Dr. Arthur Waite & the Bad Man from Egypt

Dr. Arthur Warren Waite

On March 23, 1916, Detectives Cunniffe and Brothers found the young dentist and amateur tennis champion Dr. Arthur Warren Waite comatose in critical condition with quantities of trional, sulphonal, veronal and morphine in his coat pocket at the upscale Colosseum Apartments in New York’s Upper West Side. District attorney Edward Swann hurried to the domicile with a stenographer to take an antemortem statement should Arthur revive enough to talk.

The law enforcement agents held the opinion that the young man tried to kill himself with the morphine and the sedative-hypnotic bromides anticipating his arrest for murder in the first degree of his father-in-law.

New York officers were working in cooperation with Prosecuting Attorney Francis X. Mancuso of Grand Rapids, Michigan who said he had obtained corroborative evidence of a plot to kill the wealthy Mr. John E. Peck. He died in Dr. Waite’s apartment in the Colosseum on March 12th.

Mother-in-law Hannah Peck died in the same apartment six weeks earlier.

The scene of the crimes, The Colosseum Apartments

The lavish Riverside Drive flat was purchased by Mr. Peck for his daughter Clara Louise Peck and her 28-year-old husband a few months earlier. Peck was in the retail drug business with his brother, then entered into the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. He was a director in several banks and held the bulk of the stock of a number of furniture companies. It was estimated that his estate was worth three million dollars. John promised his son-in-law a dowry of $50,000 outright but decided later to instead send monthly installments of $300.

Clara Louise Peck Waite

Clara Louise Peck met the tall, bright and handsome Arthur Waite in 1906 at a dance. He was a farmer’s son who just entered the University of Michigan dental college. Waite was such a brilliant student that he was awarded a scholarship in the College of Royal Surgeons at Edinburgh, Scotland. There he made the unprecedented accomplishment of completing a two year program in the space of three months. This won him a $500 bonus and a lucrative appointment in South Africa in the employ of an English syndicate interested in advancing surgery and dentistry. He left South Africa four years later at the outbreak of WWI and took some advanced courses at London University and Harvard before returning home to Grand Rapids to visit his family.

Fate brought Clara and Arthur together a second time at a New Year’s eve dance in 1915. He had come back from Africa a man of the world, polished, accomplished and becoming a shining luminary to the world of science. She was dazzled and flattered by the man’s attentions. Then and there he proposed—this brilliant young son of an obscure farmer—to her, Clara Louise Peck, heiress.

They married at the Fountain Street Baptist Church on September 9, 1915. Waite opened a dental practice while studying medicine under a friend of the Peck family, Dr. Jacob Cornell.

Just after their first Christmas together, the Waites invited her mother to New York. Hannah Peck fell ill hours after arriving, and her condition worsened daily. She died on January 30th. Doctors diagnosed kidney disease. The body was shipped to Grand Rapids and cremated.

Percy Peck

When the grieving widower visited New York a month later, he began having similar health problems — vomiting, bellyaches, nausea. His death was not quite as swift. No suspicion had been attached to Dr. Waite for the death of his father-in-law until a mysterious telegram signed “K. Adams” reached Percy Peck, Clara’s brother, in Grand Rapids while the body of Mr. Peck was en-route from New York. This telegram advised that under no circumstances should the body be buried until an autopsy had been performed. Waite’s insistence that Peck’s body be cremated like Hannah’s when he arrived in Grand Rapids aroused more suspicion. Percy summoned the family pastor, the Rev. A.W. Wishart, and the family physician—Dr. Perry Schurz. The physician and the preacher swiftly became eager and aggressive detectives. The post mortem showed that the condition of the heart and lungs did not indicate death from other than natural causes, but an examination of the stomach made by Dr. Victor C. Vaughn, dean of the medical department of the University of Michigan, disclosed the presence of arsenic in the stomach.

Arthur Waite, still a little loopy in his prison room at Bellevue Hospital, spilled his guts about his crimes to his brother Frank, who then told the press that Arthur was not mentally sound. “Yes, you might compare the case to Jekyll and Hyde, but of course the line is not so marked as Stevenson made it in his writing,” remarked brother Frank.

Authorities discovered that Waite had in his possession deadly bacilli capable of killing a regiment. He used the letterheads of a number of reputable physicians and forged their signatures in order to obtain the deadly cultures from the Cornell Medical College, the Rockefeller Institute laboratories, the Willard Parker Hospital and by mail from the Parke-Davis Company. Days before John Peck’s death, Waite asked an acquaintance, Dr. R. W. Muller, to help him get arsenic to kill feral cats “which were bothering his father-in-law,” who was sick. The doctor advised strychnine but Waite insisted on arsenic.

