Friday, August 23, 2013

Felony Friday: A killer love story

It's a typical love story, told in countless romance novels. A poor boy meets a rich girl and works tirelessly to elevate his social standing so that he can win her affection. The boy woos the girl, marries her, and spirits her away to a life of comfort and luxury in the big city. Then, when the girl's parents come to visit the newlyweds in their posh new home, the boy kills them.

Okay, so the marriage of Arthur Warren Waite (the boy) and Clara Peck (the girl) was not a storybook romance, a fact with which Clara's ill-fated parents, John and Hannah Peck, would likely agree. The sad saga of the Peck family began when Waite started dating Clara during high school, shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Waite came from a family of farmers, while Clara enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle made possible by the fortune her father had earned as co-founder of Peck Brothers Drug Company in Grand Rapids. The lovebirds continued their romance after Waite left for The University of Michigan, where he studied dentistry, and later for postgraduate work at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, from which he graduated with honors. The newly minted physician found his way to South Africa, where he served as chief dentist for a mining company. However, Clara was never far from his thoughts and Waite eventually returned to Grand Rapids in 1914 to speed up their courtship.

Arthur Warren Waite

Trouble was already brewing between Waite and his sweetheart's family; John Peck disapproved of the relationship, insisting that Waite was too ambitious. However, his concerns fell on deaf ears, and Clara married Waite in Grand Rapids in September 1915. Perhaps as a peace offering, John gave the newlyweds an apartment in Manhattan, where Waite and Clara moved shortly after their marriage and where Waite set up a dental practice.

If Waite had been as diligent about maintaining his practice as he was about playing tennis and hooking up with married women, John and Hannah Peck might have lived the rest of their lives in peace. As it was, not long after arriving in New York City, Waite began an affair with a wealthy married woman, and realized that he needed money to keep his new honey satisfied. Though his in-laws give him and Clara a monthly stipend, the amount wasn't enough to please Waite. He hatched a plan to get his hands on the rest of the Pecks' fortune, and put it into action in January 1916, when Hannah Peck arrived in New York to visit her daughter and son-in-law.

Hannah likely relished the chance to relax and catch up with her family while spending time in a fast-paced, cosmopolitan city. However, ten days after her arrival, she was dead, and her cremated remains sent back to Grand Rapids. Waite insisted on overseeing the cremation and funeral preparations so that the rest of the grieving family would be spared the task.

Hannah Peck

John Peck mourned his deceased wife, but was also grateful for the way Waite had taken charge of the situation. The eldest Peck decided a visit to his daughter and son-in-law was in order, and he arrived in New York City in March 1916. In an eerie coincidence, he, like his wife, died not long after. As he had done after Hannah's death, Waite insisted that a quick cremation and return to Grand Rapids was in order. However, Clara and her brother, Percy, resisted, saying that their father was so well-known in his hometown that mourners would certainly want to see his body.

John Peck

Not wanting to invite suspicion, Waite gave in, but his murderous plot was already unraveling. When Percy returned to Grand Rapids, he received a telegram from an unknown person, "K. Adams," that urged him to have his father's body examined. (It was later revealed that a Peck relative, Elizabeth Hardwicke, had sent the telegram after seeing Waite parade around New York City with his mistress.) Percy arranged for the exam, during which physicians discovered traces of arsenic and chloroform in his father's body. Their conclusion was that John Peck and, in all probability, his wife Hannah, had been murdered.

At first, Clara insisted that her husband had nothing to do with her parents' suspicious deaths, but the evidence quickly mounted against Waite. The man who embalmed John Peck told police that Waite offered him money to put arsenic in the embalming fluid, so that examiners would attribute the presence of that substance in John's body to the embalmer's work, and not to Waite's deadly deeds. (Though the embalmer accepted the money, he never spiked the fluid with arsenic.) Police also found an atomizer that Waite had filled with typhoid and anthrax germs, and had then given to Clara when she caught a cold. (Clara refused to inhale from it, a decision that likely saved her from becoming the third Peck to die at the hands of Arthur Waite.)

The evidence against Waite was piling up, and Waite, seeing no way out, tried unsuccessfully to kill himself with sleeping pills before finally confessing to the murders of John and Hannah Peck. Waite said he had dosed the couple with anthrax and typhoid strains that he had stolen from a hospital. While Hannah died right away, John hadn't perished quickly enough for Waite, who eventually resorted to arsenic. When that still didn't work, Waite smothered John to death with chloroform.

Arthur Waite in custody

The reason for Waite's crimes? Money, plain and simple. Waite had set his sights on the Peck fortune when he was just a kid, and everything he did afterward--courting Clara, graduating from The University of Michigan (through which he had cheated his way to a degree), and attending the University of Glasgow (where he forged papers stating that he had graduated from the institution)--moved Waite closer to that goal. The dentist admitted that he planned to kill everyone in the Peck family, so despite the fact that Clara and Percy Peck lost their parents to a deranged sociopath, they were also lucky in a sense, as they had escaped his murderous clutches.

Waite was tried and convicted for his crimes, and executed in the electric chair on May 1, 1917. John and Hannah Peck are buried in Oakhill Cemetery in Grand Rapids.

2 comments:

  1. Whatever happened to Clara Peck Waite after her ex-husband was executed?

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  2. Hi Nellie. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any concrete information about Clara's life after her husband's execution. I do know that her brother, Percy, died in 1944, and that his obituary stated that he had a sister, Mrs. John Caulfield of Pasadena, California, surviving him. I tried to track down whether that woman was, in fact, Clara, but came up empty.

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