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Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids: The Scandalous 1916 Murder Plot

Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids: The Scandalous 1916 Murder Plot

by Tobin T. Buhk

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“Traces the footsteps of poisoner Arthur Waite from his marriage to Clara Peck . . . in 1915 to his death by electrocution at Sing Sing Prison in 1917” (
With his boyish good looks, Arthur Warren Waite charmed into marriage the daughter of wealthy Grand Rapids business tycoon John E. Peck in 1916. He then wasted no time executing what he believed to be a flawless scheme to hijack his wife’s inheritance. The plot went awry when a mysterious telegram set off a sequence of events that ultimately exposed his immoral ambition to poison all other Peck heirs. Follow Waite’s fingerprints of indiscretion around Grand Rapids and New York City as author Tobin T. Buhk details this audacious plan of staggering complexity.
Includes photos!
“Follow Waite’s trail around Grand Rapids and New York City as the author, Tobin Buhk details his complex plan meant to make him a rich man.” —Holland Sentinel

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781625852250
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing SC
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Series: True Crime
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 285,414
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

A teacher by day and a crime writer by night, Tobin Buhk began his unique moonlighting when he did a brief stint as a morgue volunteer, which led to his first two books. A love of history and a fascination with crime led to True Crime Michigan, a history of the Great Lake State through its most inglorious moments, and True Crime in the Civil War.

Read an Excerpt




Thursday, September 9, 1915

Friends, family and even a few reporters crammed the pews of the Fountain Street Baptist Church to witness the social event of the year. To Grand Rapids high society, the marriage of Arthur Warren Waite to Clara Louise Peck was the last chapter in a fairy-tale romance between a debutante and a debonair suitor from the other side of the tracks.

The son of fruit and vegetable wholesaler Warren Winfield Waite, Arthur grew up in a modestly sized house on the north side of the city. A decade earlier, his parents had moved from Cannonsburg Township to Grand Rapids so their three boys — Clyde, Frank and Arthur — could receive a proper education at Grand Rapids High School. Warren did his best to provide for his family, but money was never plentiful, so Arthur delivered papers for the Herald as he attended primary school. In 1905, Arthur — a star athlete, a member of the school's literary society and the all-American boy — graduated from high school and went to the University of Michigan, where he began his study of dentistry.

Clara grew up in a mansion on a hill overlooking the city. Her father, business tycoon John Edward Peck, had come to Grand Rapids forty years earlier and worked his way from a pharmacy proprietor to a wealthy entrepreneur.

The son of New York physician Elias Peck, John learned the pharmacy business by helping his father run his family's drugstore alongside his brother Thomas. In 1865, Thomas Peck briefly left the business. A few years later, John married Hannah Carpenter, and the couple relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where John and Thomas opened a drug business that later evolved into Peck Brothers.

Despite keen competition, the Peck enterprise flourished as the lumbering boom transformed Grand Rapids into a metropolis. John's fortune snowballed when he invested in other enterprises. He acquired real estate, served as president of the National City Bank, founded the Alabastine Company and invested in the Widdicomb Furniture Company. By 1916, his portfolio's value eclipsed seven figures.

Clara enjoyed all of the privileges available to a young heiress. She drank tea served in the finest china, and her playmates included the daughters of lumber barons, industrialists and bankers. As a teenager, she left Grand Rapids to attend Chevy Chase Finishing School for young society ladies in Washington, D.C. Following graduation, she attended Columbia University in New York.

Her romance with Waite began with a waltz in 1906, when nineteen-year-old Arthur got up enough nerve to ask sixteen-year-old Clara for a dance. He had just finished his freshman year in college; she was home from finishing school for summer break. Neither partner realized, as they whirled around the parquet floor, that their dance would one day lead to an epic climax at the altar of the Fountain Street Baptist Church.

Over the next few years, Arthur and Clara would occasionally bump into each other at society soirees. Clara found Waite's charm alluring, and she was flattered by the attention of such a handsome man. She felt drawn to him; his drive to succeed reminded her of her father.

