triangular building at the corner of North Division Avenue and Monroe Center NW in downtown Grand Rapids now occupied by the MoDiv retail incubator.
Once married, Waite began extensive attempts to poison the Pecks by first dosing mother-in-law Hannah Peck’s food with a mixture of diphtheria and influenza germs. The scheme worked and the elderly woman fell ill and died in January 1916.
The motive: Money. Waite sought his wife’s inheritance.
John Peck had a tougher constitution and Waite’s attempts to dose him with illness-causing germs fell short. Finally, in March 1916, Waite resorted to arsenic-laced eggnog and finished his father-in-law off by suffocating the man with a pillow.
The plot occurred largely in New York, where Waite was using Peck family money to lead a double life with mistress Margaret Horton.
Had Waite successfully infected John Peck with an illness virulent enough to cause his death — he tried diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhus and influenza — he likely would have gotten away with the murders. But he couldn’t get virulent enough germs and preserve them in a way that kept them dangerous, Buhk said.
Waite also tried to kill Peck’s sister, Catherine, with germs.
“The depth of Waite’s deception was shocking to people,” said Buhk. Newspaper accounts of the time referred to the man’s “tissue of lies.
Waite tried to have John Peck’s body cremated quickly in order to destroy the evidence of arsenic poisoning. He’d managed it with Hannah Peck, but a friend of the family got suspicious after having watched both Pecks die in Waite’s posh Manhattan apartment.
The telegram back to Grand Rapids was Waite’s undoing.
The cause of Hannah Peck’s death was initially listed as kidney failure, and John Peck’s as heart disease. Peck’s son, Percy, alerted by the telegram, met Waite and Clara at Union Depot in Grand Rapids and demanded his father’s body.
From there, the plot unraveled thanks in no small part to Rev. Alfred Wesley Wishart of Fountain Street Church, who traveled to New York with Percy Peck to interview undertakers and helped make initial breaks in the case.
Wishart, who had married Arthur and Clara, was not one to let a wrong go uncorrected, said Buhk. The late pastor is a bit of an unsung hero in the case, which was also investigated by noted private sleuth Raymond Schindler.
Waite’s confessions during the trial — an insanity defense strategy that failed — helped provide vivid accounting of the poisoners actions for Buhk’s book.
In contrast to some historical sleuthing, Buhk said whittling a narrative out of an over-abundance of source material was the difficulty in writing “Poisoning The Pecks.”
The book follows Buhk’s other recent novelized true crime stories, “The Shocking Story of Helmuth Schmidt: Michigan’s Original Lonely Hearts Killer,” and “Michigan’s Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mary McKnight.”
“I wanted this to be a readable narrative, something you could go back to 1916 and follow along with the investigators,” he said.