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“The Notorious Mrs. Clem”: Gender, Class, and Criminality in Gilded Age America1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2012

Wendy Gamber*
Indiana University


This essay explores the story of Nancy Clem, an outwardly respectable Indianapolis confidence woman and alleged murderess, in the context of changing constructions of class, gender, and criminality. It examines various ways in which lawyers, newspaper reporters, and ordinary citizens struggled to understand a woman who did not fit preexisting conceptions of gender and crime. A series of high-profile cases involving bourgeois criminals and (more than likely) Clem's own social aspirations allowed cultural commentators to portray her as a “genteel murderess.” Upon her release from prison after an abortive fifth trial, Clem could not sustain her newly acquired social identity, in part because her erstwhile refinement was a journalistic creation and in part because the changing nature of class, gender, and space in Gilded Age Indianapolis provided her with fewer opportunities for self-fashioning. Clem's social odyssey from half-literate “Butternut” to genteel murderess to uncultured “capitalist” reflects slippery, yet significant, transitions between social fluidity and relative rigidity, antebellum respectability and Gilded Age gentility.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2012

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I wish to thank Will Cooley, Pamela Walker Laird, Scott Sandage, Michael Ayers Trotti, Jocelyn Wills, the anonymous reviewers for the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era for their generous comments on previous versions of this essay, and JGAPE intern Seth Isaacson for his careful editing. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.


2 Indianapolis Sentinel (hereafter Sentinel), Sept. 14, 1868, Dec. 1, 1868; Indianapolis Journal (hereafter Journal), Sept. 14, 1868.

3 Sentinel, Sept. 14, 1868; Journal, Sept. 14, 1868; The Cold Spring Tragedy: Trial and Conviction of Mrs. Nancy E. Clem for the Murder of Jacob Young and Wife…, pamphlet written and published by the Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, 1869), 9–10.

4 Journal, Sept. 15, 1868.

5 Cold Spring Tragedy, 12. Evidence concerning Clem's age varies; the 1860 census lists her as 26, which would have made her 33 or 34 at the time of the murders, whereas the 1870 census lists her as 31, surely an error. Genealogies suggest she was born in 1830, which would have made her 37 or 38 in 1868. See Federal Manuscript Population Census (hereafter FMPC), Indianapolis, Ward 2, roll M653-279, p. 163, line 26; FMPC, Jeffersonville, Clark County, IN, roll M593-303, p. 414B, line 12; and John Hartman family tree, (accessed March 19, 2006).

6 Gamber, Wendy, “The Cold Spring Tragedy: Murder, Money, and ‘Women's Business’ in the Gilded Age” in American Public Life and the Historical Imagination, eds. Gamber, Wendy, Grossberg, Michael, and Hartog, Hendrick (Notre Dame, IN, 2003), 113–38Google Scholar; also Leigh Darbee's entry on the Cold Spring case in Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, eds. Bodenhamer, David J. and Barrows, Robert G. (Bloomington, IN, 1994), 456Google Scholar. On strivers, Sandage, Scott A., Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Cambridge, MA, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Balleisen, Edward J., Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 2001)Google Scholar; Wills, Jocelyn, “Respectable Mediocrity: The Everyday Life of an Ordinary American Striver, 1876–1890,” Journal of Social History 37 (Winter 2003): 323–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Luskey, Brian, On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berlanstein, Lenard R., “Historicizing and Gendering Celebrity Culture: Famous Women in Nineteenth-Century France,” Journal of Women's History 16 (Winter 2004): 6591CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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8 Indiana Civil War Enlistment Rolls, Indiana State Archives; Journal, Sept. 14, 1868; testimony, William N. Duzan, S.K. Fletcher, and Arthur Wright, Journal, Dec. 10, 1868; testimony, Robert S. Dorsey, Sentinel, Dec. 11, 1868; testimony, Ann Hottle, Sentinel, Dec. 7, 1868; Cold Spring Tragedy, 29–39; 1870 FMPC, Indianapolis, Ward 1, p. 16, line 5; Ward 1 (2nd enumeration), p. 33, line 12.

9 Indianapolis News, June 9, 1897; Indianapolis Star, Nov. 11, 1971, section B, 3; Dunn, Jacob Piatt, Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1910), 60Google Scholar; Mihm, Stephen, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Cambridge, MA, 2007), 343, 347350CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the history of banking in Indiana, see Thornbrough, Emma Lou, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850–1880 (Indianapolis, 1965), 424–39Google Scholar.

10 Sentinel, Oct. 7, 1868. On corruption, for example, “Police Board Investigating Court,” Sentinel, Jan. 14, 1869; and “Police Investigation,” Sentinel, Jan. 15, 1869. Gilfoyle, Timothy J., A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 2006), 243–54Google Scholar.

