In September 1868, the remains of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young were found lying near the banks of Indiana’s White River, gruesomely murdered. 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: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Johns Hopkins UP), 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.
Join us at the Lilly Library on September 29 to hear Professor Gamber talk about her book, a gripping account of a seemingly typical woman who achieved extraordinary notoriety. Professor Gamber will be available after the talk to sign copies of her book, available for purchase at the event.
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.