THE BINGHAMS OF LOUISVILLE The Dark History Behind One of America's Great Fortunes By David Leon Chandler with Mary Voelz Chandler Crown. 292 pp. $17.95

Here at last, six months after its original publication date, we have the book that Barry Bingham tried to squelch. In the end he managed only to cow its original publisher, Macmillan, into dropping "The Binghams of Louisville" from its list. The manuscript was taken over by Crown and is now published in a version that has been altered only slightly from the original. Though it is easy to see why the book distresses Bingham, his campaign against it is lamentable and Crown's decision to publish is praiseworthy.

Readers coming to the book in the expectation that it is an account of the family quarrel that forced the Binghams of Louisville to sell their noted newspaper, The Courier-Journal, are in for a surprise. Though David Leon Chandler does give a brief chronicle of last year's controversy, the real focus of "The Binghams of Louisville" is on events that happened early in the century: events that established the family's fortune but that also, in Chandler's most persuasive view, left an indelible stain upon it.

Chandler is a dogged researcher and indifferent prose stylist who previously wrote a biography of Henry Flagler, the man whose daring investments transformed Florida from a swamp into a prosperous state. At his death in 1913 Flagler left a widow, the former Mary Lily Kenan, who was many years his junior; the combination of his generous bequest and her own inherited wealth made her stupendously rich. Three years later she married again, to a former beau named Robert Worth Bingham, an ambitious -- and, by Chandler's account, astonishingly unscrupulous -- attorney and political hanger-on who lived in Louisville.

Nine months later, at the age of 50, Mary Lily Bingham was dead, under circumstances that seemed highly suspect at the time and seem no less so seven decades later. The cause of death was given as swelling of the brain complicated by myocarditis, but there was ample reason to believe that other factors had been at work. These suspicions were soon given greater weight when Bingham, who by his own agreement had been left out of his wife's will, produced a secret codicil granting him $5 million "to be absolutely his."

That was enough to enable Bingham to complete his purchase of a majority interest in The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, an investment that eventually made many more millions for him. But it also prompted his wife's family, the Kenans of North Carolina, to exhume her body for an autopsy -- it showed "enormous" amounts of morphine, as well as "traces of injected adrenaline, and some heavy metal poisons, such as arsenic and possibly mercury" -- and to file suit to overturn the codicil.

Then the suit mysteriously was dropped, Bingham got his money, and the case slowly faded out of the public eye. But Chandler believes that dirty business was done, and he has come up with a powerful argument to support that conviction. Boiled down to its essence, his analysis is that Bingham and a dermatologist named Michael Ravitch conspired "to addict {Bingham's} wife to morphine and eventually reduce her to a state of utter helplessness." He believes that Mary Lily Bingham was under the care of a dermatologist because she had contracted syphilis from her husband -- the disease was then commonly treated by skin specialists -- and that the Kenans backed away from legal action against Bingham because public disclosure of the ailment would have been "a scandal too horrible for the Kenans to face."

The evidence Chandler presents to support this conclusion is impressive, though in the end, of course, he and the reader alike are engaged in pure speculation. Certainly the conclusion is consistent with Bingham's character as Chandler portrays it: "... cynically ambitious. Ambitious for his good name. Ambitious for money. And ruthlessly ambitious for power." He was, in Chandler's view, a "conniving, lying and deadly political hack," a man for whom murder does not seem to have been an unacceptable option.

Yet there is another mystery here that Chandler does not come even close to solving: How is it that this ostensibly loathsome creature became almost overnight, by Chandler's own admission, a newspaper publisher who was "tough but fair, courageous but compassionate," one who "consistently advocated more freedom -- more freedom for women, more freedom for blacks, more freedom for the poor"? Was Bingham an instant convert to decency when he rose to the journalistic heights, or was he never quite so odious as Chandler believes? And if the answer is the latter, doesn't that weaken Chandler's murder scenario?

Perhaps it does, though Chandler's argument seems to me quite conclusive. But whatever the case, "The Binghams of Louisville" leaves no doubt that this family's great wealth, like that of so many other American dynasties, had slippery and unseemly beginnings. That subsequent generations of Binghams went on to do admirable works -- among these Barry Bingham occupies a prominent and honorable place -- ameliorates this history to some degree; but history is history, and cannot be changed.