11 “From Indianapolis. The Trial of Mrs. Clem for Murder—Proceedings of the Court Yesterday,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Dec. 8, 1868. See, for example, “From Indianapolis,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Mar. 27, 1868; and “Imposter,” Sentinel, Feb. 15, 1869. Also Bessie K. Roberts, “Crime and Crinoline,” Indiana Magazine of History 41 (Dec. 1945): 388–94; and Gilfoyle, Pickpocket's Tale, 82, 204–22.

12 Cold Spring Tragedy, 29, 31–33.

13 Sentinel, Feb. 13, 1869; Gilfoyle, Pickpocket's Tale, xiiii, 209–10; Mihm, Nation of Counterfeiters, 347–51.

14 On the continuing salience of localism, Keller, Morton, Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA, 1977), 35, 5051, 106–21, 162–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a recent example of a Ponzi scheme that resembles the one that Clem, Young, and Abrams undertook, William Yardley, “A Fraud Played Out on Family and Friends,” New York Times, May 26, 2011, A13.

15 Cold Spring Tragedy, 33; Measuring Worth: Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present, (accessed Nov. 13, 2011); “Death of Nancy E. Clem,” Indianapolis News, June 9, 1897, 8; Friedman, Lawrence M., Crime and Punishment in American History (New York, 1993), 438–39Google Scholar.

16 “Indianapolis Letter. The Hand of God,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, Feb. 1, 1869.

17 Journal, Sept. 14, 1868; Journal, Sept. 17, 1868, 5; Sentinel, Dec. 1, 1868; John T. Dye, closing argument, Journal, Dec. 18, 1868.

18 Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 435–36. On informal money lending, Lebsock, Suzanne, A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York, 2003), 13, 130–31Google Scholar. Testimony, Silas A. Pollard, Journal, Sep. 9, 1868; testimony, Silas Hartman, Journal, Dec. 14, 1868; testimony, Ann Hottle, Journal, Dec. 7, 1868.

19 The Revised Statutes of the State of Indiana, vol. 1 (Indianapolis, 1852), 356.

20 Testimony, Levi Pierson, Journal, Dec. 15, 1868; testimony, Rev. T. A. Goodwin, Journal, Dec. 17, 1868; testimony, Ann Hottle, Journal, Dec. 8, 1868.

21 Journal, Sept. 14, 1868; Sept. 16, 1868; Dec. 12, 1868; Sentinel, Sept. 15, 1868; Cold Spring Tragedy, 11; Sentinel, Dec. 12, 1868, 2; Mar. 29, 1869; testimony, Jane Sizemore, Journal, Dec. 10, 1868; testimony, William Brown, Journal, Dec. 5, 1868. On another form of speculation that would soon become popular, Hochfelder, David, “‘Where the Common People Could Speculate’: The Ticker, Bucket Shops, and the Origins of Popular Participation in Financial Markets, 1880–1920,” Journal of American History 93 (Sept. 2006): 335–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Cold Spring Tragedy, 30, 99–100; News, June 9, 1897.

23 Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, 60; Journal, Oct. 13, 1868; Cold Spring Tragedy, 10; Sentinel, Feb. 13, 1869; Dye, closing statement, Journal, Dec. 18, 1868.

24 Cold Spring Tragedy, 122.

25 Ibid.; Sentinel, Sept. 15, 1868; Indianapolis News, June 2, 1910.

26 Wendy Gamber, “The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Crime and Culture in the Gilded Age” (book manuscript in progress); also Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, 60; Journal, Mar. 2, 1869, quoted in Sievers, Harry J., Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Statesman, vol. 2: From the Civil War to the White House, 1865–1888 (New York, 1959), 2829Google Scholar.

27 Halttunen, Karen, “Early American Crime Narratives: The Birth of Horror” in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American Culture, eds. Fox, Richard Wightman and Lears, Jackson T. (Chicago, 1993)Google Scholar; Halttunen, Karen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 98107Google Scholar; Papke, Daniel Ray, Framing the Criminal: Crime, Cultural Work, and the Loss of Critical Perspective (Hamden, CT, 1987)Google Scholar; Srebnick, Amy Gilman, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 1995)Google Scholar. Cohen, Patricia Cline, “Unregulated Youth: Masculinity and Murder in the 1830s City,” Radical History Review 52 (Winter 1992): 3351CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cohen, The Mystery of Helen Jewett: Romantic Fiction and the Eroticization of Violence,” Legal Studies Forum 17:2 (1993): 133–47Google Scholar; and Cohen, , The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 1998)Google Scholar. Cohen, Daniel A., “The Murder of Maria Bickford: Fashion, Passion, and the Birth of a Consumer Culture,” American Studies 31 (Fall 1990): 530Google Scholar; Cohen, , Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674–1860 (New York, 1993Google Scholar); and Cohen, , “The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590–1850,” Journal of Social History 31 (Winter 1997): 277306CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Trotti, Michael Ayers, The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South (Chapel Hill, 2008), esp. 5470Google Scholar.