Dr. Waite, suspecting that detectives were trailing him, met with the undertaker who prepared Mr. Peck, Eugene Oliver Kane, to ask if he would swear that he used arsenic in the embalming of the body. “I can put you on easy street for life if you do as I tell you,” he said. Waite place a bankroll containing $7800 in his ulster pocket. Detectives caught wind of this scheme. He then reported that his father-in-law was suicidal after the death of his wife and asked Arthur to get him the arsenic.

Mrs. Waite didn’t believe her young dashing husband was capable of murder, “I have the utmost confidence in Arthur. I know positively that he loved father and mother too well to do anything to them. And, even if he did not like them, his love for me would keep him from doing any evil.”

Clara, however, gave vital information concerning her father’s last illness: “He did not like to take the medicine Arthur gave him,” she said, “so Arthur put it in his soup when he did not know it. He said the soup tasted bad and recommended that I get a new cook. Then Arthur put the medicine in his coffee. That went better. I know, however, that Arthur never put any poison into it. It was only medicine for father’s cold. She also told the district attorney that her husband not only asked her to make a will leaving to him everything she would inherit from her father, but he objected to bequests she had made to various institutions.

The Bad Man

Dr. Waite was completely cornered. All of the evidence pointed to him, but his motives weren’t yet pinned down. Certainly the only defense available was insanity. Arthur divulged a deep secret. He confessed that dwelling within him, operating on an subconscious level, was an abnormal monster which for years the dentist had struggled against and known as “the bad man from Egypt.”

Waite’s attorney Walter R. Deuel introduced in evidence statements in which Waite constantly referred to the man from Egypt and the power that this mysterious creature of his brain had over him.

“Waite had a diseased mind,” said Deuel in his opening statement at the trial. “One hour he was sane as you or I and the next hour he was possessed by madness…” It was during these hours of insanity when this man from Egypt creature of his distorted mind whispered to him that he must commit diabolical acts.

“Waite really had an ’alter ego‘ or other self. When he was rational he was Dr. Waite, kindly, good charitable and true to his family ties. He was like Stevenson’s character Dr. Jekyll,” Deuel told the press.

Dr. Morris J. Karpas, expert witness or “alienist” for the defense, said that Waite had told him he believed his body and soul were separated and that his soul dwelt in Egypt. “He said he believed in the doctrine of reincarnation, and this had given him the belief in the man from Egypt.

When he was under the spell of this alter ego he became Mr. Hyde, the slayer of the Pecks. Try as he might, Waite could not evict the murderous Egyptian. Often, he said, he had gone to Central Park and had fought against the evil one and had tried to run away from him. But the abnormal Egyptian was so fleet footed that he always caught up with Dr. Waite. The bad man that held full sway over Dr. Waite’s soul when he committed the crimes therefore was wholly to blame, not the dentist, according to his attorney.

Arthur thought that he was also under the control of the Egyptian when he became a worshiper at the altar of “the goddess with the velvet eyes,” a young married woman that caught his fancy.

Arthur Waite claimed to be possessed by an evil spirit from Egypt

Mystery Woman #1

Records of the Plaza Hotel showed that Waite and a woman registered there on February 22nd as Dr. and Mrs. A.W. Walters. Questions arose as to whether the woman asked Waite to poison his wife’s parents and eventually do away with his wife so that they could live in luxury together. This mystery woman was soon identified by detectives. Mrs. Tillie Margaret Weaver Horton was a young and beautiful contralto singer who studied Shakespeare at the Y.M.C.A. school of expression in Cincinnati and aspired to become a star of the Metropolitan opera. She was the wife of Harry Mack Horton, an electrical engineer, inventor and dealer in war supplies, whose home was in Dayton. She met Dr. Waite at the Berlitz School where they studied French and German. They also  studied the dramatic arts and music. She told detectives that she shared a studio in the Plaza Hotel with Waite so that they might study foreign languages there together and so she could play her piano. She insisted that their relationship was strictly platonic. Harry approved of his adoring wife sharing a studio with Arthur, and referred to her as “a dove among crows.”

When Margaret played piano for him, Arthur cried. Mrs. Horton refused to allow Waite to bedeck her with jewels, but consented to allow the handsome young dentist to pay for her dramatic training. He told her of the fame they might win together as a “Romeo and Juliet,” and dazzled her with enticing visions. It wasn’t long before she fell madly for the mad scientist.

After Mr. Peck died, Dr. Waite told Margaret to leave the studio without delay. He asked her to throw his belongings at the studio in the river. He asked her to buy him some sleeping powders trional and sulphonal. He gave her a dollar for the drugs, a diamond ring and $172 in cash. “Perhaps you will never see me again,” he told her.

Mystery Woman #2

All of the State’s witnesses commented about Waite’s polished and gentlemanly manners: the specialists who taught the dentist bacteriology, the embalmer, the physician and the druggist testifying to the detectives all commented that his manners were always high-bred, courteous, considerate and kindly and that he was a pleasant person. His friends, acquaintances and associates concurred.

