Author: James D. Livingston

Publisher: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York (July 2010)

ISBN-10: 1438431791

ISBN-13: 978-1438431796

Click Here To Purchase Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York (Excelsior Editions)

Arsenic and Clam Chowder is the non-fiction account of The apparent 1895 murder of Evelina Bliss by way of arsenic allegedly placed in her clam chowder by her daughter, Mary Alice Fleming. Both women were members of the very distinguished New York Livingston family, the daughter being something of a family embarrassment. By 1895, Mary Alice  had four children out of wedlock, was using the last name of Fleming despite not being married to any Fleming, and was on the verge of losing a comfortable home supported by her step-father who’d become tired of her unrestrained behavior. Mary Alice was seeking an inheritance worth $80,000, roughly equivalent to two million in today’s dollars, which she could not have as long as her mother lived. The story of Evelina Bliss’s death sets the stage for the rest of this story, the saga of how a sensational trial played out in the media and public sympathies of the time, how it factored in New York society of “The Gilded Age,” and how it affected legal decisions after the verdict was reached.

James Livingston breathes life into this old case by placing the circumstances of the Livingston clan in the contexts of their time. In New York, the 1890s was a decade of the race to build skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, electricity, the horseless carriage, and the telephone  were new. Theodore Roosevelt was President of the Police Commission charged with cleaning up a corrupt police force.    Joseph Pulitzer was using scandal to attract readers to his new New York World, but his paper was far from alone in the rush to reveal the tantalizing story of a woman accused of matricide with four children by three—or four?-- different fathers. In fact, the story of Mary Alice Fleming lent itself perfectly to the “yellow journalism” of the newspaper wars between Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst.   After all, Mary Alice had earned headlines before when she filed “Breach of Promise” lawsuits against two of her many former lovers. Now, she was about to give birth to her fourth child in prison while waiting for the trial of her life.

 The People v. Fleming was a national sensation. When the six-week trial began in May 1896, the papers were saturated with cartoons, descriptions of the jurors and witnesses, and long transcripts of salacious letters that had been read into the record. As an “experiment,” Pulitzer created a jury of women for his paper as juries were then legally only comprised of men. The publisher felt Mary Alice should be tried by her peers, and her peers were his fascinated female readers. Playing expertly to this audience, “Mrs. Fleming” fed The World unique, intelligent letters of her thoughts.  Then came the defense raising reasonable doubt by rattling prosecution attorneys, discrediting scientific testimony, finding holes in the police investigation, and all this resulted in witnesses exploding into fist fights in saloons, beer distributors defaming prosecution experts due to hostilities for negative reports of their product . . . the colorful People v. Fleming trial was, and is, a most interesting and unresolved case.

 The trial had many direct and indirect connections to matters far removed from the courtroom. The fact her punishment, if convicted, would have been execution led to considerable discussion about the reasons for Mary Alice’s acquittal—not that her guilt was uncertain in some quarters, but few jurors were willing to send a woman and mother to her death. Ironically, a key if unfairly discredited expert witness ended up helping arrange the first terrorist attack on American soil during World War I. When gold was discovered in Alaska, Mary Alice headed west where she struck her own gold of sorts—finally, a husband.

 To bring these events to life, author Jim Livingston benefited from having access to family records as well as  considerable research skills to fully flesh out a story never before sketched in such detail. In addition, Livingston has a good writer’s eye for what readers will need to know regarding the personalities involved in a rather complex case, and he lays out the descriptive details with a fine sense of pacing. It is interesting he opens the book by chronicling the death of Evelina Bliss as if his first cousin three times removed must have committed the crime—but his final chapter is a long, personal rationale why he’s plagued with “reasonable doubt.” While this book is published by a university press, Arsenic and Clam Chowder is not burdened with scholarly apparatus throughout the text but does provide a section of considerable notes to demonstrate just how credible his research is. So this is a book that should interest readers beyond historians of the 19th century, journalism, feminism, the death penalty, or simply racy historical scandals. It belongs on library shelves, but should also prove fascinating reading for general readers who might enjoy a window into an age not as different from ours as we might think.

 Click Here To Purchase Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York (Excelsior Editions)