Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York
By James D. Livingston
For over six weeks in May and June of 1896, New York was fixated on the sensational trial of Mary Alice Livingston for the alleged murder of her mother. During the lengthy trial, Governor Levi Morton finally signed the controversial bill that would in 1898 consolidate Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx into the city, more than doubling the city’s population and increasing its area tenfold. Thomas Edison’s new fluoroscope was on display at the Electrical Exposition, and people stood in long lines for the novel experience of viewing the bones in their hands. Another Edison novelty then exciting New Yorkers was his “Vitascope” motion pictures showing at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. The city’s first horseless carriage race was held, with John Jacob Astor one of the judges. But the bicycle was still king, judging from a twelve-page supplement of Hearst’s Journal that estimated 200,000 New Yorkers were avid cyclists. Two among them were millionaire “Diamond Jim” Brady and his close friend, actress and singer Lillian Russell. Russell cycled regularly in Central Park. The theatre season was nearing its end, and featured the final stage appearances of the year of Sarah Bernhardt, the French performer considered the outstanding actress of the period. But for over six weeks of 1896, the murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston was Manhattan’s top news.
Her alleged motive for murdering her mother Evelina Bliss, who had married Henry H. Bliss after the death of her first husband, Robert Swift Livingston, was to gain an inheritance from Robert Swift’s estate. That Mary Alice was arrested in her mourning clothes after attending her mother’s burial added extra interest to the story, as did the fact that the bizarre instrument of death – a pail of arsenic-laced clam chowder – had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter. An especially scandalous factor was that Mary Alice was the unwed mother of four children, the youngest of whom was born in prison while Mary Alice awaited trial. If convicted, she would become the first female victim of the newfangled electric chair. All these lurid details became the central focus of an all-out circulation war then underway, particularly between Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal.
The trial was held in the recently completed Criminal Courts Building, adjacent to the building in which Mary Alice was held, the infamous city prison known as the Tombs. Modeled after an Egyptian tomb and completed in 1840, the imposing main entrance of the Tombs featured four massive columns at the head of a wide set of stairs. Connecting the Tombs and the Criminal Courts Building over Franklin Street was a pedestrian bridge known as the “Bridge of Sighs.” The name derived from a bridge in Venice that connected the old prison to the Doge’s palace, a bridge whose windows reportedly offered prisoners their last view of beautiful Venice before being taken to their cells. This bridge was romanticized by Byron in his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which he wrote, “I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and a prison on each hand.” New York’s Bridge of Sighs also had windows, but rather than a beautiful view of a canal and the harbor of Venice, they looked out on unbeautiful Franklin Street and busy Centre Street. Mary Alice would traverse the Bridge of Sighs, from her prison cell to the courtroom and back, every day of her trial.
Presiding over the trial was Recorder John Goff, the top judge of the city’s Court of General Sessions. The title of recorder was held over from earlier days when a judge had the responsibility of keeping a record of various happenings in the city. Goff had been elected recorder in November 1894 as part of a reform-minded fusion ticket organized to defeat Tammany Hall. The reformers called themselves the Committee of Seventy, reviving the name of a group that, twenty years earlier, had toppled the notoriously corrupt Tammany boss, William Tweed. Anti-Tammany Democrats had urged Goff’s nomination for mayor, but the many Republicans in the fusion movement, including J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, were unwilling to nominate a Democrat at the top of the ticket. So Republican William Strong became their candidate for mayor and Goff ran for recorder, a post that some argued was more important, since the recorder had a fourteen-year term while the mayor was elected for only two years. After a brief but intense campaign – the time between nomination and election was little more than a month – the reform ticket of Strong and Goff won handily, garnering about 60 percent of the vote. Goff received 4,000 votes more than Strong.
Among the noteworthy members of the Strong administration was Theodore Roosevelt, who, as president of the Police Commission, proceeded to tackle corruption by removing various bad actors from the police force. In his new position, Roosevelt was strict in enforcing city laws, including the blue law forbidding the sale of alcohol on Sundays, a law that was especially unpopular with the many people working six-day weeks. Occasionally President Roosevelt was more lenient. When a woman was arrested in Central Park for riding her horse astride, which policemen believed to violate decency standards, he ordered her released, asking, “Why shouldn’t a woman ride a horse astride, if she want to?”
The defendant Mary Alice was only five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds. She continued to appear in mourning dress, and was often referred to in the press as “the little woman in black.” Her fourth child, born only five months before the trial opened, shared her cell in the Tombs. His birth certificate gives his name as Robert Livingston Fleming, his father’s name as “unknown,” and his mother’s name as Mary Alice Livingston Fleming. Mary Alice had recently taken Fleming as her surname, the name of the father of her first child, and she had been booked under that name. Her many cousins in the socially prominent Livingston family were pleased that the sensational trial was therefore described in the press as the Fleming trial, rather than the Livingston trial. Baby Robert was the only male resident of the women’s wing of the
Tombs, and he became immensely popular with the other women prisoners. His mother was not the only accused murderer to hold him and play with him in the early months of his life.
