Sparkling cyanide: The Cocktail Killer & the perfect crime…


harlow Fraden dennis wepman cyanide champagne
Dennis Wepman and Harlow Fraden (right). Images: Honolulu Advertiser and New York Daily News

When William and Shirley Fraden died from drinking cyanide-laced champagne, authorities declared the deaths a suicide pact. Thus, the man who poisoned their drinks, the murderer later dubbed the Cocktail Killer, pulled off the perfect crime. But…

On August 20, 1953, 22-year-old Harlow Fraden rang the New York police to report finding his parents dead. He’d called over from Manhattan to visit them in the Bronx and discovered their bodies.

Cyanide cocktails for two

On a coffee table in the Fraden’s living room, homicide detectives found two near-empty champagne glasses and a vial labelled Potassium Cyanide. William and Shirley Fraden’s son was hysterical. He recited lines from English romantic poets and wailed continually, “Four deaths in two weeks… four in two weeks.”

A fortnight before, Shirley Fraden’s sister and brother-in-law died from asphyxiation when the flame in their gas heater went out during the night. According to Harlow, those deaths sent his mother spiralling into depression. The medical examiner and the district attorney concluded William and Shirley Fraden died in a bizarre suicide pact, toasting their joint demise with cyanide-laced champagne cocktails.

Harlow Fraden

Harlow Fraden was a loner, ubernerdy and ambitious of becoming a great poet. Absorbed in books during his childhood, he had few friends. His worried mother bribed other kids to play with him. But Harlow recently made his first true friend, another nerd. 20-year-old Dennis Wepman moved to New York from Miami to make his name as an author of true crime novels. He was broke, but his new chum lived in a $275-a-month apartment at a time when most Americans earned less than that in a month. Not that Harlow worked. His parents gifted him $7000 to set himself up when he graduated college four months earlier and a regular allowance.

Harlow invited Dennis to move in and live in the apartment rent-free. After the death of his flatmate’s parents, Dennis attended the funeral to lend emotional support. Cruelly robbed of his aunt, uncle, mother and father in just two weeks, the clearly distraught Harlow sobbed relentlessly. He only briefly staunched the flow of tears to ask if any of his relatives knew how to open his father’s safe deposit box.

Dr William Fraden had worked as a city health inspector, and his wife Shirley as a schoolteacher. The pair lived modestly and in a far humbler abode than their son’s luxurious apartment. Indeed, they had just one extravagance, Harlow, their only child. On their deaths, he inherited savings and insurance of around $150,000, the equivalent of $1.6 million in 2022.

Money, money, money…

cyanide fraden cocktail killer
Dennis Wepman (left) and Harlow Fraden. Newsday, December 18, 1953.

Observers called Harlow Fraden many things: slender, sensitive, intellectual, frail-looking… but never pretty. He was a notably unattractive young man. A writer at the Daily News said he looked plain weird.

“Tall, gangly and sloppily dressed, with a perpetually unkempt mop of oily hair and beady eyes that blinked constantly behind thick glasses, Harlow Fraden looked, in a word, weird.”

Dennis Wepman, on the other hand, attracted compliments for his dark good looks. But it seems that was no longer enough for Harlow Fraden, who started ploughing through his inheritance and looking beyond Dennis for companionship.

The pair partied every night, going out late to clubs and returning home in the early mornings, sometimes with another young man in tow. When that happened, staff at the 16-story apartment building overlooking the East River noticed that Harlow and his trade went up in the lift without Dennis. The noticeably unhappy wingman hung about the lobby until the guest’s departure.

Hello Sailor

Harlow also threw occasional all-male parties with a dozen young sailors as his overnight guests. But at a drunken shindig in September, one of the guests ripped a washbasin off the wall. Water cascaded into the apartments below. The building managers sought an eviction notice. Harlow decamped to a $200-a-week suite at the St Moritz Hotel overlooking Central Park. Dennis went his own way, renting a rundown apartment for $10 a week.

At a party on December 9, 1953, Dennis Wepman ran into a young woman he’d known years before at summer camp. He tried to impress her by hinting at his involvement in a crime and flaunting a vial of Potassium Cyanide. The girl went to the police.

On December 15, Dennis Wepman, two weeks behind in his rent, visited Harlow Fadden at the St Moritz Hotel and asked for money. Fraden refused. Wepman attacked him, leaving his former friend with a head wound that required 17 stitches.

The following day, police arrived at Dennis Wepman’s apartment. He confessed almost immediately.

Sissy

Dennis said Harlow hated his mother. She abused him from a young age, calling him a sissy and accusing him of ‘sexual abnormality’ even before he knew anything about sex. Shirley Fraden nagged at her son to get a job and recently convinced her husband to cut his allowance.

