Saturday, January 7, 2012

Deadly and Delicious

On the afternoon of August 30, 1895, Mary Alice Livingston Fleming ordered clam chowder and lemon meringue pie from the kitchen of New York’s Colonial Hotel, where she lived with her three children. When it arrived, she wrapped the pie, poured the chowder into a pail, and asked her ten-year-old daughter Gracie to deliver the food to her mother, Evelina Bliss, who lived nearby.

The gesture was surprising, and suspicious. Mary Alice’s relations with her mother had been less than cordial, despite later protests to the contrary. She had borne three children out of wedlock and was pregnant with a fourth, an accomplishment that drew Mrs. Bliss’ ire. Mary Alice was also desperate for money, and Evelina was all that stood between her and a massive inheritance from her father. When Mrs. Bliss died hours after eating the chowder, Mary Alice was arrested for murder and became the darling of the New York press.

Mary Alice
Arsenic and Clam Chowder recounts Mary Alice’s sensational 1896 murder trial. The case riveted the public for several reasons. One was that the defendant came from one of New York’s must illustrious families: the Livingstons. Another was that the crime was matricide, which was relatively rare at the time. A third, which sent the newspapers into a frenzy and made jury selection difficult, was that if found guilty, Mary Alice could be the first woman to die in New York’s electric chair. These factors, combined with salacious testimony about Mary Alice's unladylike love life, ensured that the courtroom was filled every day of the trial and kept the story on the front pages throughout the summer of 1896.

Henry Hale Bliss
Author James D. Livingston does a nice job of linking Mary Alice to notable contemporary figures. While awaiting trial in the Tombs, one of her fellow inmates was Maria Barbella, an Italian immigrant who nearly became the electric chair’s first female victim. Her stepfather, Henry Hale Bliss, was struck by an automobile in September 1899, making him the first motor vehicle casualty in the United States. She faced Howe and Hummel, the city’s most notorious and corrupt criminal defense team, during a breach of promise suit she brought against a former lover.

In addition to recounting the crime, trial, and aftermath, Livingston explores issues such as jury bias, capital punishment, women’s rights, and the precise meaning of “reasonable doubt” in court cases. I didn’t find these statistic-laden sections as compelling as the rest of the narrative, but readers seeking a broader overview of the forces that helped decide Mary Alice Livingston Fleming’s fate will find persuasive evidence that the jury’s verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Arsenic and Clam Chowder can be enjoyed by True Crime fans, social historians, or mystery buffs wanting to see life imitate art.


Pat Downey said...

Also a great movie starring Cary Grant.

Rose Keefe said...

Wasn't he your first crush??