Upon graduation, Arthur traveled to Scotland, where he completed a special course for dental surgery before taking a job in South Africa. As an employee of Wellman & Bridgeman — a well-known British dental firm — he made an excellent salary that he invested in real estate, eventually acquiring two farms. This vision of Arthur Warren Waite — the local boy raised on stew but who had earned a seat eating caviar at the society table — was celebrated throughout Grand Rapids as a living, breathing example of the American dream.

Despite being half a world away, Waite never forgot about that dance with Clara Peck. Determined to stay in touch, he sent her a letter. Thrilled to have received a letter from an exotic locale like Durban, Clara responded, which led to an on-again, off-again correspondence.

Then, in late 1914, Clara heard through the society grapevine that Waite had returned from Africa and had established a dental practice in New York City. Curious about his African adventures, she sent him an invitation to a reception her mother was hosting. Waite came knocking on the door of the Peck residence with a South African accent, a trove of stories and an infatuation for one of the city's most eligible bachelorettes.

Throughout the winter of 1915, Waite wooed Clara. Reluctant to tie the knot, she didn't say "yes" when Waite first proposed. Undaunted, he followed the Peck family to Miami, where they went to escape the harsh Michigan winter. Eventually, Clara could no longer resist, and she accepted his offer of a diamond ring. They agreed to a September wedding.

* * *

Reverend Dr. Alfred Wesley Wishart, Bible in hand, stood by the altar next to Arthur. Sunshine flooded through the stained-glass windows, casting white beams across the pews of the sanctuary as ushers struggled to find seats for the stragglers who had arrived just in time to see the nuptials.

Percy Peck glared at the groom as he waited for the marriage ceremony to begin. Waite was too good to be true, and Percy knew it. He just couldn't convince his sister Clara to dump Waite and instead turn her attention to her childhood sweetheart, John Caulfield. Percy glanced at Caulfield, one of the ushers, and then looked back at Waite, who was standing at the altar waiting for his bride-to-be to make her entrance. His ear-to-ear grin and the smug way he tilted his head back made Percy cringe.

Percy didn't trust the Johnny-come-lately. He knew some of Arthur's classmates at the University of Michigan who described several incidents of theft that ranged from petit larceny to outright fraud.

Waite, apparently, also had a problem keeping his fly closed.

Just a few weeks before the wedding, Waite went to visit Clara's friend Margaret Fisher. While there, he became smitten with Catherine Hubbs, a society deb from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Waite tried to sweet-talk Ms. Hubbs out of her dress for a night of torrid lovemaking. Overcome with rapture, he proposed to her, but Hubbs knew of his engagement to Clara.

"You are engaged to Clara Peck," she scolded him. "You have no right to propose to me."

Waite denied everything, so Hubbs whipped off a letter to Grand Rapids. Clara sent a reply, confirming the engagement. Both Fisher and Hubbs responded, pleading with her, "Don't marry him, please." Upon hearing about the letters, Percy joined the chorus trying to dissuade Clara, but she retorted that she would marry Waite if it killed her.

Then, on the eve of the wedding, Percy received an anonymous telegram with an ominous warning: "Don't let Clara marry Arthur Waite. If you do, you will be sorry." When Percy showed the letter to Clara, she gave a slight chuckle. Percy recognized it as the same small laugh she often used when she confronted an uncomfortable question. With degrees in law and pharmacy, Percy was an educated man with a keen insight into human nature, and he saw Waite as a poseur, but Clara seemed blinded by her devotion.

Percy understood how Clara could fall for someone like Waite. As a child, Waite was skinny, gangly and awkward, but years on high school sports teams had transformed him into a trim, athletic specimen. He also had an irresistible charm to go along with the boyish good looks. When he returned to Grand Rapids in 1914, his smile sent shock waves throughout the city's female population. Wherever he went, Arthur Warren Waite enjoyed gangs of swooning admirers.

Percy looked at his mother, Hannah, who was sitting in the front pew. She was another victim of Waite's considerable charm. Hannah Carpenter Peck cherished the time she spent sipping tea with Arthur in the front parlor. Like her, Arthur had an appreciation for language and music, and she delighted in the tales he told of his adventures in Africa. His stories of treating Africa's underprivileged appealed to the strong sense of brotherly love she learned as the child of a prominent New York Quaker. It was a legacy she carried to Grand Rapids, where, alongside John, she gave back to the city through several philanthropic endeavors.

