Saturday, December 4, 2010

Kissing Cousins

Lillian Madison’s relations with her immediate family in the 1880s were strained if not outright hostile. Her parents disapproved of her social life and kept her from the education she desired and as soon as she could, Lillian left their home in King William County, Virginia. She found comfort and support among her mother’s relatives but she also began a romantic relationship with her cousin, Thomas Cluverius, that would end in her ruin. When Lillian’s body, eight months pregnant, was found floating in Richmond’s Old Reservoir, Cousin Thomas was the prime suspect.

Date:  March 13, 1885

Location:   Richmond, Virginia

Victim:  Fannie Lillian Madison

Cause of Death:  Drowning

Accused:  Thomas Judson Cluverius

The morning of March 14, 1885, Lysander Rose, keeper of Richmond Virginia’s Old Reservoir was making his round and found furrows in the path and beside them saw a shoestring and a red glove. Looking out over the reservoir he saw something strange floating in the water and with the help of his workmen, he pulled ashore what turned out to be the body of a young woman. The coroner examined the body and though he found some minor signs of assault, it appeared that she had drowned. He also determined that she was eight months pregnant. His initial assessment was suicide.

She had not been in the water long and there had been no decomposition. The body was placed in the almshouse chapel and thousands of people passed by trying to identify the girl. Twice during the two days, she laid in the chapel someone identified the body as a missing relative, but in each case the supposed victim was found alive and well. On March 17 a young Richmond woman identified the body as that of her cousin, Fanny Lillian Madison and this time the identification proved true. Over the next two days, the coroner changed his assessment to murder and a suspect was arrested – Thomas Cluverious, another of Miss Madison’s cousins.

Fanny Lillian Madison

Fanny Lillian Madison
Fanny Lillian Madison—who went by Lillian—was an unmarried 23-year-old teacher and governess who worked in the western part of Virginia. The oldest of eight children of Charles and Lucy Madison, Lillian was born while her father was fighting in the Confederate army. The family-owned a small farm but they were too poor to send Lillian to school for as long as she wanted, causing animosity on both sides. The trouble between Lillian and her parents was part of a larger conflict between the Madisons and her mother’s family, the Tunstalls, Walkers, and Cluveriuses.

Lillian stayed at the house of her great aunt, Jane Tunstall, while she was going to public school. Then her great aunt paid Lillian’s tuition for one year at Dr. Garlick’s Burlington Academy, but when she offered to pay for a second year, Lillian's parents refused, deepening the rift between the Madisons and the Tunstalls and further alienated Lillian from her parents. They forbad any contact between Lillian and the Turnstalls and burned all correspondence between them.

When Lillian turned twenty-one, she left home for good. She lived for a while at the home of an uncle, John Walker, then moved to Bath, Virginia to work as a teacher. Charles Madison was against the move and in a letter to John Walker he blamed his wife’s family for ruining their daughter:
“Several years ago some people who ought to have been myself and Lucy’s best friends became our bitter enemies. They took our eldest child for a tool to carry out their Hell Blushing schemes and from that day to this our oldest child banded with them they have done all the human brain could devise to accomplish our ruin and what has been the result!”
Charles Madison believed that Lillian had been intimate with Thomas Cluverius, who had also lived at Walker’s house.

Thomas Judson Cluverius

Thomas Cluverius
Thomas Cluverius’s background was similar to his cousin Lillian’s. He grew up on a small farm but with only three siblings, his life was not so hard. His family was less reluctant than the Madisons to take help from Jane Tunstall. Thomas and his older brother William went to live with Jane Tunstall and she financed their education. In September 1880 he began attending Richmond College (now the University of Richmond) and in 1882 graduated with a bachelor of law degree.

Cluverius returned to King and Queen County where he was well known and highly regarded. He began a successful law practice. At the time of his arrest, he was assistant superintendent of Sunday school at Olivet Baptist Church. He was known as a man of temperate habits. One of his associates summed up his character at his trial:
“I look upon him, gentlemen of the jury, as one of the most correct, straightforward, and Christian young men in my whole acquaintance.”
Several times in July and August 1884 Cluverius stayed overnight at the home of Thomas Walker where Lillian Madison was living. At the Walkers’ home Thomas and Lillian “seemed right smartly attached to each other,” even though at the time, Thomas Cluverius was engaged to a woman named Nolie Bray. On January 5, 1885, Lillian Madison and Thomas Cluverious both stayed at a hotel in Richmond and a hotel maid remembered that Lillian did not sleep in her own bed that night. In March 1885, the week of Lillian’s death, they were both in Richmond again.

After the body in the reservoir was identified as Lillian Madison, suicide seemed the most likely cause. Being an unwed mother in 1880s Virginia would have been a terrible disgrace. Lillian was also well known for expressing negative, almost suicidal emotions. But after a coroner’s inquest that lasted weeks, the case was declared a murder and Thomas J. Cluverius was charged.

R. D. Chesteraman
Thomas Cluverius was arrested at a jewelry store where he had gone to get a replacement for a lost watch key. The missing key had allegedly been found near the murder scene and would become a crucial piece of evidence at the trial. Among the Richmond police officers waiting in the store was R.D. Chesterman. His brother, Edward Bruce Chesterman, a Richmond newspaperman, also testified at the trial regarding the missing key.

