Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: Arsenic and Clam Chowder by James Livingston

On August 30, 1895, Mary Alice Livingston Fleming purchased clam chowder and a piece of lemon meringue pie from the Colonial Hotel Restaurant. Mary Alice lived in the hotel, which was also home to her stepfather, Henry H. Bliss. Though Mr. Bliss and Mary's mother, Evelina Bliss were now separated, her mother and step-father remained on good terms. Mr. Bliss even paid Mary Alice's bills.

Mary Alice had been alone in her apartment that day. When her children returned home, she asked her daughter Gracie and the girl's friend, Florence, to carry the clam chowder in a small tin pail and the pie wrapped in paper to Gracie's grandmother, Evelina.

Hours later, Evelina Bliss was dead. Mary Alice would soon be accused of her murder.

Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York recounts the sensational 1896 murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston, a member of one of the most prestigious families in New York. Livingston was accused of murdering her mother with a lethal dose of arsenic found in the clam chowder that had been delivered by Mary Alice's daughter and her friend. Her motive: to gain access to the inheritance left by her father, which would become hers only after her mother's death.

By the time of Evelina's demise, Mary Alice had three children by three different men and was six months pregnant. Although she had never married, she took the name Fleming, which was the family name of the father of her first child. Mary Alice was no stranger to the court system. She had accused two of the fathers of her children with a breech of contract, claiming they agreed to marry her.

Mary Alice's trial would last months, providing fodder and sensational headlines for Joseph Pulitzer's World and Randolph Hurst's Journal. If convicted, Mary Alice would face the death penalty. During the time of her trial, juries were made up of men, so in order to provide her with a jury of her peers, Pulitzer formed a jury of "twelve well-known, brainy New York women" who would follow the case and pronounce a verdict. An all-out circulation war was on.

Witnesses from well-known experts to Mary Alice's daughter Gracie and her friend Florence would be examined and re-examined to discover the truth. The truth, however, remains elusive.

In this intriguing account of Mary Alice's trial, author James D. Livingston brings Mary Alice and the days in which she lived, up close and personal. So engaging that it reads more like a novel, Arsenic and Clam Chowder, is an impartial true crime story that brings the reader from that fateful day in August 1895, through Mary Alice's trial, and into a discussion of reasonable doubt. A distant cousin of Mary Alice and her family, Livingston's account is well-researched and throughly detailed, providing the reader with a glimpse into the Gilded Age in New York, capturing the headlines of the day, the industrial advances, and the society into which Mary Alice was born and lived. In the end, the reader must decide if the outcome of the trial was fair and right, based upon the facts provided. The author also provides his thoughts on the matter.

The Afterwards section follows the major players in Mary Alice's trial after the verdict; nicely wrapping up the story for readers. Also included are historical photographs of buildings, evidence, and sketches drawn during the trial.

If you love true crime novels, you'll definitely want to pick up a copy of Arsenic and Clam Chowder by James D. Livingston!

Title: Arsenic and Clam Chowder
Author: James D. Livingston
Publisher: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York
ISBN-10: 1438431791
ISBN-13: 978-1438431796
SRP: $19.95


Cheryl said...

I loved your book, Jim. Best of luck!


Tribute Books Mama said...

Sounds good, thanks! for sharing