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29 W. P. Fishback, closing argument, Cold Spring Tragedy, 104–05; Dye, opening statement, Journal, Dec. 18, 1868; Benjamin Harrison, closing argument, Cold Spring Tragedy, 69; Hanna, opening statement, Sentinel, Feb. 12, 1869. On associations between keeping boarders and sexual vice, Gamber, Wendy, The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore, 2007), 102–14Google Scholar.

30 Journal, Dec. 12, 1868, 3; Sentinel, Dec. 12, 1868 and June 21, 1869; The People (Indianapolis), Oct. 8, 1871; Sentinel, Oct. 7, 9, 1871.

31 Cold Spring Tragedy, 38–40; Indianapolis News, June 7, 1872.

32 Hanna, closing argument, Journal, Dec. 21, 1868. Hanna's paean to “the working classes,” it should be noted, was carefully circumscribed by race. It did not extend to at least one woman who “stood before the wash tub,” Clem's servant Jane Sizemore, who had offered damaging testimony. Hanna described her as “that accursed nigger.”

33 Cold Spring Tragedy, 82; Hanna, opening statement, Sentinel, Feb. 12, 1869; William Wallace Leathers, closing argument, Journal, Dec. 19, 1868.

34 Dorothea Kline McCullough, “‘By Cash and Eggs’: Gender in Washington County during Indiana's Pioneer Period” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2001), 142–65. See Gamber, “Cold Spring Tragedy,” for a more extensive discussion of these issues.

35 Journal, Mar. 2, 1869.

36 Journal, Oct. 8, Dec. 2, 1868, 4; Cold Spring Tragedy, 16.

37 [Banka, J. Harrie], State Prison Life: By One Who Has Been There (Cincinnati, 1871), 378Google Scholar.

38 Ibid., 379. Papke, David Ray, “Legitimate Illegitimacy: The Memoirs of Nineteenth-Century Professional Criminals,” Legal Studies Forum 9 (1985): 165–77Google Scholar.

39 “How the Murderess Heard the News,” Sentinel, June 18, 1838; “The Nancy Clem Case,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Apr. 27, 1874.

40 “He has a Soft Heart,” Denver Evening Post, Jan. 28, 1896; “Won't Prosecute a Woman,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, Jan. 31, 1896; “Quite a Lady's Man,” Emporia Daily Gazette, Feb. 5, 1896; Harrison, closing argument, Cold Spring Tragedy, 70.

41 Sentinel, June 27, Sept. 24, 1873. Gordon, John Steele, “To a Speculator Dying Young,” American Heritage 43 (Nov. 1992): 1819Google Scholar; Hartog, Hendrik, “Lawyering, Husbands' Rights, and ‘the Unwritten Law’ in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 6796CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ireland, Robert M., “Insanity and the Unwritten Law,” American Journal of Legal History 32 (Apr. 1988): 157–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ireland, “The Libertine Must Die: Sexual Dishonor and the Unwritten Law in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Journal of Social History 23 (Autumn 1989): 2744CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ganz, Melissa J., “Wicked Women and Veiled Ladies: Gendered Narratives of the McFarland-Richardson Tragedy,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 9 (1997): 255303Google Scholar.

42 The quintessential example would be H. H. Holmes, the Chicago serial killer; Larson, Erik, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (New York, 2004)Google Scholar. Clem hardly fits his modus operandi.

43 Chambers-Schiller, Lee, “Seduced, Betrayed, and Revenged: The Murder Trial of Mary Harris” in Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History, ed. Bellesiles, Michael A. (New York, 1999): 185209Google Scholar; Carson, Crimes of Womanhood, 39–68. At least one newspaper compared Clem to Laura D. Fair, who was tried and convicted for murdering her lover but acquitted after a second trial; “Personal,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Oct. 10, 1872.

44 See especially Trotti, The Body in the Reservoir, 44–77, for an incisive analysis of the narratives nineteenth-century newspapers created about criminals and victims.