But the day after Mr. Peck’s death, Waite’s impeccable manners were conspicuously absent, according to distant relatives/family friends Dr. Jacob Cornell and Arthur Swinton of Somerville, NJ. They called on Waite the day before and the day after Peck died. They turned up at the apartment against Waite’s wishes and were treated with a trace of brusqueness. Waite appeared nervous and excited. He asked, “What did you come for? I thought my wife had called you up and asked you not to.” Dr. Waite did not ask them into the apartment. They discussed the matter back home in Somerville, with Cornell’s niece Elizabeth Hardwicke.

Elizabeth Hardwicke’s telegram sparked all of the investigations.

Coincidentally, Hardwicke was having lunch at the Plaza Hotel on Feb. 22 when she saw Waite dining with Margaret Horton. Waite nervously introduced her as a nurse, but Hardwicke was suspicious. When she learned that John Peck had died suddenly, she sent the mysterious telegram to Percy Peck in Grand Rapids under the fictitious name, K. Adams. It was a strategic choice. Kate Adams was the name of the woman victim in New York’s greatest preceding poisoning case back in December 1898, for which Mr. Roland B. Molineux was famously twice tried.

Eventually, Waite and his legal team felt if he told what had actually happened the courts would find him insane. Expert witnesses claimed Waite suffered from a form of constitutional inferiority, referred to as “moral imbecility” or “moral idiocy” and that because of this infirmity he was not responsible for his degenerate acts. Moral idiocy was an early 20th century diagnosis given to individuals “who lack the appreciation of the rights of others, can be moved only by the fear of physical pain, and who never experience disgrace or shame.” Today they would be diagnosed as sociopaths.

The more crime and vice the defense could fix on the defendant the better were their chances for proving that he suffered from this infirmity. No pains were spared to prove the depth and variety of his guilt.

The prosecution and the defense in fact reversed their usual functions. While the defense labored at the difficult task of putting additional stains on Waite’s moral character and making them vivid enough to stand out against the black background which had already been painted, the State sought to discredit certain details of the more intricate plots of murder to which the defendant had confessed. Neither strategy was very effective. The defense did not succeed in making Waite much blacker, and the prosecution was not very successful in trimming any of the fantastic details from Waite’s crimes.

The Pecks murder case became the trial of the century. It was so sensational that even war-racked Europe followed it day by day in the cable dispatches. Women clamored to get a seat in the courtroom. Justice Shearn ordered that every seat might be taken but that no crowding would be permitted. Hundreds were barred. Preferential treatment was given to those who could establish legitimate interest. Among those given a front row seat was heiress and Broadway first-nighter Aimée Crocker. She sat beside Mrs. Dorothy von Palmenberg, friend and confidante to Mrs. Horton. It was Dorothy who told District Attorney Swann about damaging letters that Waite wrote to Mrs. Horton from Bellevue that later forced Mrs. Horton to become a witness against Waite.

The dashing tennis champion was becoming a New York society star.

No one knew if Aimée was there to testify, if she was offering emotional support for someone involved in the case or if she was a thrill seeking spectator. Waite was known to have been a confidential friend of at least four wealthy New York women whose names the prosecution were not yet prepared to mention. Dr. Waite could readily gain the favor of women. He was one of the most polished dancers and best dressed men of New York as well as a dashing athletic figure on the tennis court. He was certainly Crocker’s type.

Aimée had been involved in a court case herself that made headlines from coast to coast only weeks before, when it was discovered that her fourth husband Alexander Miskinoff was having a love affair with her fifteen-year-old adopted daughter Yvonne. That case ended, after much embarrassment and hard feelings with a legal trial separation.

Waite’s relatives described him in court as intermittently insane. They offered testimony that the Man from Egypt was an alter ego first developed and created in Waite when he was still a child. He was popular in Sunday school and use his allowance to help distressed people, but when his other self, his alter ego was in the ascendant, he would torture animals and steal from his friends. Brothers Frank and Clyde swore that Arthur stole money from their mother’s boarders, from students at high school and in college, from his employers and also that he never passed a dog or cat without pulling its tail.

Walter Waite, father of the accused dentist, submitted further evidence that one member of the Waite family died in an insane asylum, a second was currently an inmate of an asylum and that a third had been treated for mental trouble.

Waite took the stand to offer further embellished diabolical confessions in order to bolster his moral imbecility-insanity defense. He charged that Clara’s Aunt Catherine was his first target.

“I gave her repeated doses of germs, then some arsenic, and after that some ground glass,” Waite testified matter-of-factly. “I also injected live germs into a can of fish before presenting it to her.”

The event that saved Aunt Catherine was the arrival of Hanna Peck in New York to spend the winter with her daughter and new son-in-law.

