It was a bowl of arsenic-laced clam chowder that felled Evelina Bliss, a wealthy 53-year-old widow living at 397 St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem.
The apparent source of the poisoned soup? Her daughter from her first marriage, Mary Alice Almont Livingston (right).
Mary Alice, who made her home at the nearby Colonial Hotel on 125th Street and Eighth Avenue, was an anomaly in Gilded Age New York: Unmarried, she had three kids by three men with a fourth on the way.
It was Mary Alice’s 10-year-old daughter who brought the lethal chowder to her grandmother, at her mom’s request, on August 30.
After Evelina died that night and the coroner determined she’d been poisoned, police arrested Mary Alice. The motive, they said, was money, according to Arsenic and Clam Chowder, by James D. Livingston.
Through the spring of 1896, the arrest and trial created a media sensation. Prosecutors had a solid case, and Victorian New York was biased against single mom Mary Alice, despite the fact that she came from an old money family.
But she had a clever lawyer, and she capitalized on the fact that most New Yorkers were against the death penalty—when it could be used on a woman, that is, especially one who showed up in court in mourning clothes.
In the end, she was acquitted, spent much of the rest of her quiet life in Manhattan (in poverty toward the end), and died in 1948.