Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York
Mary Alice Almont Livingston was accused of murdering her mother with poisoned clam chowder in 1895. From her assumed name of “Mrs. Fleming,” which she borrowed from the father of her first child, to her jailhouse delivery of her fourth illegitimate child, Fleming is an excellent case study of a woman who defied social norms of femininity and yet used those very expectations to support her claims of innocence. Author James D. Livingston, a research physicist and distant cousin of Mary Alice, has written a clear and engaging historical narrative that reflects years of painstaking research into these events and the records created as they unfolded in the press and were remembered in private family documents.
Fleming’s tale and Livingston’s retelling of it intersect with numerous social and cultural developments in the Gilded Age. In particular, Fleming’s story reflects the complexities of societal expectations of gender and class, as Fleming was accused of murdering her mother to gain access to her Livingston inheritance in part because she needed the money to care for her children. If convicted, Fleming was set to be the first woman executed in New York’s new electric chair; intriguing debates about the death penalty and its application to women pervade the trial and thus the book. Jury selection took weeks, in part due to the reluctance of many jurors to vote for the death penalty for a woman, and gender politics weighed heavily throughout the rest of the trial. The intricacies and political dimensions of the judicial system are also well described and intriguing, as are Livingston’s detailed discussions of evidentiary procedures, trial testimony, and argumentation; Livingston makes good use of the wealth of information on the trial recorded in newspapers of the time. Indeed, the trial provided Hearst, Pulitzer, and other editors with ample material for their circulation battles, and yet Fleming used the papers to manipulate her public image as much as they used her story to sell papers. A fallen socialite made for guaranteed salacious news, and Fleming’s indiscretions and personal turmoil still make for intriguing reading over 100 years later.
In addition to grounding Fleming’s trial within broader developments of the legal system, the sensationalist press, and the changing views of women at the time, Livingston provides a backdrop of numerous other contexts which directly or indirectly relate to the Fleming trial, including discussions of electricity, architecture, music and theater, New York socialites and millionaires, and famous female murderers who used poison. While those interesting diversions into historical and social context are sometimes abruptly interspersed into the narrative, the vibrancy of Gilded Age New York is reflected throughout; in general, the discussions which had clear connections to the trial, such as those regarding arsenic and the electric chair, are more successfully incorporated, and in places these transitions are handled quite artfully, such as the choice to connect Fleming’s tale with the history of lower Manhattan through her views on the way to and from the Tombs.
Livingston’s work, while meticulously researched, does present problems for future researchers who might wish to further pursue these events due to the author’s choice to frame the story as an historical narrative and the citation style he used. Suppositions about mood, intent, and context help to enliven the tale, but broad chapter-by-chapter discussions of source materials prevent scholars from drawing distinctions between elements that are supported by the historical record and those that are added for narrative effect. A lack of pagination in references and direct citation, while common in narrative history, nevertheless will be challenging for anyone who wishes to follow up on Livingston’s clearly extensive foray into historical documents. Through his research and the book, however, Livingston has located and made public some intriguing unpublished primary sources, most notably the writings of Henry E. Bliss, Fleming’s half-brother, and Livingston’s access to these private family materials greatly enhances the story and our understanding of the events.
Thus, Livingston’s choice to structure the book as a narrative rather than an analytical treatment of Fleming’s life and the complicated cultural history with which it intertwines makes for a fascinating read, but these events also remain ripe for analysis within broader historical scholarship. The court case shows how multiple layers of Gilded Age society collided; Livingston’s book is a compelling retelling of how societal expectations of femininity and propriety were defied and manipulated by Fleming, the judicial system, and the press throughout her life and trial—to ends which I will let Livingston’s book reveal to readers.
-- Eileen Curley