The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


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

Wendy Gambera1 c1

a1 Indiana University


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.

(Online publication July 04 2012)



Wendy Gamber is a professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860–1930 (1997) and The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America (2007). She is currently completing book with the tentative title, “The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Crime and Culture in the Gilded Age.”


1 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.