Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Fatal Bowl of Soup

Book Review:

Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York
by James D. Livingston

Newspaper accounts of New York City murders had always been sensational, grabbing the attention of nineteenth century readers far beyond the city limits. The 1896 murder of Evelina Bliss, related in the new book Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York by James D. Livingston, is among Manhattan’s most spectacular. The bizarre circumstances surrounding Evelina’s death sparked a circulation war among New York’s newspapers, and found an audience across America.

The facts of the murder are straightforward. The afternoon of August 30, 1895, Mary Alice Livingston Fleming ordered a pail of clam chowder and a piece of lemon meringue pie from the Colonial Hotel where she and her children lived. She had her 10-year-old daughter Grace deliver the meal to her mother, Evelina Bliss, who lived a few blocks away. Somewhere between the kitchen of the Colonial Hotel and Evelina’s lips the chowder had acquired enough arsenic to kill her several times over. Mary Alice stood to gain financially by her mother’s death; she was arrested for murder soon after.

While matricide by chowder is interesting in itself, the fact that Mary Alice was a Livingston, one of New York’s oldest and most prominent families – well represented in “Mrs. Astor’s 400” – made the story front page news. Mary Alice had never married; a judge awarded her the right to use the name Fleming in a breach of promise suit against Henry Fleming, father of her first child. She was the mother of three illegitimate children (all with different fathers) and at the time of the murder was pregnant with a fourth who would be born in New York’s Tombs prison. The murder of Evelina Bliss and the loose morals of her daughter provided fodder for the burgeoning “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Then, as now, nothing sold papers like scandals of the rich and famous.

The real drama in a case like this takes place in the courtroom and the trial of Mary Alice Fleming was considered one of the most sensational in New York’s history. Author James D. Livingston distills salient moments from a trial that lasted six weeks and pulls important testimony from a transcript that averaged 250 pages of stenographer’s notes a day. Livingston provides enough background information on the witnesses and attorneys to express the nuance behind the testimony. His aside on the effects and history of arsenic is fascinating and welcome information, contrasting the dry and prolonged chemical testimony in the trial itself, which literally put at least one juror to sleep. And he deftly maintains suspense as to the trial’s outcome until the verdict is read.

Arsenic and Clam Chowder is a great read, not just for murder buffs, but for anyone interested in the vibrant years that ended the 19th Century—a time that seems distant and foreign, yet somehow quite familiar. It also raises serious questions on the legal concept of “reasonable doubt”, and answers them with intelligence and candor. But fans of clam chowder beware; you may be less inclined to order your favorite soup after reading of Evelina’s demise.

Some aditional notes from Murder by Gaslight:
As distinctive as it was, the murder of Evelina Bliss is not the only case of poisoned soup at Murder by Gaslight. In 1831, Dr. William Chapman was poisoned by an arsenic laden bowl of chicken soup. It too was delivered to him by a 10-year-old girl. We may need to add a new category for soup murders.

Also, MBG has always tried to seek out and share any murder ballads associated with our posts. We have learned that James Livingston has rewritten the lyrics to "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" to fit the murder of Evelina Bliss. It has been recorded by the History Singers and here is a link:
Who Put the Arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's Chowder?


Lidian says:
August 14, 2010 at 2:04 PM

I wondered when this book was coming out - this is such a fascinating case, and I had been planning to write about it on Virtual Dime Museum, but then saw that Livingston had already written this. I'm looking forward to reading it now!

Anonymous says:
December 8, 2014 at 12:32 PM

this stuff is interesting!

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