Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Arsenic and Clam Chowder

When author James Livingston contacted me recently about his new book about the trial of his distant relation Mary Alice Livingston, I jumped at the chance to review it.  It had all the elements I love in a book, true crime, Gilded Age New York, and rich people acting badly. What's not to love? I'm happy to say that ARSENIC AND CLAM CHOWDER lived up to my expectations.

Imagine researching your family history and discovering that you have a relative, albeit distant, who was the centerpiece of a major murder trial? That's what happened to Jams D. Livingston. He discovered that his third cousin Mary Alice Livingston Fleming (Fleming was the name of father of her first child) had been accused of murdering her mother via a pail of clam chowder.

Mary Alice was a member of one of the most prestigious families in New York, dating back all the way to the 17th century, including several signers of The Declaration of Independence. So when she was accused of attempting to kill her mother Evelina with a pail of poisoned clam chowder during the summer of 1895 it made headlines not just in New York but around the country.  Mary Alice's alleged motive was to gain a substantial inheritance that had been left to her by her father Robert Swift Livingston who died when she was a child. It had been the source of constant conflict between Mary Alice and her mother. Mary Alice's arres immediately after attending her mother's burial added extra juice, as did the fact that the murder weapon in question had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter Grace. Stirring the pot was the fact that Mary Alice was the mother of three illegitimate children, and was pregnant with the fourth when she was arrested. Her son would be born in prison while Mary Alice awaited trial.

If convicted, Mary Alice would have the dubious distinction of becoming the first female victim executed in the newly invented electric chair (In the end Ruth Snyder in the late 20's would win that award). The case became the central focus of an circulation war amongst the many New York papers who fell all over themselves to provide the most salacious headlines and coverage. There were something like 43 daily newspapers in New York at the end of the 19th century, not to mention the weekly and bi-weekly papers and the national Police Gazette. But the competition was most intense between Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's (an upstart in the New York press) Journal which would continue for years.

This is the type of story that if I were ever asked to be on Hardcover Mysteries, I would bring up. The story has everything, sex, murder, scandal, aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Mary Alice's trial was big news in the papers, particularly after the trial of Lizzie Borden in Fall River, another woman who was probably guilty but got away with murder.  What got me about this story was Mary Alice's declaration that not only had she not sent the clam chowder via her daughter to her mother but that she had never ordered clam chowder in the first place! Despite the fact that the police had in their possession the bill from the hotel that clearly stated that Mary Alice had ordered clam chowder and a piece of lemon pie all for the whopping total of 45 cents, which was apparently a fortune back then.  Mary Alice had been living at the Colonial Hotel in Harlem which was then a middle-class section of Manhattan. Her stepfather was supporting her, but he had told her that he wasn't going to be footing the bill much longer.  She had become an embarassment to the family, suing the father of her first child for breach of promise, which she won.  However, Mary Alice had also sued the father of her second child as well, which made her notorious.

James D. Livingston does an amazing job of detailing the murder trial, an intense courtroom battle between combative attorneys. Reading this section of the book is like reading about any famous trial where the attorneys become just as big of a celebrity as the person on trial.  In this case, Mary Alice's attorney was facing former colleagues.  The viciousness of the trial, particularly the attacks on the prosecution's expert witnesses was fascinating, along with the grandstanding.  Reading about this case, it could be 1995 or 2005 not 1895. The papers made much of the fact that Mary Alice laughed when people made jokes, or when she heard something that she found particularly amusing. Although she wore black to trial, slowly giving way to shades of half-mourning, she didn't appear to be particularly distraught that she was on trial. Unusually for the period, Mary Alice would write letters to the newspapers when she felt that they were getting things wrong. 

Livingston gives the reader an overview of the history of period, detailing the forces that shaped what when on during the trail. The Reformers Charles Parkhurst and Anthony Comstock make cameo appearances, and Livingston details how the recent reforms against vice, and police corruption, not to mention the political machine of Tammany Hall were transforming the city. The legal and moral issues raised in the book about capital punishment, particularly of women, the new use of the electric chair which was supposed to be more humane,  the double standards for unwed mothers and unwed fathers, and what exactly does a verdict of "beyond a reasonable doubt," mean still hold resonance today.  Mary Alice's character was as much on trial as whether or not she had killed her mother in a premeditated fashion. Livingston compares the case of Florence Maybrick who murdered her husband in the UK with arsenic with Mary Alice's, to point out how poison was considered to be a woman's weapon. Livingston paints a compelling portrait of what exactly it was like for Mary Alice in prison during the late 19th century, particuarly with a child. Since women were not allowed to serve on a jury, Mary Alice was not really judged by her peers, which was pointed out by many women.

I found it hard to sympathise with Mary Alice.  She seems to be a woman who doesn't learn from her mistakes, and has been raised to have certain expectations because of her background.  I admired her spunk, the fact that she didn't seem to have a reckless streak, and the fact that she dared to sue the father of her first child for breach of promise.  It was her sense of entitlement that put me off. Although it had to be hard to be essentially the poor relation of a family who had once been rich, killing is never a good idea.  I found it interesting that, unlike most Victorian woman either English or American, sex seems not to have been as taboo a subject. The prosecution made much of several risque drawings that were on the wall at the family home in Toms River, NJ.  The case divided the family, while Mary Alice's half-sister Florence Bliss supported her, her half-brother Henry believed that she was guilty.

While Mary Alice was acquitted, doubt still exists as to whether or not she was guilty. I applaud Livingston for letting the reader know where he stands on the issue.  I personally believe that she was guilty although I agree with Livingston that the verdict should have been 'not proven' which is a verdict that is availabe in the Scottish courts.  The prosecution was not able to prove Mary Alice's guilt due to a number of factors including the fact that the police waited weeks to examine Mary Alice's hotel room and her things which were in storage in the hotel basement and they could never adequately prove where she got the arsenic. The defense was also able to successfully keep Mary Alice's daughter of the stand, so there was only one witness who to Mary Alice asking her daughter to take the pail of clam chowder to her grandmother.  They also raised doubt because Mary Alice didn't  ask Grace  tasting the clam chowder until after her daughter returned.

In the end, the only people who benefited from the whole sordid mess were Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Mary Alice certainly didn't, although she did finally get her hands on her inheritance. Unfortunately a huge chunk had to go to pay for her defense. This book is certainly going on my keeper shelf, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Gilded Age New York, or just anyone who enjoys a good mystery.

Here's another good review by Lidian at The Virtual Dime Museum


CharmedLassie said...

That sounds like another fascinating book. Thanks for the review.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks CharmedLassie! I love historical true crime, and this is a good one. Less messy than Lizzie Borden.

dave hambidge said...

With a synopsis like that, you've read the book for me. Tales like that are well worth the retelling, bravo to the author who did the spade work and had to confront some nasty stuff.

Cheryl said...

Nice review. James has been on a virtual book tour to prmoote this book. It has received several excellent reviews so far. I certainly enjoyed the book.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What was fascinating is he did exactly what I would have done if I found a juicy skeleton in the family closet, write a book about her. It's not just a retelling of the case but its also a social history of New York at that time which is compelling. It's like reading a 19th century version of People Magazine in a way or Vanity Fair.

jennifer brown said...
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