Trial: May 5, 1885
The indictment against Thomas Cluverius was based entirely on circumstantial evidence and in the period between the murder and the beginning of the trial the city of Richmond became bitterly divided between those who believed Cluverius was guilty of murder and those who believed Lillian Madison had committed suicide. Finding a jury of twelve men who had not already decided the matter was a major hurdle.

The evidence in the case included a watch key found near a hole in the fence between a graveyard and the reservoir. Cluverius was missing his watch key, normally attached to his watch-chain, and it was claimed it was torn off when he squeezed through the hole. The hole was well known to students of Richmond College who used it when they wanted to swim in the reservoir.

There was also a note written by Lillian Madison, dated March 14, the day after the murder. It was asserted that Cluverius had her write this to provide him an alibi—he was back at his home in Centreville on the 14th.

The relatives of Thomas Cluverius paid for the best attorneys available. They focused on their client’s character and on the likelihood that Lillian had committed suicide. Though much testimony focused on the time that Thomas and Lillian were both sleeping at the Walkers' house, very little was said in court about Lillian’s behavior or her association with other men. It was as if the attorneys and press of Richmond had an unspoken agreement not to tarnish the reputation of a young woman.
The trial lasted for a month and Thomas Cluverius was found guilty of first-degree murder.

Verdict: Guilty of murder


The case was appealed but the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the verdict.

The verdict did nothing to settle the matter in the minds of the citizens of Richmond; doubt about Cluverius’s guilt remained. Though most thought him guilty, 2,713 citizens of Virginia—299 of them from Richmond—petitioned the governor for clemency. William Hatcher, Cluverius’s spiritual advisor summed up the ambivalence:
“At one moment I fear that he is guilty and will die with a lie on his lips; the next I think that ne may be innocent and I fear that it will be judicial murder.”
Police, clergymen, and reporters all tried to convince Cluverius to confess but he maintained his innocence to the end. As his hanging approached Cluverius stated that he had been with another woman the night of the murder, but honor forbade him from identifying her and forcing her into publicity and shame to save his life.

The hanging took place on January 14, 1887. By Virginia law, it was to be private, but thousands of people surrounded the jail yard where the execution would take place. The judge had allowed only 12 spectators but more than three hundred had entered the jail yard and rather than risk a riot, police allowed them to stay. A book written by Thomas Cluverius entitled Cluverius; My Life, Trial and Conviction was sold at the execution for fifty cents a copy to help defray legal expenses. To the disappointment of the crowd, it was not a confession but continued to assert that Lillian committed suicide.

A rope made of red and white silk was used to hang Cluverius. The intention was to cut it into pieces to sell as souvenirs after the hanging. They had also intended to sound and electric signal the moment the trap was sprung. Both plans were stopped by a special order from Virginia Governor Lee. Herbert Tobias Ezekiel who witnessed the hanging, wrote that the Sheriff had oiled the rope with sweet oil rather than cold grease which would have facilitated the slipping of the noose and broken Cluverius’s neck. When the trap was sprung at 1:09 PM, the silk rope stretched until Cluverius’s feet were just inches from the ground. The loop extended nearly eighteen inches above his head and it took ten minutes for him to slowly strangle to death.

Thomas Cluverius was buried in the Tunstall burying ground behind the house where he was arrested. A piece of white marble marks the grave of Lillian Madison in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery. The body of her unborn son was buried in the coffin with her.

Trotti, Michael Ayers. The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2008

Ezekiel, Herbert T.. The Recollections of a Virginia Newspaper Man. Richmond, Va.: H.T. Ezekiel, 1920.

Cluverius, Thomas J.. Cluverius: My life, trial and conviction. Richmond, Va.: S.J. Dudley, 1887.

"FANNIE MADISON'S DEATH". New York Times, March 20, 1885

"LILIAN MADISON BURIED" New York Times, March 21, 1885

Additional information:

Information on the arrest of Thomas Cluverius, and photograph of Roscoe Dabney Chesterman courtesy of Ed Miller, Richmond, Virginia, the great great grandson of R.D. Chesterman.


Anonymous says:
March 29, 2012 at 10:15 PM

So very, very sad.

Caroline says:
April 7, 2012 at 10:37 AM

"It was as if the attorneys and press of Richmond had an unspoken agreement not to tarnish the reputation of a young woman."

That's a Southern gentleman for you. :)

Anonymous says:
August 30, 2012 at 12:50 PM

Tommy was arrested at Mrs. Tunstall's house in Little Plymouth, King & Queen County, not in a jewelry store.

Robert Wilhelm says:
August 31, 2012 at 10:55 AM

Give me your source, I'll check it and change the post if it is correct.

Time after Crime says:
June 7, 2016 at 5:39 AM

Wow I see reasonable doubt in this case but I'm sure there was more evidence at the trial

Unknown says:
February 24, 2018 at 8:50 AM

Tommy was my relative, however, I was never told about this event when I was growing up.

NorthsideRasta says:
October 15, 2023 at 10:09 PM

They were more than kissing cousins. Fannie's dad sounded like a baptist taliban acolyte on hindering his daughter's education. The father could've been related to one of her clients. That southern gentleman manners hype is a load of jive.

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