Arsenic and Clam Chowder – Book Excerpt and Author Interview

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About Aresenic and Clam Chowder

Arsenic and Clam Chowder recounts the sensational 1896 murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston, a member of one of the most prestigious families in New York, who was accused of murdering her own mother, Evelina Bliss. The bizarre instrument of death, an arsenic-laced pail of clam chowder, had been delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter, and Livingston was arrested in her mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s funeral. In addition to being the mother of four out-of-wedlock children, the last born in prison while she was awaiting trial, Livingston faced the possibility of being the first woman to be executed in New York’s new-fangled electric chair, and all these lurid details made her arrest and trial the central focus of an all-out circulation war then underway between Joseph Pulitzer’s World and Randolph Hearst’s Journal.

The story is set against the electric backdrop of Gilded Age Manhattan. The arrival of skyscrapers, automobiles, motion pictures, and other modern marvels in the 1890s was transforming urban life with breathtaking speed, just as the battles of reformers against vice, police corruption, and Tammany Hall were transforming the city’s political life. The aspiring politician Teddy Roosevelt, the prolific inventor Thomas Edison, bon vivant Diamond Jim Brady, and his companion Lillian Russell were among Gotham’s larger-than-life personalities, and they all played cameo roles in the dramatic story of Mary Alice Livingston and her arsenic-laced clam chowder. In addition to telling a ripping good story, the book addresses a number of social and legal issues, among them capital punishment, equal rights for women, societal sexual standards, inheritance laws in regard to murder, gender bias of juries, and the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Read the Excerpt!

Matricide is a particularly heinous crime, and the arrest of Mary Alice in mourning clothes immediately after attending her mother’s burial drew special notice from the press. That the allegedly poisonous chowder was delivered to the victim by her ten-year-old granddaughter added extra interest; experience had shown that stories involving children always drew considerable attention, particularly among women readers. There was also a substantial inheritance involved, and Mary Alice was a member of the prominent and socially prestigious Livingston family. Money and New York society were reliable attention getters. On top of all this, Mary Alice was the mother of three illegitimate children and pregnant with a fourth. Scandal piled upon scandal. Although this was not the first time that Mary Alice had drawn the attention of the New York newspapers, her 1896 trial for the murder of her mother was to dominate the news for many weeks in the era of “yellow journalism” when papers focused even more attention than usual on sensational stories. Hundreds of thousands of readers in New York and well beyond would become very familiar with the story of Mary Alice, the clam chowder she sent to her mother, and the death of Evelina Bliss.


Q: Do you work from an outline?
A: After I’ve chosen a topic and done most of the research for it, I draw out a rough outline before I start writing. But I find I always end up making changes in the organization as the book starts taking shape, so that the inal product never comes out exactly like the initial outline.

Q: Biggest Pet Peeve about the writing life.
A: Finding a publisher. With my latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder, it took me over a year to find a publisher willing to offer me a contract. I started with an agent I had used for a previous book, but he gave up after several months and I took it over. He had tried commercial presses, I had more luck with university presses.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A: Well, I celebrated my 80th birthday this summer, and my statistical life expectancy is now less than 10 years. But I’m fairly healthy for my age, and I may have a shot at 90. If I’m still here, I suspect I’ll be finished writing books by then, but if my eyes are still good, I’ll still be reading them. And perhaps I’ll be on another virtual book tour still trying to market the book I published when I was 80, Arsenic and Clam Chowder.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: My most recent books, A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights (2004), and Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York (2010) have been in history. My next project will be a return to popular science, and will be published by Harvard next year. The general topic is magnetic levitation, a topic that you will agree is uplifting (literally).

Q: What are a few of your favorite genres and why?
A: I read mostly non-fiction, and mostly in science or in history (or, combining both my main interests, history of science). Although I do sometimes enjoy fiction as an escape from the real world, I feel I learn more about the real world I live in from non-fiction. I enjoy learning. And my own books have been either in history, like my latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder, or in popular science, like Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (which included lots of history).

Q: Time Frame: From start to finish:
A: My latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York, took about 3 years or over 30 years, depending on how you count. It was over 30 years ago that I first learned about my black-sheep cousin Mary Alice Livingston, and that in 1896 she was tried in New York for the murder of her mother (by adding arsenic to her clam chowder, as you can tell from the title). I thought then that her story was fascinating, and would make a good book some day. But it was only recently, now that I am retired, that I had the time to research it and write it. I started my research in 2007, started looking for publishers in 2008, and finally signed a contract with SUNY Press in spring 2009. And the book finally was published in July 2010, about three years after I started working on it, but over 30 years since I first thought of writing this book.

About James D. Livingston

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,

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