Friday, December 10, 2010

Mary Alice Livingston and the case of murder by clam chowder

Mary Alice Fleming Livingston
The gilded age of New York City was a most exciting era; a time of horseless carriages, the first moving pictures, the rising popularity of bicycles, and new electric street lights; a time for theatre and high society and millionaires. And in this exciting time, an unassuming young mother named Mary Alice Livingston managed to thrust herself into fame and notoriety – and all because of a bizarre murder.

Much to Evelina Bliss' mortification, her daughter, Mary Alice, bore not one, not two, but three children out of wedlock – all with different fathers - a most scandalous situation indeed in those days. Despite the fact that Mary Alice was a "Livingston" and descended from one of the most prominent and wealthiest New York families at the time, she and her children lived in near poverty in the Colonial Hotel, several blocks away from her mother. But Mary Alice knew that upon her mother's death, she stood to inherit $50,000.

On the afternoon of August 30, 1895, Mary Alice ordered a pail of clam chowder and a piece of lemon meringue pie from the Colonial Hotel and signed the receipt. She then handed the food to her 10 year old daughter Grace and asked her to deliver it to her mother. Grace's friend accompanied her there and back.

Grateful for her daughter's kindness, poor Evelina Bliss ate the chowder late that afternoon. She fell sick a few minutes later. A concerned neighbour called the doctor. Evelina told the doctor she suspected she had been poisoned by her daughter. One hour before midnight, Evelina was dead. Tests revealed the cause of death to be arsenic. The clam chowder had been laced with a tremendously lethal amount of the poison. All the evidence pointed to Mary Alice. While at her mother's funeral, Mary Alice was arrested in her mourning clothes and charged with her murder, then incarcerated in New York's Tombs prison. Oh, yes, and at the time, she was pregnant with her fourth illegitimate child too, who would be born during her custody there while she awaited trial. If convicted, she would become the first female victim of New York's electric chair. As one can expect, such unusual and shameful details, coupled with Mary Alice's shadowed past, generated immense media interest and sales of Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal soared. Mary Alice became known as the strangest woman ever charged with crime in the courts of New York. Throughout her trial, Mary Alice appeared calm and confident. However, on the day her sentence was handed down, she visibly shook with fear and needed to be propped up by a matron.

In the book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder, James D. Livingston, a cousin thrice removed of Mary Alice, has written a factual book about the trial of one of New York's most notorious women. Drawing from actual testimony, evidence, and people involved in the trial, he presents the facts to the reader, allowing each to make up their own mind as to the results. The reader is pulled into the story, the outcome of which is not known until the very end. Livingston did an outstanding job of organizing then presenting the facts, keeping suspense high throughout.

Nothing fascinates more than a "bad girl" story, and this had plenty to keep me enthralled throughout. The author presented Mary Alice in such a way, that I was equally as suspicious as I was empathetic with her. By including details about New York life before the turn of the century, he helped paint the mood and portrayed the life and times most vividly. In the middle of the book, numerous photos of the hotel, a court drawing of Mary Alice, and the actual receipt for the chowder and pie with Mary Alice's signature were included.

Mary Alice's $85,000 inheritance allowed her to hire a top lawyer who confounded the jury with all types of plausible explanations for Mary Alice's innocence and Evelina's death. Mary Alice's behaviour throughout the trial was intriguing, and at times, chilling. Was this woman a saint or sinner? A victim or a villain? And how can a woman become popular as well as hated? I leave it up to you to read the book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder by James D. Livingston, and decide for yourself and see if true justice was done or not.


Audra said...

What a fascinating book! I'm going to look for this one -- I'm not really into true crime but the unusual circumstances are too intriguing to resist!

Dina said...

its been eons since i have blogged, or read any but I am back. Yesterday I wrote a post on the Feast of the Seven Fishes...came across a blog dedicated to it and a festival in honor. And you were linked to their page...a coincidence...but there are none.

Shelley said...

Those women before the twentieth century were given such impossible lives to lead that sometimes it's hard to draw the line between the criminals and the ones who simply cracked under a pressure none of us could tolerate....