Waite knew exactly how to handle the Peck matriarch. Whenever they met, Arthur grasped her hand, holding it for a few seconds and gently caressing her palm with his thumb. It always brought her comfort. John used to do that after they lost their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bessie. Hannah became Waite's staunchest ally at the Peck residence. She knew that Clara had some doubts about marrying Waite. In the days leading up to the wedding, the Pecks held several family discussions about the match. Percy and John urged Clara to learn more about Waite's past before she said "I do," but Hannah always took Waite's side.

She even referred to Arthur as "my little boy," which chafed Percy. Everyone knew this, of course, so when he complained about the match, they just shrugged it off as petty jealousy. In fact, it was Hannah Peck who pressed for the September marriage. Arthur wanted to wait until the spring, but Mother, in ill health, wanted to see her daughter married before it was too late.

Percy turned sharply when the "Bridal Chorus" filled the sanctuary. He smiled as he watched his little girl, Florence, leading the wedding procession with a basket of pink rose petals in the crook of her arm. Next in the procession was the matron of honor — Percy's wife, Ella — decked out in a white satin gown with Chantilly lace trim.

Clara, hanging on to the arm of her father, followed Ella. The Grand Rapids News correspondent described the bride as she slowly stepped toward the altar: "She was handsomely gowned in white duchess satin, trimmed here and there with shimmering silver tones, and made with a court train which fell from the shoulders and was edged with silver lace."

Once the soon-to-be bride and groom were ensconced by the altar, Reverend Wishart began the ceremony. Clara's mind drifted as Wishart read a passage from his Bible. She thought about their first dance in 1906, how he led her across the floor, his eyes never leaving hers, as if she was the only woman in the room. How the warmth of his hand on the small of her back sent a shiver through her, like an electric impulse that touched every part of her body at once.

She thought about the journey Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Warren Waite would make from the altar: a lavish reception at the Peck residence followed by their first night together at the posh Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit and finally on to a seven-room flat at Manhattan's Coliseum Apartments.

"Do you, Clara Louise Peck ..." Wishart's question awakened her from her reverie.

She smiled as she said, "I do." The man whom every woman wanted now belonged to her.

"Do you, Arthur Warren Waite, take ..."

Arthur smirked. The Peck family had no idea what he had planned for them. Saying "I do" would set his grand scheme in motion.

Reverend Wishart paused and looked at Arthur Warren Waite.

"I do," he said and grinned.




Monday Morning, March 13, 1916

Waite glared at Clara as the Wolverine Express sped toward Grand Rapids, Michigan. She stared out the window, her hands folded in her lap in a pose that reminded him of a contrite schoolgirl. Her mourning dress made her complexion appear even more pale than usual.

She didn't suspect a thing.

When Hannah came to visit the newlyweds at their Coliseum Apartment on January 10 and fell mysteriously ill, Clara had no idea what really caused her sickness. Even after Hannah suddenly and unexpectedly passed away three weeks later from kidney disease, Clara still didn't question the cause of death scrawled on her mother's death certificate.

Kidney failure — Waite couldn't help but laugh at the thought. He looked away from Clara and giggled.

He even managed to convince the Pecks that Hannah wanted a cremation, and they didn't suspect his ulterior motive of destroying evidence when he took the body to a Detroit crematorium. When he brought Hannah's ashes back to Grand Rapids, where they were interred at Oak Hill Cemetery, the family had no idea that he had just completed the first phase of a malevolent plot.

Then, six weeks later, John Peck traveled to New York. Grieving his wife's untimely passing, he decided to take solace by spending some time with his daughter. Like Hannah, he became suddenly ill while at the Waite residence and died, supposedly of heart disease. Clara, however, had no idea what had really killed her father.

Waite thought about the ghastly secret hiding inside the coffin in the baggage car and how, once again, Clara didn't bat an eye when he relayed her father's wish to be cremated. Following the funeral, he planned to take the body to the same Detroit crematory where Hannah's remains were incinerated. He glanced at the claim check. It was his golden ticket.

