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the notorious mrs. clem

14 october 2016

To judge from the true-crime annals, the 19th century in America was a very dangerous time to be alive. And I'm not even talking the wild west or the Senate floor. Mere humdrum domestic life was often enough to get you murdered.

Much of the exposition in Wendy Gamber's Notorious Mrs. Clem concerns a group of families in suburbanizing Indianapolis just after the Civil War. This circle of friends and in-laws buy and remodel houses, hang wallpaper, fix up stables for their new buggies, and such. Then one of the couples turns up on a pastoral riverbank just outside town, the husband with half his head blown away and the wife with half her body burned to a crisp. Difficult venue, Indianapolis.

Nancy Clem's "was not a woman's crime," as Gamber puts it, echoing the sensibilities of the 1860s (53). If it was a crime at all. She had no fewer than five trials for the murder of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young (the pair found egregiously dead on the riverbank). The truth about the killings never definitively came out. Gamber's best guess is that Clem was there at the end and killed Mrs. Young herself, using a handgun that she later successfully disposed of. Juries voted this way and that, sometimes hanging, but reasonable doubt persisted.

Motive was murky. Clem, some other consipirators (including one of her brothers), and the Youngs may or may not have been involved in large-scale fraud. They seem to have been bilking "investors" in an amateurish Ponzi scheme of their own concoction. But why these shenanigans should have led to murder (and apparently to robbery of a large amount of the money concerned) is hazy. Gamber paints a picture of a city growing too fast, a place where people still put small-town trust in characters they knew too casually. Apparently at least one of those characters, perhaps Clem herself, was not only greedy and amoral but brutally homicidal in the bargain.

The Notorious Mrs. Clem is for the most part a legal history. It recounts Clem's various trials in minute detail. Gamber argues convincingly that those trials reveal a wealth of evidence about constructions of class, gender, capital, and race in post-bellum America. I've read more thrilling courtroom true-crimers, honestly. Gamber's accounts of hours-long closing arguments are easier to read than those speeches must have originally been to sit through, but perhaps not by as much as a general reader would prefer. One compensation, though, is a look at prosecutor Benjamin Harrison, an upright, thorough lawyer who would bring similar doggedness of purpose to the Presidency many years later.

One thing I found odd about The Notorious Mrs. Clem is Gamber's sense of the value of money in the post-Civil-War years. Working from calculators at the website Measuring Worth, Gamber adopts a valuation of about 200 21st-century dollars to each 1868 dollar. If she's correct, Nancy Clem and her gang of con artists were making staggering sums of money. Young may have had as much as $20,000 in cash in his possession when he was killed (67), and some of the marks in the con game lost similar amounts. Carrying the equivalent of $4 million in cash verges on the incredible – but it was more of a cash economy than our virtual-money system of today – and it was the Gilded Age.

Even so, the amounts seem large to me. The calculator may not adjust enough for post-Civil-War inflation, or the burgeoning amount of paper money in circulation before the "resumption of specie payments" in the mid-1870s put the dollar back on a gold standard. Measuring Worth offers a variety of scales, one of which seems to be a percentage of national wealth, which would overstate the smaller, poorer, and less-monetized economy of the mid-19th-century. I'd be more comfortable with something like $30 or $40 in 2016 money to each 1868 dollar. Which still leaves the consipirators with a boatload of ill-gotten gains. Walking around with $20,000 in your pocket at any point in American history, even today, is fairly astonishing.

Gamber, Wendy. The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and money in the Gilded Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. HV 6248 .C468G36