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The Notorious Mrs. Clem

Murder and Money in the Gilded Age

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.

About the Author

Wendy Gamber is the Robert F. Byrnes Professor in History at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America and The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860–1930.

Review

"The murder of a business partner doesn’t sound very sexy. But Gamber raises a provocative issue when she studies the era’s disapproving attitude toward any woman who dared to benefit from the commercial opportunities of a postwar world—especially if that commerce happened to be illegal."

- New York Times Book Review

Endorsements

"An evocative, deeply-researched account of an infamous murder that takes the reader into the tangled gender politics of Gilded-Age America. Gamber has an eye for detail and a flair for narrative that makes this book both a gripping read and a perceptive analysis of late nineteenth-century social mores."

- Stephen Mihm, coauthor of Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance and author of A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States.

"A fascinating, deeply researched, and analytically complex book, The Notorious Mrs. Clem is both well conceived and well written."

- Alecia P. Long, author of The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865–1920

"At its best, a great history book is a great mystery story—and The Notorious Mrs. Clem is both. Double Murder! Mutilated corpses! Ponzi schemes! Snake oil! Women’s rights! Covering the four murder trials of an inscrutable Indianapolis housewife whose only crime may have been that she was a shrewd and independent business woman, master historian Wendy Gamber lets the story speak for itself while deftly interweaving insights about the margins of American business, marriage, and womanhood during the Gilded Age. So tight and fast-paced that it can be read in a pleasant afternoon, The Notorious Mrs. Clem will leave you pondering the greatest mystery of them all: that history is ultimately the record of what we just don’t know."

- Scott A. Sandage, author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
Johns Hopkins University Press
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