Bio: James D. Livingston’s professional career was in physics, first at GE and later at MIT, and most of his writings in the 20th century were in physics, including one popular-science book (Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets, Harvard, 1996). As he gradually moved into retirement in the 21st century, he began to broaden his writing topics into American history, a long-time interest of his. His latest book in this genre is Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York. This and his earlier books are described on his Author’s Guild website, www.jamesdlivingston.net.
About Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York:
Arsenic and Clam Chowder focuses on an 1896 murder trial in which Mary Alice Livingston was accused of murdering her mother to gain her inheritance, and the bizarre instrument of death was an arsenic-laced pail of clam chowder. The chowder had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter, and Mary Alice was arrested in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s funeral. Mary Alice was the unwed mother of four children, the fourth born in prison. Scandal piled upon scandal. If convicted, she would be the first woman executed in New York’s new-fangled electric chair. All these lurid details made the trial, at the time the longest in the city’s history, the central focus of a circulation war between Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal, the two leaders among New York’s 43 daily newspapers. In addition to the engrossing central story, the book also offers a window into the exciting events and colorful personalities of Gilded Age New York. It’s a great story in a great setting. It’s non-fiction, but in many ways stranger than fiction.
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Recipes for clam chowder
There are dozens of different recipes for clam chowder posted on the web. I’m not a cook, but I was surfing for recipes the other day to prepare for questions I might get from audiences when I speak to them about my latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York. In researching the book, I learned a lot about Gilded Age New York and a lot about arsenic, but I knew very little about clam chowder except that I liked it.
The basics for New England clam chowder are clams, potatoes, and milk, usually with bacon or salt pork and onions for flavor. Many recipes also add garlic and several other ingredients. None of the recipes I found recommended adding arsenic, although that is what, one August day in 1895, my black-sheep cousin Mary Alice Livingston allegedly added to chowder that she sent to her mother Evelina Bliss. That historic chowder was white, so although it was made and eaten in Manhattan, it was milk-based New England clam chowder and not the red tomato-based Manhattan variety.
Arsenic in the form of arsenic oxide, known as “the king of poisons,” is a white powder that looks much like sugar or salt, and in many ways is an ideal poison. It dissolves easily in drinks or any liquid form of food and is colorless and essentially odorless and tasteless. But even a small fraction of a teaspoon in a bowl of chowder is fatal. Historians believe that arsenic was the poison of choice of many murderers in the past, including several emperors of ancient Rome and the Borgias of the sixteenth century. Since it was often used to hasten the demise of elderly relatives, it became known as “inheritance powder.” When Evelina Bliss ate the chowder sent to her that day by her daughter, delivered by her 10-year-old granddaughter, she became very sick soon thereafter and died a few hours later. And the courts decided to give Mary Alice her inheritance.
The police acted fast, and arrested Mary Alice in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s burial. Eight months later, she was put on trial in New York. The dramatic 1896 trial, until then the longest trial in city history, dominated the news for seven weeks. About eighty years later, I learned about the trial from newspaper archives when I was doing routine genealogical research on the Livingston family. I was fascinated by the story of Mary Alice, who was then an unwed mother of four, the last born in prison as she awaited trial. I thought that her story would make a great book some day, but it is only recently, after retirement from my career in science, that I finally had the time to research and write Arsenic and Clam Chowder.
In my research, I learned much about the colorful personalities of Gilded Age New York who played cameo roles in Mary Alice’s story, including aspiring politician Teddy Roosevelt, prolific inventor Thomas Edison, and anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. And I was inspired to write new lyrics for one of the Tin Pan Alley tunes of the period. “Who Put the Arsenic in Mrs. Bliss’s Chowder?” can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiFcVJl-kzo
At Mary Alice’s trial, the prosecution and defense offered very different answers to that question.