There had been a few tense moments when he almost gave away the game. The maid, Dora Hillier, saw him dumping something into John Peck's soup. She easily fell for his explanation that he was giving the old man his medicine. He even asked Dora to taste the soup. Dutifully, she sipped the broth and said she didn't notice a difference, unaware of what it contained. Waite smiled at the thought of the ignorant woman testing his arsenic-laced brew.

They had all been so easy to fool. Arthur Warren Waite grinned as he reached out to hold his wife's hand.

* * *

As Arthur and Clara Waite made the train trek west, a young woman rushed to a Western Union telegraph operator in Grand Central Station. She needed to send an urgent note to Percy Peck in Grand Rapids.

She hesitated before approaching the clerk and wondered if she should meddle in the Peck's family business. She had no evidence, just a female's intuition that something foul had occurred in the Waites' Coliseum apartment. First, Hannah Peck died while visiting Arthur and Clara Waite. Nothing too shocking there; she was infirm. Then, just six weeks later, John Peck died, also while visiting the Coliseum. A husband following his longtime mate's footsteps to the grave was also not entirely unexpected.

Yet John Peck had walked into the Waite apartment healthy and fit and, following the onset of a sudden illness, was carried out feet first. Then, like his wife before him, John's body was going to be cremated. The world of high society was a small one, and she knew people who knew the Waite couple and told her about some pretty odd things associated with the death of John Peck. She shook her head; something was rotten in the Coliseum.

The operator, a middle-aged man with round spectacles, handed the young lady a blank form and a pencil. She jotted out a brief message.

To Mr. and Mrs. Percy Peck:

Suspicion aroused Demand Autopsy Do not reveal telegram

She paused before adding a name. She wanted to use a pseudonym, but what would be an appropriate nom de plume? She needed something cryptic, something with an allusion that Percy Peck might recognize.

The name "Katherine Adams" immediately came to mind. She had a friend by that name who had recently married. And by sheer coincidence, her friend was the namesake of the victim in one of New York City's most infamous poisoning cases. She remembered reading about the case once.

On December 28, 1898, New York City landlady Katherine J. Adams died minutes after sipping from a cyanide-laced headache remedy given to her by one of her lodgers, Harry Cornish, who received it in the mail from Roland Molineux. Authorities believed that Molineux, a chemist, spiked the Bromo-Seltzer to murder his bitter rival, Cornish. Ignorant of his enemy's scheme, Cornish gave the medicine to his landlady when she complained of a migraine headache. A jury found Molineux guilty after a lengthy trial, but following an appeals court reversal and a second trial, he was acquitted.

She inked the name "K. Adams" and "Coloseum NY" on the form.

"K. Adams" hoped Percy Peck would recognize the sinister allusion.

* * *

Percy Peck paced back and forth across the front parlor of Joseph Sprattler's undertaking establishment on Fulton Street. He slid his hand into his vest pocket, pulled out his timepiece and flicked open its lid. Dr. Schurtz would arrive any minute now to begin the postmortem.

The "K. Adams" telegram had beat the Wolverine Express to Grand Rapids. His suspicions piqued, Percy decided to take the advice of "K. Adams" and arrange for an autopsy.

Percy smiled as he remembered the blank expression on Arthur's face. When the train carrying John Peck's body arrived at one o'clock in the afternoon, Percy shocked Clara and Arthur by demanding the baggage checks for his father's corpse. Arthur just stared, dumbfounded, at Percy and Joseph Sprattler, a local undertaker. Percy held out his hand, and Arthur stood, motionless, as the smile melted from his face. Clara didn't know what to make of it but tugged on Arthur's sleeve. Reluctantly, Arthur slapped the papers into Percy's palm.


Excerpted from "Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Tobin T. Buhk.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I: Twisted Fairy Tale,
1. The Princess and the Pauper,
2. "K. Adams",
3. The Pastor-Turned-Private-Investigator,
4. "Someone Is After Me",
5. Duality,
6. Confession,
7. "Dove Among Crows",
8. "The Man from Egypt",
9. Raising Kane,
10. A Question of Mind,
PART II: Trial and Aftermath,
11. The Case Against Waite,
12. Witness for the Prosecution,
13. The Moral Imbecile,
14. Verdict,
15. Prisoner No. 67281,
16. The Long Walk,
About the Author,

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