Sunday, October 2, 2016

Wendy Gamber's "The Notorious Mrs. Clem"

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

Gamber applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age, and reported the following:
The Notorious Mrs. Clem chronicles the life of a fascinating protagonist—a confidence woman who supposedly invented the Ponzi scheme and allegedly orchestrated a double murder. As if that weren’t enough, she also sold patent medicines while masquerading as a female physician. Nancy Clem reveals much about nineteenth-century American society and culture. I’m especially interested in what she tells us about competing conceptions of women’s economic place and shifting notions of social class.

Page 99 concludes a chapter about the first of Clem’s four trials for the gruesome murders of her business partner, Jacob Young, and Young’s wife, Nancy Jane. Antone Wiese is the hero of this brief paragraph (and the one that precedes it on page 98). Wiese was one of twelve jurors, all of them white, all of them men, all of them farmers from the rural townships that surrounded Indianapolis. But the Prussian-born Wiese was the odd man out. He was the only juror who favored conviction. He was thus responsible for the trial’s outcome: a hung jury.

Wiese’s eleven colleagues—who, like the defendant, were southerners by birth or heritage—didn’t necessarily believe Clem innocent. But they didn’t want to “hang a woman.” And Clem’s attorneys evidently convinced them that there were too many holes in the prosecution’s largely circumstantial case. They also offered gendered arguments that would have resonated with these gentlemen of the jury. While prosecutors termed Clem a “faithless wife” for doing business without her husband’s knowledge—in fact for doing business at all—defense attorneys portrayed her as a thrifty household manager, a reliable contributor to family coffers, a “faithful wife,” and a “model woman”—just the sort of woman a right-thinking farmer might have married. Clem’s lead counsel, John Hanna, moved jurors to tears when he invoked the rural community where he and Clem’s husband had been raised and “the church yard [where] their parents were sleeping.”

Antone Wiese lived in this very locality, Warren Township. So did Nancy Clem’s brother-in-law, also a Prussian immigrant. Perhaps Wiese didn’t share his colleagues’ attachment to Indiana home places or fondness for industrious helpmates. Or perhaps “the stubborn Dutchman” simply believed in justice. His refusal to acquit was a courageous act, one that guaranteed the notorious Mrs. Clem would stand trial a second time.
Learn more about The Notorious Mrs. Clem at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue