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Women's Literary Tea- The Notorious Mrs. Clem

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The 2021 Women's Literary Tea will feature Dr. Wendy Gamber, speaking on her true crime book, The Notorious Mrs. Clem.

About this Event

In connection with the Propylaeum’s celebration of Indianapolis's Bicentennial, Dr. Wendy Gamber, Chair of the IU Department of History, will be our featured speaker to talk about her book, ”The Notorious Mrs. Clem, Murder and Money in the Gilded Age.” This is the story of an Indianapolis housewife who was suspected of two gruesome murders in 1868. This virtual event will feature a 30 minute talk with the author, followed by a Q & A session.

Also, be sure to register for the Women’s Literary Tea Auction that opens at noon on Monday, March 1 and closes after the tea on Saturday, March 6 at 6:00PM. The auction is open to anyone by registering at this link: https://propylaeum.cbo.io/

Click to see the special items we have assembled that pertain to women, literature, tea and more.

About the Book:

Was Nancy Clem a respectable Indianapolis housewife―or a cold-blooded double murderess?

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 Speaker:

Dr. Wendy Gamber is the chair of the Department of History at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her research centers on the social and cultural history of the United States, with particular attention to relationships between gender and economy. The Female Economy focused on the custom dressmaking and millinery trades, underscoring the gendered consequences of economic change—what was lost and what was gained as a nineteenth-century "female economy" largely controlled by women gave way to a twentieth-century clothing industry largely controlled by men. The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America examined how the ubiquitous but much-maligned boardinghouse helped to construct the very idea of home and the ways in which landladies and boarders negotiated powerful-if often illusory-dichotomies between home and market, public and private, love and money, boardinghouse and home. Her most recent book, The Notorious Mrs. Clem, was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” by the New York Times Book Review and represents Indiana in the NYTBR's "50 States of True Crime." It analyzes the social, cultural, and political consequences of a murder that dominated public commentary in Indiana (and at times, in much of the nation) from the late 1860s until the 1890s. At its center is a remarkable figure, Nancy E. Clem—by turns a barely literate farm girl, respectable urban housewife, ambitious mother, supposed originator of the Ponzi scheme, alleged (and probably actual) murderess, itinerant peddler of patent medicines, and self-described “female physician.” Gamber use her story to illuminate the social history of capitalism, the political economy of nineteenth-century marriage, shifting constructions of social class, and changing configurations of urban space.


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