45 FMPC, 1830, Stokes County, NC, roll 125, p. 275; Early Land Records of Pike Township, Pike Township Historical Society (accessed April 4, 2006); John Hartman family tree,, (accessed March 19, 2006); Marion County 1855 Wall Map Atlas, Pike Township, Pike Township Historical Society, (accessed April 4, 2006); Federal Manuscript Agricultural Census, 1850, Pike Township, Marion Country, IN, roll 3893, pp. 60–61; Nation, Richard F., At Home in the Hoosier Hills: Agriculture, Politics, and Religion in Southern Indiana, 1810–1870 (Bloomington, IN, 2005), 29, 80127Google Scholar; Madison, James H., The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington, IN, 1990), 6667Google Scholar; Trimble, Melrose Scales, First Wills of Marion County, Indiana (Indianapolis, 1999)Google Scholar.

46 Cold Spring Tragedy, 16; “Free: Nancy Clem at Large,” Sentinel, Apr. 30, 1874; Department of Correction–Prison South, Records, Nancy E. Clem, 1869 and 1872, Indiana State Archives; Brief Autobiography, June [15?], 1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, vol. 2, (accessed Nov. 13, 2011); “The Trial of Mrs. Clem for Murder—Proceedings of the Court Yesterday,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Dec. 8, 1868; “The Nancy Clem Case,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Apr. 27, 1874. On the limited extent of literacy and schooling in Indiana in general, Madison, Indiana Way, 111–15.

47 William Wallace Leathers, closing statement, Journal, Dec. 19, 1868; Kershner, Frederick D. Jr., “From Country Town to Industrial City: The Urban Pattern in Indianapolis,” Indiana Magazine of History 45 (Dec. 1949): 327–38Google Scholar.

48 Cottman, George S., “Old-Time Slums of Indianapolis,” Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History 7 (Dec. 1911): 170–71Google Scholar.

49 Brooks, Kate Scott, “Memories of Our President General,” National History Magazine 77 (Jan. 1942): 6Google Scholar; William Wallace Leathers, closing statement, Journal, Dec. 19, 1868.

50 Much recent work on the middle class starts from Blumin, Stuart, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (New York, 1989)Google Scholar. Increasingly, however, scholars argue that class, like gender and race, is at least partly socially constructed. See especially the essays in The Middling Sorts: Explorations in the History of the American Middle Class, ed. Bledstein, Burton J. and Johnston, Robert D. (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; Walkowitz, Daniel J., Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-class Identity (Chapel Hill, 1999)Google Scholar; Wills, “Respectable Mediocrity”; Johnston, Robert D., The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton, 2003)Google Scholar; the Journal of Urban History special issue on the “Middle Class in the City” 31 (Mar. 2005); and Symposium on Class in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 25 (Winter 2005): 523–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Halttunen, Karen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven, 1982), 198Google Scholar.

52 Sentinel, Feb. 4, 1869.

53 “The Nancy Clem Case,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Apr. 27, 1874.

54 Rafter, Nicole Hahn, Partial Justice: Women, Prisons, and Social Control, 2nd. ed. (New Brunswick, NJ, 1990), 32Google Scholar.

55 “How the Murderess Heard the News,” Sentinel, June 18, 1873.

56 “Indiana's Romancer,” Indianapolis News, Mar. 30, 1880; Sulgrove, B. R., History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana (Philadelphia, 1884), 45Google Scholar; “What Mrs. Clem Thinks,” Sentinel, Feb. 18, 1873.

57 “Mrs. Clem at Home Again,” Sentinel, June 8, 1874; “Indiana Justice,” New York Times, Mar. 6, 1874; “A Woman's Trials,” Chicago Inter Ocean, May 1, 1874; “Free. Nancy Clem at Large,” Sentinel, Apr. 30, 1874; “Mrs. Clem Enjoys Street Promenades After Release from Prison,” Chicago Inter Ocean, May 11, 1874.

58 “A Tale of Gambling and Murder,” New York World, quoted in San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, May 8, 1877.

60 Louisville Courier-Journal quoted in “About People,” Sentinel, June 18, 1878; “Elbow Shots,” (Indianapolis) Saturday Herald, June 22, 1878; “Once More to the Front,” Sentinel, June 14, 1878; “That Dreadful Woman,” Saturday Herald, June 15, 1878; “A Tale of Gambling and Murder,” San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, May 8, 1877.

61 Burial certificate, Nancy E. Clem, Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana; Indianapolis News, June 9, 1897.

62 News, June 9, 1897; Nickerson, Catherine Ross, “‘The Deftness of Her Sex’: Innocence, Guilt, and Gender in the Trial of Lizzie Borden” in Lethal Imagination, ed. Bellesiles, , 260–81Google Scholar; Carson, Crimes of Womanhood, 85–110.

63 Mahoney, Timothy R, “The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of the Gilded Age in Lincoln,” Nebraska History 82 (Winter 2001): 163–79Google Scholar; Langlois, Janet L., Belle Gunness: The Lady Bluebeard (Bloomington, IN, 1985)Google Scholar.

64 Indianapolis News, June 10, 1897.