The lead prosecutor in Mary Alice’s murder trial was assistant district attorney John McIntyre. In his long and highly successful career, he prosecuted 614 cases of murder and manslaughter and won 580 convictions. Mary Alice’s chief counsel was Charles W. Brooke, a skillful, resourceful, and combative criminal defense attorney. Mary Alice’s well-publicized status as an unwed mother caused many in Victorian New York to consider her highly immoral and perverted, and McIntyre and the prosecution team hoped that jurors might feel that someone so immoral would not be above murder. Brooke, on the other hand, reminded jurors that a guilty verdict would send the defendant to her death, leaving unsaid but known to all that such a verdict would also send four children to an orphanage, including a five-month-old baby.
On the opening day of the trial, Hearst’s Journal called Mary Alice “the strangest woman ever charged with crime in the courts of New York.” Intense publicity of the trial drew many prominent New Yorkers to the courtroom to view this “strangest woman,” and among the first was the Reverend Charles Parkhurst, president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime. Parkhurst’s 1892 crusade against vice, which included his visits in disguise to the city’s saloons, gambling houses, and brothels, had led to public outrage and committee hearings, and contributed to the election in 1894 of the anti-Tammany fusion ticket. A few days later the trial received a visit from another person known to be deeply concerned about the city’s vice, Anthony Comstock, founder and head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Also drawn to see the trial and study the face of Mary Alice was Joseph H. Choate, a prominent corporate lawyer active in both the earlier anti-Tammany reform movement that ousted Boss Tweed and in the recent fusion reform group that elected Strong and Goff. Choate had been among the founding fathers of two important city institutions, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and three years after Mary Alice’s trial, would be appointed ambassador to Great Britain by President William McKinley.
Filling the jury box with twelve men required over two weeks of questioning, with many being excused by claiming opposition to capital punishment or, in a more limited excuse, capital punishment of women. The next three weeks were devoted to the case for the prosecution, which elicited testimony from over two dozen witnesses. Among them were two analytical chemists who reported the detection of substantial amounts of arsenic, “the king of poisons,” in the stomach of the deceased and in the remnants of the clam chowder. They were followed to the stand by eleven-year-old Florence King, playmate of Mary Alice’s daughter Grace, who testified that in August 1895 she and Grace had delivered the fatal clam chowder from Mary Alice’s apartment to the home of the victim, Grace’s grandmother. The doctor who performed the autopsy and other expert witnesses all argued that the victim clearly died from arsenical poisoning.
The sixth week of the trial was devoted to the case for the defense. They presented a series of expert witnesses who offered alternative explanations of Evelina Bliss’s death, hoping to provide jurors bases for “reasonable doubt.” They further argued that Mary Alice would not have taken the risk of sending poisoned clam chowder by her own daughter. And since the arsenic found in Evelina’s stomach and in the remnants of the clam chowder was the strongest part of the people’s case, the defense argued that one of the prosecution’s chemists had deliberately introduced the arsenic himself in order to gain a conviction and advance his career.
Monday of the seventh week of the trial was devoted to the closing statements by prosecution and defense. On Tuesday morning, Recorder Goff carefully read his lengthy charge to the jury. He finished at twenty minutes past one, at which time the jury was instructed to retire to consider their verdict. It was a long and nervous afternoon and evening for Mary Alice. Her lawyers had told her to expect an early acquittal, but as the hours passed slowly by, she became more and more concerned. She spent much of this time on the Bridge of Sighs, looking out at the streets below with the hope that she would once again be able to enter that world of freedom, rather than be sent to Sing Sing to face the electric chair. Midnight passed, and many in the courtroom went home, thinking that the jury would be locked up for the night. But at one in the morning, nearly twelve hours after they had started their deliberations, the jury returned with their verdict. Throughout her trial, the “little woman in black” had appeared calm in the courtroom, radiating confidence in her acquittal. However, when told to stand and face the jury, she was visibly shaking and required the support of one of the matrons of the Tombs. This was the first time that Mary Alice had clearly shown any evidence of fear.
Jim Livingston is a Brooklyn native, now living in Massachusetts, who writes about New York history. His book of the above title, published in July 2010 by SUNY Press in their Excelsior Editions, can also be considered family history, since the main protagonist, Mary Alice Livingston, is his cousin (three generations removed). Jim’s website is www.jamesdlivingston.net.