Indianapolis's Female Economy: The Work of the Notorious Mrs. Clem
Hoosier Women Conference Paper
By Wendy Gamber
Newspaper Image of Nancy Clem, accessed murderbygaslight.com/2015/12/the-notorious-mrs-clem.html
Wendy Gamber’s essay, an excerpt from her monograph, Indianapolis’s Female
Economy: The Work of the Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age, details the life of Nancy Clem: a farm girl, respectable urban housewife, boardinghouse keeper, street broker, supposed originator of the Ponzi scheme, prison laundress, peddler of patent medicines, female physician, and as the author notes, “alleged (and probably actual) Indianapolis murderess.” Gamber examines the robust female economy of nineteenth century Indianapolis that was composed of both paid and unpaid labor. Through the use of testimony from Clem’s trial for the alleged murder of Nancy Jane Young, Gamber uncovers the way that the separate spheres ideology operated in Indianapolis, and how predetermined gender characteristics impacted Clem’s murder trial. Gamber explains that for the prosecution:
“Clem was an unlikely murderess. Her alleged offense was not a woman’s crime. She has purportedly conspired to kill a business partner, not a lover or husband … she employed a pistol rather than poison, the usual female weapon.”
Indianapolis Journal December 15, 1892,
Above all, Clem did not look or act like a murderess in the nineteenth-century. Instead, “her manners were those of a well-bred lady.” Although Clem was not found guilty of the murder charges, she was implicitly determined to be guilty of gender deviance because she was self-reliant and had dared to venture boldly out from the home. Gamber reiterates that Clem, from the men’s perspectives, was an ordinary woman who had seized masculine prerogatives by being a women of brain and power.
Clem, in both her legal and illegal business endeavors, had violated the doctrine of separate spheres that assigned men to the marketplace and women to the home. This charge would ostracized her more from society than the murder charge.
Indianapolis’s Female Economy: The Work History of the Notorious Mrs. Clem
This essay draws on my book, The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age, which chronicles the life and times of an alleged (and probably actual) Indianapolis murderess. Nancy Clem may strike readers as a strange inspiration for a conference called “Hoosier Women at Work.” But given that I am a historian of women and labor, her work history is part of what drew me to her. Clem was by turns a farm girl, respectable urban housewife, boardinghouse keeper, street broker, supposed originator of the Ponzi scheme, prison laundress, peddler of patent medicines, and “female physician.” Various women workers, including domestic servants, a dressmaker, a prostitute, a secondhand dealer, the keeper of a jewelry and notions store, a pioneering “lady” journalist, the proprietor of a major downtown hotel, and the Superintendent of the Indiana Female Reformatory, helped to determine Clem’s fate. Even as prosecutors invoked the ideology of separate spheres, trial testimony revealed a robust nineteenth-century female economy, one that encompassed paid and unpaid labor, and various forms of business (some legitimate, others less so). Limits of time and space prevent me from reconstructing this economy in full. Instead, I’ll use the experiences of “the notorious Mrs. Clem” as a jumping off point for sketching the wide range of women’s economic activities in late nineteenth-century Indianapolis. I’ll also explore the ways in which these very pursuits became entangled in legal and political debates, for Clem’s trials served in part as referendums on “working women” and women’s business...