Ripped from the Headlines
In 1995, it was O. J. Simpson.
In 1992, it was Erik and Lyle Menendez.
In 1968, it was Charles Manson.
In 1951, it was Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg.
In 1945, it was Nuremberg.
In 1885, the sensational murder trial that made headlines throughout Virginia and across the United States (The New York Times printed thirty-seven stories on the case), was the trial of Thomas Cluverius.
Born in 1861, Thomas Judson Cluverius grew up on a small farm in King and Queen County. In 1880, he attended Richmond College (now the University of Richmond) and graduated two years later with a bachelor’s degree in law. He returned to King and Queen County, practiced law, and was a well-known and respected member of the community. He was even the assistant superintendent of the Sunday school and described as temperate in his habits. Thomas was living the American dream, that is until March 18, when the Richmond police arrested him.
Four days earlier, the caretaker of Richmond’s Old Reservoir (today the site of the Clark Springs Elementary School) discovered the body of a young woman floating in the water. The coroner determined that she had drowned and that her body showed minor signs of assault. As if that weren’t bad enough, he also verified that she was eight months pregnant.
The body was placed in the almshouse chapel where thousands of people passed by trying to identify the girl. On March 17, a Richmond woman identified the body as that of her cousin, twenty-three-year-old Fanny Lillian Madison. The coroner changed the cause of death to murder.
Lillian also grew up on a small farm in King and Queen County, but unlike her cousin Thomas Cluverius, she had a stormy relationship with her immediate family. She did, however, find comfort and support among her mother’s relatives and lived with them until she moved to Bath, Virginia, to work as a teacher. In the summer of 1884, although Thomas was engaged at the time, he and Lillian “seemed right smartly attached to each other,” when they visited at the homes of mutual uncles and aunts. In January, 1885, they both stayed at a Richmond hotel, and on March 13–the night of Lillian’s death–the two were in Richmond again.
The ensuing trial lasted a month. Evidence in the case included a watch key (a copy used in the trial is in the collection of the VHS) found at the scene (Cluverius had been arrested wearing his watch and a chain but without a key), a torn note found in a hotel trash can written by Lillian, and a mountain of circumstantial evidence. The defense suggested that the unwed and pregnant Lillian committed suicide. The prosecution contended that Thomas killed his cousin in order to eliminate the evidence of his indiscretion and protect his reputation. The public was intensely interested–and deeply divided– in the details of a trial that featured a respected citizen, illicit sex, and murder.
Thomas was found guilty of first degree murder and hanged on January 14, 1887. To the end, he claimed he was innocent.
This is just one of the stories we’ll be exploring through objects in our collection on Tuesday, October 9, 2012, at our View from the Inside: A Behind the Scenes Tour at the Virginia Historical Society program entitled, Snapped! Tales of Murder and Mayhem. There are still a few spaces left for those who have the stomach for it!