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The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age

de Wendy Gamber

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In September 1868, the remains of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young were found lying near the banks of Indiana's White River. It was a gruesome scene. Part of Jacob's face had been blown off, apparently by the shotgun that lay a few feet away. Spiders and black beetles crawled over his wound. Smoke rose from his wife's smoldering body, which was so badly burned that her intestines were exposed, the flesh on her thighs gone, and the bones partially reduced to powder. Suspicion for both deaths turned to Nancy Clem, a housewife who was also one of Mr. Young's former business partners. In The Notorious Mrs. Clem, Wendy Gamber chronicles the life and times of this charming and persuasive Gilded Age confidence woman, who became famous not only as an accused murderess but also as an itinerant peddler of patent medicine and the supposed originator of the Ponzi scheme. Clem's story is a shocking tale of friendship and betrayal, crime and punishment, courtroom drama and partisan politicking, get-rich-quick schemes and shady business deals. It also raises fascinating questions about women's place in an evolving urban economy. As they argued over Clem's guilt or innocence, lawyers, jurors, and ordinary citizens pondered competing ideas about gender, money, and marriage. Was Clem on trial because she allegedly murdered her business partner? Or was she on trial because she engaged in business? Along the way, Gamber introduces a host of equally compelling characters, from prosecuting attorney and future U.S. president Benjamin Harrison to folksy defense lawyer John Hanna, daring detective Peter Wilkins, pioneering "lady news writer" Laura Ream, and female-remedy manufacturer Michael Slavin. Based on extensive sources, including newspapers, trial documents, and local histories, this gripping account of a seemingly typical woman who achieved extraordinary notoriety will appeal to true crime lovers and historians alike.… (mais)
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Just three years after the end of the Civil War, Jason and Nancy Young were murdered along the White River outside Indianapolis. The investigation quickly settled on a conspiracy of three men and a woman who were involved in a dubious financial scheme with the husband. The woman was Nancy Clem, a woman from a farm family, poorly educated, but smart and capable. The prosecutorial theory was one of the men bought the shotgun used in the crime, the other two men followed the couple out in the country, and Mrs. Clem rode with the couple. The husband was shot by a different weapon than the wife, so more than one killer was likely.

Gamber draws heavily on contemporary news reports of court proceedings and the many editorials urging the ultimate penalty for Mrs. Clem. She had money enough to afford the best lawyers and the county ended up having to try her again and again, thanks to two hung juries and two successful appeals. Later in life, she was prosecuted again, for unrelated crimes, lending and borrowing in a clumsy sort of Ponzi scheme. Too bad she didn’t incorporate, she would have been in the clear.

The most fascinating element of Mrs. Clem’s notoriety was how much she was perceived as guilty or not guilty based on the partisan view of women’s role in the economy. The Democrats who were more rural, agricultural folk depended on women’s labor on the farm and didn’t get offended over a women trading in loans or investments. They saw women in the marketplace as legitimate. The Republicans, more urban, educated, and well off, on the other hand, saw women’s role in the home, not contributing to the economic health of the family, but raising the children and taking care of her husband. Mrs. Clem’s skill and interest in money and lending offended them.

The legal arguments of lawyers reflected these biases and so did the juries. For me, the hung jury of the first cast looms large since testimony is freshest, less rehearsed and set in stone. Over time, people become more certain, not less. However, I get a strong impression that Gamber assumes Clem was guilty. Today, we are less credulous about eyewitness testimony and courts don’t allow hearsay, so I wonder what would happen in today’s courts. Then again, they would have ballistics and DNA evidence. In many ways, the strongest evidence against Mrs. Clem was a Size 3 footprint. At first, I thought that was definitive because who is a size 3? However, that was the most common women’s size back then, so obviously, sizes were different from today.

This is a scrupulously sourced and carefully documented history of what was once a national scandal. It is different from many other crimes because the idea of a woman killing over money and fraud seems strange. This is no crime of passion.

I was interested throughout, though since there were so many trials, it’s really hard to avoid covering the same ground. Gamber wisely focused on new directions, new evidence, and new arguments, but nonetheless, it really seemed like a Bleak House criminal case.

It was most fascinating to see how the concept of women’s role in the economy played such a powerful role in how people viewed Mrs. Clem. It seemed the national divisions that led to the Civil War were still playing out on new battlefields.

I received a copy of The Notorious Mrs. Clem from the publisher.

The Notorious Mrs. Clem at Johns Hopkins University Press
Wendy Gamber faculty page

https://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/the-notorious-mrs-clem-by... ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Feb 15, 2019 |
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In September 1868, the remains of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young were found lying near the banks of Indiana's White River. It was a gruesome scene. Part of Jacob's face had been blown off, apparently by the shotgun that lay a few feet away. Spiders and black beetles crawled over his wound. Smoke rose from his wife's smoldering body, which was so badly burned that her intestines were exposed, the flesh on her thighs gone, and the bones partially reduced to powder. Suspicion for both deaths turned to Nancy Clem, a housewife who was also one of Mr. Young's former business partners. In The Notorious Mrs. Clem, Wendy Gamber chronicles the life and times of this charming and persuasive Gilded Age confidence woman, who became famous not only as an accused murderess but also as an itinerant peddler of patent medicine and the supposed originator of the Ponzi scheme. Clem's story is a shocking tale of friendship and betrayal, crime and punishment, courtroom drama and partisan politicking, get-rich-quick schemes and shady business deals. It also raises fascinating questions about women's place in an evolving urban economy. As they argued over Clem's guilt or innocence, lawyers, jurors, and ordinary citizens pondered competing ideas about gender, money, and marriage. Was Clem on trial because she allegedly murdered her business partner? Or was she on trial because she engaged in business? Along the way, Gamber introduces a host of equally compelling characters, from prosecuting attorney and future U.S. president Benjamin Harrison to folksy defense lawyer John Hanna, daring detective Peter Wilkins, pioneering "lady news writer" Laura Ream, and female-remedy manufacturer Michael Slavin. Based on extensive sources, including newspapers, trial documents, and local histories, this gripping account of a seemingly typical woman who achieved extraordinary notoriety will appeal to true crime lovers and historians alike.

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