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'The Notorious Mrs. Clem': Crime and society in 19th-century Indianapolis

Oct. 5, 2016

Indiana University historian Wendy Gamber was browsing Indiana newspapers from the 1800s when she came across references to an Indianapolis woman named Nancy Clem.

Mrs. Clem book cover artwork

Nancy Clem was an attractive woman from a respectable family who allegedly killed for money, confounding gender stereotypes. | IMAGE COURTESY OF WENDY GAMBER

"They were tantalizingly vague," she said. "But it was clear readers knew who she was. And it was clear she was in some kind of trouble."

She was indeed. Clem has been charged with killing her neighbor and business partner, Jacob Young, and his wife, Nancy Jane Young. Her sensational trials mesmerized newspaper readers not only in Indiana but across the United States. And she kept getting into trouble for 30 years.

Gamber tells the tale in "The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age," published this fall by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

"She was an alleged and, probably, an actual murderer," Gamber said. "She was a confidence woman who many Hoosiers thought invented the Ponzi scheme. She was a self-styled female physician who peddled a strange concoction called Slavin's Infallible Female Tonic.

"She was just this absolutely fascinating woman," she said. "I couldn't resist the story."

Enter to win

Current IU faculty and staff with a valid IU email address can enter to win a copy of Gamber's book, "The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age", a $35 value. The contest opens Oct. 5 and closes at 4 p.m. Oct. 10, 2016.

Gamber is a scholar of 19th-century social and cultural history, focusing on women and work. What made Clem fascinating, she said, was not only her life story but what it revealed about the era in which she lived.

Clem engaged in business -- borrowing money while promising to pay high interest rates and then borrowing more to make payments -- when many people thought women shouldn't dirty their hands with commerce. She was an attractive woman from a respectable family who allegedly killed for money, confounding gender stereotypes. 

Wendy Gamber

Wendy Gamber | PHOTO BY IAN BYERS-GAMBER

A vivid cast of characters clustered around her. Benjamin Harrison, a future president, burnished his legal reputation by prosecuting Clem. John Hanna, a future member of Congress, and Daniel Voorhees, a future U.S. senator, defended her. Laura Ream, a "lady news writer," covered her trials. Civil War veteran William Abrams, a co-defendant, was convicted of murder but pardoned after 10 years.

Competing narratives emerged in which Clem was either a "faithless" wife or a loyal wife and mother supporting her family. In the era's changing political and social landscape, Radical Republicans like Harrison embraced the idea of "separate spheres" for women and men, while moderate Republicans and Democrats argued it was proper for a woman to contribute to the household economy.

The bodies of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young were discovered at Cold Spring on the White River, just north of Indianapolis, in September 1868. Both had been shot to death, and Nancy Jane Young's corpse had been burned. The gruesome crime horrified Indianapolis, then a city of fewer than 50,000 people.

Suspicion fell on Clem, a partner with Jacob Young in the money-lending schemes, and she was arrested. Her first trial, in December 1868, featured testimony from 150 witnesses and drew wall-to-wall newspaper coverage. Closing speeches by prosecution and defense attorneys lasted as long as six hours.

"The Indianapolis newspapers devoted a very large proportion of their space to reprinting the trial transcripts," Gamber said. "It also got national attention, but the local attention was unrelenting."

Clem was tried for the murders four times. Two trials resulted hung juries. Two resulted in convictions that were overturned by the state supreme court. Local officials vetoed a fifth trial on grounds that the public had spent enough money prosecuting Clem.

Clem, off the hook for murder, went back to money-lending and was soon sued by clients. Found guilty of perjury for lying in a deposition and sentenced to four years in prison, she became an inmate at the Indiana Women's Reformatory, the first female correctional institution in the U.S.

After her release, Clem worked as a traveling saleswoman of a remedy "for all female complaints." When an African-American Civil War veteran died after drinking three bottles of the tonic, the coroner discovered that the man's physician was a "Dr. Mrs. Patterson," who turned out to be Clem.

She could have been prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license, Gamber said. But, a quarter century after the Cold Springs murders, the notorious Mrs. Clem seemed more a curiosity than a threat, and no charges were filed. She died in 1897.

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