A little over a month later, Hanna Peck was dead.

Hannah and John Peck

Speaking of Hannah, Arthur revealed, “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 (a barbiturate) and gave her that, too.”

He told the whole story of how he obtained cultures of typhoid, anthrax and diphtheria from the Cornell hospital laboratory and put them on Hannah’s food and in her nasal spray. He spoke of injecting cultures into her mouth during a dental procedure. Waite continued his murderous treatments for several days until one night, the overweight but relatively healthy Hanna died in her sleep. Waite checked on her in the middle of the night, and finding her dead, went back to sleep.

“I went back to bed again so that it would be my wife who would discover the body,” he testified.

The family physicians attributed her death to kidney disease and Waite surprised the entire clan when he told them it was Hannah’s last wish to be cremated. Despite never hearing her discuss such a wish, the family cremated her body and buried her ashes in the family plot in West Michigan.

Women were excluded from the court room when Dr. Waite gave his fiendish testimony.

Waite told of a long career of crime staring in the sixth grade. He offered minute details about how he generated chlorine gas in his father-in-law’s room to make his throat more sensitive to the germ cultures. He spoke of how he drove Peck in a swift automobile with open windows and raised the windows of his bedroom in mid-winter in an unsuccessful effort to give him pneumonia. When various bacteria applications on John Peck were unsuccessful, Waite put arsenic in his soup, tea and eggnog. When that too failed, Waite revealed that he chloroformed and suffocated him.

When Mrs. Margaret Horton took the stand, she blew Waite’s temporary insanity plea out the window. She described a letter he wrote, “It said something about hurting those most whom he loved most. Then he said he didn’t think he would get ‘la chaise’ (the chair), but that he would be put in an institution for the insane. He said he would treat them nice and be good and that they would soon let him out and then he’d be free again to join her.” Horton, his goddess darling with the velvet eyes, said that she had been in love with Waite and that she told him she would wait for forty years for him.

The case was open and shut. Sixteen witnesses showed that John E. Peck had died of arsenic poisoning; that Waite had predicted the death of his father-in-law; that he schemed to have the body cremated and to frustrate the autopsy plans; that he had purchased enough arsenic to have wiped out the entire Peck family; that he studied bacteriology and bough virulent germs of deadly diseases and that he bribed the embalmer to submit a false sample of the embalming fluid—a sample that contained arsenic.

Waite and his legal team failed at all of their approaches at defense. Clara wanted the death penalty. “I have lost everything,” said the blue-eyed young woman with a tremor in her voice. Mrs. Horton thought he should be punished severely in some way, but she had no feeling of revenge in her heart and had no desire to see Dr. Waite executed.

The jury returned its verdict at 2:46 on the sixth day of the trial after deliberation of one hour and twenty-five minutes. Dr. Arthur Warren Waite was condemned to the electric chair at Sing Sing.

Percy, at the beginning of the trial said to one of the district attorneys, “I have one favor to ask, and that is that I can have a seat through every minute of the trial near that man so that I can see the last gleam of hope gradually fade from his face.”

The Peck murders was a front page story around the world.

Waite gave no final words at his execution on May 25, 1917, but he did send a friend a letter a few days before:

For days I feel absolutely disconnected from the world—as though I had never lived in it, yet having a dream memory as though I had flown over it and so gleaned what knowledge I possess.

I am by no means abusing the remaining days I may have in body form. O, friend, had I paused some years ago to learn what I am now learning I would have caused less trouble in the world.

I have never bothered much about vital matters such as honesty, truth, kindness, patience, humility, etc. The knowledge of them was not altogether lacking—probably most people would say I was very kind to them. I tried to be a gentleman (exteriorally) and this covered many imperfections probably.

Waite wrote a note with a Robert Louis Stevenson quote to Dr. Amos O. Squire, prison physician, “Call us with morning faces, eager to labor, eager to be happy.”

“Waite was the most remarkable man with whom I have ever come in contact in prison,” said Dr. Squire. “I have seen forty men go to the chair, but never have I seen any man so entirely calm. Neither his pulse, blood pressure, nor nerves indicated that he was under any greater strain than he would be if at home in his library reading.”

Arthur Waite’s story of big money, clandestine romance, bribery, fraud, scientific investigation and occult influences was absolutely irresistible to the endlessly curious Aimée Crocker. Psychoanalyzing the inner lives of dangerous and powerful men was certainly not unfamiliar territory to the heiress. On January 30th, the day of Hannah Peck’s death, Aimée had her first sexual encounter with the great hedonist, ceremonial magician, yogi, Tantric master and mystic Aleister Crowley, “the Wickedest Man in the World.” Crowley, to some people even today, left a far more frightening legacy than the sinister dentist Dr. Arthur Warren Waite. Their pyrotechnic love affair would continue off and on for the next ten years.