Dennis insisted he conspired in the murder out of sympathy for Harlow. The pair rejected the idea of shooting because of the noise element. They settled on poison, specifically cyanide, a fast-acting toxin that, once ingested, left victims little time to seek assistance. Strangely, wannabe poet Harlow did not study literature in college but chemistry. He obtained some vials of cyanide and began to experiment. Cyanide has a famously acrid smell and sharp taste. When Harlow added it to champagne, the pale golden liquid turned discernibly darker. However, the unemployed chemist discovered a little Angostura Bitters masked the dark colour and pungent odour.

A champagne toast

Late on August 19, Harlow rang his parents with good news. He had a job. He would drop by to tell them all about it. Harlow arrived with two bottles of champagne. Dennis waited outside. In his parent’s kitchen, Harlow opened both bottles. He added a dash of cyanide and a few drops of Bitters into one. Then, the callous poisoner poured two glasses from it and a third from the second unadulterated bottle. Returning to the living room, he handed his parents their poisoned chalices and raised his glass in a champagne toast.

As William and Shirley’s throats began to burn, they staggered towards the kitchen for water. Shirley dropped dead almost immediately, but her husband clung to life. Harlow let Dennis in, suggesting that watching a death struggle might prove instructive for a true crime writer. He then refilled his father’s glass and forced more of the deadly cocktail into his mouth.

With their victims dead, Harlow placed the two glasses on the living room coffee table alongside a vial of Potassium Cyanide. The killers then departed, taking the third glass and the second bottle of champagne with them.

The perfect crime

Harlow Fraden had committed the perfect crime. Although some Bronx detectives suspected him of involvement in his parent’s death, the official ruling of suicide meant they could do nothing.

But Harlow f_cked up by treating his co-conspirator shabbily. Dennis expected a reasonable share of the proceeds of their crime. However, during the four months following the murder, Harlow squandered an estimated $50,000 but doled out just $127 to Dennis, in small amounts, which he made his accomplice beg for. He also belittled Dennis, once tossing him a spare vial of cyanide and suggesting he could kill someone himself… or himself. The same vial that Dennis showed the woman at the December 9 party.

After Wepman’s confession, the police arrested Harlow in his bed at the St Moritz reading The New Oxford Book of British Verse. He later said his mother hated that book. Since early childhood, when she caught him reading it, she snarled at him, “Get out of the apartment and act like a real boy!”

The pair appeared in court with Fraden’s head swathed in bandages protecting the wound inflicted the previous night by Wepman. While the newspapers described the two young men as roommates and boy friends (note that sly space between boy and friends), Harlow and Dennis denied they were homosexual.

fraden cyanide champagne cocktail killer
Image: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Aftermath

Police began to re-examine the deaths of Fraden’s aunt and uncle. There had been no autopsy, and lethal doses of cyanide and carbon monoxide beget similar results — extreme flushing of the skin. Perhaps Harlow used his aunt and uncle as guinea pigs for his poison cocktail. But despite initial speculation that the young men would die in the electric chair, neither went to trial.

Psychiatrists ruled Harlow Fraden insane, and he was committed to a State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Declared mentally ill but legally sane, Dennis Wepman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He received a sentence of twenty years to life.

In 1960, Harlow Fraden took his own life after somehow obtaining a lethal dose of sedatives in the asylum.

By the late sixties, Dennis Wepman had lost his good looks. At 37, he was already ‘stooped, grey-haired, pale and frail’.

Paroled in 1968, he went on to a successful career as a top-selling author of folklore and children’s books. It seems he no longer possessed an appetite for true crime.

Queer True Crime

Haters inevitably seize on the crimes of queer criminals to justify bigotry. They do the same with People of Colour or of different religions, political persuasions, nationalities, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But people are just people. They share a wide range of characteristics — some good, some bad — in varying proportions. Humans range from the virtuous through moderately decent to intrinsically evil. Saints and sinners.

LGBTIQA+ people are people, so just like other people, some are bound to be arseholes. Humans, despite the wishful thinking of religious mumbo-jumbo, are not perfect creations. We evolved… and continue to evolve. Thus, mistakes happen. Mistakes like Harlow Fraden.

Before the diagnosis of insanity, Harlow Fraden claimed he murdered his parents because of his mother’s long history of verbal abuse. He denied the more apparent motive: that he killed for financial gain. His parents might carry on a bit, he smugly suggested, but eventually, they would give him whatever he wanted.

Harlow Fraden’s lack of empathy extended not only to his parents but also to Dennis Wepman. After assisting in a capital crime and the acquisition of substantial wealth, Wepman found himself tossed aside like a dirty rag.

Shirley Fraden’s homophobia may have left her son feeling broken. And actions do have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are fatal. But innumerable queer people have endured parental disapproval and abuse, most without the benefit of the extravagances lavished on Harlow by his parents. Many felt broken. But few killed their parents.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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