(published in July 2010)
Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York
Mary Alice Livingston Fleming, member of one of the most prestigious families in New York, was defendant in a sensational 1896 Manhattan murder trial in which she was accused of murdering her mother with a pail of poisoned clam chowder. Her alleged motive was to gain a substantial inheritance. That the defendant was arrested in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother's burial added extra interest, as did the fact that the fatal chowder had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter. An especially scandalous factor was that Mary Alice was the mother of four illegitimate children, the youngest of whom was born in prison while Mary Alice awaited trial. If convicted, she would become the first female victim executed in the newfangled electric chair. All these details became the central focus of an all-out circulation war then underway, particularly between Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal.
This murder trial, an intense courtroom battle between combative attorneys, 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 breath-taking speed just as the battles of reformers against vice, police corruption, and Tammany Hall were transforming the city's political life. Among the legal and social issues raised in Arsenic and Clam Chowder are capital punishment, particularly of women, inheritance by murder, society's different standards for unwed mothers and unwed fathers, gender bias of juries, and the precise meaning of "beyond a reasonable doubt." The aspiring politician Teddy Roosevelt, the prolific inventor Thomas Edison, bon vivant Diamond Jim Brady, anti-vice crusaders Charles Parkhurst and Anthony Comstock, and others among Gotham's larger-than-life personalities play cameo roles in the dramatic story of Mary Alice and her trial for matricide. And the whole remarkable story revolved around a pail of clam chowder.
"A sensational story, packed with twists and fascinating revelations. The murder trial of Mary Alice sheds unexpected light on the Gilded Age, and in the future will make us all think twice about clam chowder." Eric Homberger, author of Mrs. Astor's New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age
"Concise and beautifully written, this is a wonderful book that I was reluctant to put down. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it to anyone interested in New York history, historic true crime, or women's history." Lidian, Virtual Dime Museum
"Rich and vibrant characters, a solid plot, and a courtroom drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final verdict. A stellar read!" Wendy Hines, Minding Spot
"A great read, not only for murder buffs." Robert Wilhelm, Murder by Gaslight
"Fascinating reading for general readers who might enjoy a window into an age not as different from our age as we might think." Wes Britton, Book Pleasures
"Lurid and fascinating details...a fine book." Ann LaFarge, Hudson Valley News
"Livingston writes so clearly, so descriptively, that readers will feel as if they are sitting in the courtroom aside this woman who made national headlines as she fights to avoid the death penalty." Kim Cantrell, True Crime Book Reviews
"Addicting from beginning to end" – April, Cafe of Dreams Book Reviews
Our theme song:
WHO PUT THE ARSENIC IN MRS. BLISS'S CHOWDER?
tune: Who Threw the Overalls in Mistress Murphy's Chowder?
(a song, appropriately, from 1890s New York)
Mrs. Bliss liked chowder, and she ate it quite a lot
But one day she ate a bowl and dropped dead on the spot
The chowder that she ate that day it tasted just the same
But something sure was wrong with it - it was an awful shame
Chemists studied what was left and in her stomach too
They found poison everywhere - it was a deadly brew
Arsenic had done the trick, of that there was no doubt
Chemists, doctors, and police all began to shout:
Who put the arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's chowder?
Somebody poisoned her by adding deadly powder
A search is now afoot
To find the fiend who put
The arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's chowder!
Soon everyone in Olde New York had heard the sorry tale
And wanted the foul murderer to be sent off to jail
But who had done the dirty deed, that no one could decide
Until they heard the victim's words - just before she died:
"My relatives have murdered me," Mrs. Bliss had said
"They killed me for my money" and then she fell down dead
So it was kin who done her in, of that there was no doubt
Soon everyone in Olde New York - all began to shout: