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

  • Wendy Gamber (a1)

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.

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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.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Scott A. Sandage , Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Cambridge, MA, 2005)

Jocelyn Wills , “Respectable Mediocrity: The Everyday Life of an Ordinary American Striver, 1876–1890,” Journal of Social History 37 (Winter 2003): 323–49

Brian Luskey , On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2010)

Lenard R. Berlanstein , “Historicizing and Gendering Celebrity Culture: Famous Women in Nineteenth-Century France,” Journal of Women's History 16 (Winter 2004): 6591

Martha Hodes , “The Mercurial Nature and Abiding Power of Race: A Transnational Family Story,” American Historical Review 108 (Feb. 2003): 84118

David Hochfelder , “‘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): 335–58

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): 277306

Hendrik Hartog , “Lawyering, Husbands' Rights, and ‘the Unwritten Law’ in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 6796

Robert M. Ireland , “Insanity and the Unwritten Law,” American Journal of Legal History 32 (Apr. 1988): 157–72

Ireland, “The Libertine Must Die: Sexual Dishonor and the Unwritten Law in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Journal of Social History 23 (Autumn 1989): 2744

Symposium on Class in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 25 (Winter 2005): 523–64

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • ISSN: 1537-7814
  • EISSN: 1943-3557
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-gilded-age-and-progressive-era
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