Author: James D. Livingston
Publisher: excelsior editions
Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime, History
About the Book:
Arsenic and Clam Chowder recounts the sensational 1896 murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston, a member of one of the most prestigious families in New York, who was accused of murdering her own mother, Evelina Bliss. The bizarre instrument of death, an arsenic-laced pail of clam chowder, had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter, and Livingston was arrested in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s funeral. In addition to being the mother of four out-of-wedlock children, the last born in prison while she was awaiting trial, Livingston faced the possibility of being the first woman to be executed in New York’s new-fangled electric chair, and all these lurid details made her arrest and trial the central focus of an all-out circulation war then underway between Joseph Pulitzer’s World and Randolph Hearst’s Journal.
The story is set against the electric backdrop of Gilded Age Manhattan. The arrival of skyscrapers, automobiles, motion pictures, and other modern marvels in the 1890s was transforming urban life with breathtaking speed, just as the battles of reformers against vice, police corruption, and Tammany Hall were transforming the city’s political life. The aspiring politician Teddy Roosevelt, the prolific inventor Thomas Edison, bon vivant Diamond Jim Brady, and his companion Lillian Russell were among Gotham’s larger-than-life personalities, and they all played cameo roles in the dramatic story of Mary Alice Livingston and her arsenic-laced clam chowder. In addition to telling a ripping good story, the book addresses a number of social and legal issues, among them capital punishment, equal rights for women, societal sexual standards, inheritance laws in regard to murder, gender bias of juries, and the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Read the Excerpt!Matricide is a particularly heinous crime, and the arrest of Mary Alice in mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s burial drew special notice from the press. That the allegedly poisonous chowder was delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter added extra interest; experience had shown that stories involving children always drew considerable attention, particularly among women readers. There was also a substantial inheritance involved, and Mary Alice was a member of the prominent and socially prestigious Livingston family. Money and New York society were reliable attention getters. On top of all this, Mary Alice was the mother of three illegitimate children and pregnant with a fourth. Scandal piled upon scandal. Although this was not the first time that Mary Alice had drawn the attention of the New York newspapers, her 1896 trial for the murder of her mother was to dominate the news for many weeks in the era of “yellow journalism” when papers focused even more attention than usual on sensational stories. Hundreds of thousands of readers in New York and well beyond would become very familiar with the story of Mary Alice, the clam chowder she sent to her mother, and the death of Evelina Bliss.
A wonderfully written and well researched book, "Arsenic and Clam Chowder" is guaranteed to make you look at your family and food in a totally different light. Mr. Livingston does a fantastic job of telling the story of a powerful Socialite family and the tragedy that struck them and shook all of New York. What I found even more interesting is that the story is not just another story to the author, but is much more personal, as Mary Alice is his distant cousin!
I found this book transported me to the time, and made me familiar with New York in the late 1890's and early 1900's. His descriptions and retelling of events made the time and event come to life, making this an easy book to read. The twist that were revealed left me shocked and amazed. I was also amazed at how over 100 years ago, the evidence was collected and tested.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in True Crime, history of New York, the Gilded Age, or just a good book about a horrific deed centered around a bucket of clam chowder.
About James LivingstonBorn June 23, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, James D. Livingston studied engineering physics at Cornell University and received a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University in 1956. After retiring from General Electric after a lengthy career as a research physicist, he taught in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. Although a physicist by profession, he has long had a strong interest in American history, and is the coauthor, with Sherry H. Penney, of A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights.
You can find out more about James and Arsenic and Clam Chowder at www.jamesdlivingston.net.
This book was provided by the author through Pump Up Your Book for me to honestly review.