Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Guest Blogger: James D. Livingston

It’s my pleasure to welcome author James D. Livingston as the special guest blogger here today at Thoughts in Progress as he makes a stop on his virtual book tour.

James’s latest book is ARSENIC AND CLAM CHOWDER. Here’s a brief synopsis of the book.

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.

Now join me as James tell us “who put the arsenic in Mrs. Bliss’ chowder.

My new book Arsenic and Clam Chowder deals with the 1896 murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston, my cousin who was accused of murdering her mother Evelina Bliss. The book inspired me to write new lyrics to a novelty tune from the 1890s. The chorus (to the tune of “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”):

Who put the arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's chowder?
Somebody poisoned her by adding deadly powder
A search is now afoot
To find the fiend that put
The arsenic in Mrs. Bliss's chowder!

Lyrics for the two verses of the song can be found at my website, or heard sung on YouTube. I was fortunate to convince Kathryn and John Atwood, who perform professionally in the Chicago area as the History Singers, to record “Who Put the Arsenic in Mrs. Bliss’s Chowder?” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiFcVJl-kzo, and they did a fine job. In the 1896 trial on which the book is based, the prosecution and defense had very different answers to that question, and different readers may have different answers as well.

When I recently returned to YouTube to hear the song again, I found that someone had posted a comment there that the song was reminiscent of the songs of Tom Lehrer of the 1950s. I found that comparison very flattering, since Lehrer was a very successful songwriter. I was a great fan of Lehrer, whom I met briefly at Harvard when we were both graduate students and his
singing career was just getting underway. He later became very popular, particularly on college campuses, and the albums of his witty songs sold well. They were noted for their black humor, and his song that comes closest to mine in topic was “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.”

It was on the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 1895 that the clam chowder that killed Evelina Bliss was allegedly sent to her by her daughter Mary Alice. It was on the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 2010, 115 years later, that Boston Globe writer Alex Beam mentioned my book and the song in his column. Under the heading “This day in history” he wrote about the book and added: “Special bonus: Author Livingston rewrote the folk song ‘Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder,’ substituting ‘arsenic’ for ‘overalls’, and so on. You can find the lyrics and a link to a YouTube video featuring the History Singers at www.jamesdlivingston.net.” It was great to get the song and my book mentioned in The Boston Globe, a height that none of my earlier books had achieved, but the mention appeared under a longer article that garnered the headline, and Beam inexplicably omitted the name of the book. That may be why I saw no impact of Beam’s column on the book’s sales ranking on Amazon.com.
What’s the answer to the question posed by the song: who really did put the arsenic in Mrs. Bliss’s chowder? The difference between crime fiction and true-crime books, like this one, is that in fiction the author can allow the detective to solve all the puzzles in the final chapter, and leave no remaining uncertainties to puzzle over. In a true-crime book, however, ambiguities remain. Did Mary Alice Livingston really kill her mother Evelina Bliss by putting arsenic in her chowder? If so, did she act alone or have an accomplice? In true crime, as in real life, ambiguities and uncertainties remain. The puzzle may never be fully solved. I hope that readers of Arsenic and Clam Chowder will email me at jdliv@mit.edu and tell me their own opinions as to who put the arsenic in Mrs. Bliss’s chowder.

A modest suggestion: a few years after Evelina Bliss’s death, her husband Henry was run down by a cab on the streets of Manhattan, and Henry Bliss became the first recorded automobile fatality in the Western Hemisphere. The centennial of this historic event was commemorated in 1999 by the erection of a plaque at the location of the accident, 74th Street and Central Park West, and a national “Remember Bliss Campaign” was initiated to promote automobile safety, with local ceremonies planned for each September 13, the date of Bliss’s accident. Since Henry Bliss’s death is remembered each year to promote automobile safety, perhaps we should also, on each Friday of the Labor Day weekend, remember his wife Evelina’s death as well – by inaugurating a second “Remember Bliss Campaign” to promote chowder safety. Seems only fair.

James, thanks for guest blogging here today. You bring up some interesting points. Sometimes real life gives us stories that our imagination couldn’t possible create.

For a bit of background on James. His 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.


  1. Hi Mason and James .. really interesting read about events of not so long ago .. and the tie in with her husband and his car death.

    A good read to add to the list .. as it'll give me an overview of NY in those times .. and the song - what fun .. but like you I wonder about Beam's omission on your book name.

    The main thing is - it sounds like you're having fun .. uncovering facts and mixing them into your books ..

    Loved this guest post - thanks Mason .. and I look forward to the read .. food and murder: a good mix .. Hilary

  2. Wow, what a great story. I was glued to your words. Real life or fiction--a good mystery intrigues. Good luck with your tour.

  3. Mason - Thanks for hosting James.

    James - What a fascinating story! True crime really does include some stories that not even the most fertile imagination could come up with. Thanks for sharing this one - really intriguing!!!

  4. Great story, I can see why you wrote about it. Can you imagine how a case like that would be investigated today, with all the technology available?

  5. James, thanks for sharing your story with us today. This does sound quite intriguing.

    Thanks everyone for stopping by. Hope you're having a good Tuesday. I'm off to work for awhile.

  6. Thanks for hosting Jim today. I've read Arsenic and Clam Chowder and it flows like a novel more than a true crime account. It has so many interesting elements, and while by the end you have decided whether Mary Alice is guilty or not, throughout the book you can see why it might not have been clear back then.

    Thanks again for hosting James. I hope your readers will check out his book.



  7. I love the tite - and wow, what a story! Sounds like a great case to write about!

  8. Sounds interesting for sure! I love a good whodunnit, and the fact that this one is based on real stuff, makes it all the more fascinating.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.