Friday, June 18, 2010

The Murder of Lillian Madison, 1885

Friday the 13th, and a murderous lawyer strolls the streets of what is now VCU with his pregnant victim: the murder of Lillian Madison by her cousin, Thomas Cluverius, in 1885.

At twenty minutes to ten on the cold night of Friday, March 13, 1885, one of Richmond’s horse-drawn streetcars drew up to the intersection of what is now Main and N. Harrison Streets (in 1885 Harrison was named Reservoir Street).  The “tughorse” trolley, as it called, stopped on the corner and two people emerged into a light dusting of snow: Thomas J. Cluverius, a lawyer from King and Queen County, and Lillian Madison, his cousin.  

The blue car in this photograph is where Cluverius and Madison left the streetcar and walked south toward the Marshall Reservoir.

The two turned south and walked down the left side of Reservoir Street, passing what is now the School of Education and the Life Science building.  Hurrying because of the cold down the same sidewalk was Dr. Thomas Stratton, who overtook the pair.  The short woman said nothing, but the man turned suddenly toward Stratton and asked if this was the way to Marshall Reservoir.  Stratton said it was, and as he turned on Cary Street, Stratton watched the pair continue on toward the reservoir, and as it turned out, into infamy.   Within an hour the woman would be dead by the hands of the man walking with her, provoking one of the most famous Richmond murder cases of its time.

Dr. Stratton testified that he encountered Cluverius and Madison on this stretch of N. Harrison Street as the two walked to the Marshall Reservoir.

Cluverius was in trouble, and his entire life and respectability was on the point of being compromised by the woman beside him.  Lillian Madison was not only his cousin, but was eight months pregnant with his child.  The pair had had slept together the previous summer at her grandfather’s home and rendezvoused in hotels in the city on other occasions.  Madison had taken a job as a tutor in Bath County, hiding her condition, and agreed to meet her “Cousin Tommy” in Richmond, presumably to find an abortionist who could rid both of them of the increasingly urgent problem of her pregnancy. 

Thomas Cluverius and his cousin, Lillian Madison

The two cousins spent the day roaming the city under the direction of Cluverius, who although from rural King and Queen was familiar with the ways of the big city and futilely searching for someone to perform the abortion.  Witnesses later testified that the two were seen in places as varied as bars and later, a nail factory on Belle Isle.  Understandably, no one was willing at that late date in the pregnancy to assist the increasingly frantic pair. 

Cluverius was in an untenable position: a illegitimate child would ruin his reputation and his young law career which he had just established after graduating from Richmond College (then located in what is now the city's Fan District, the school would later move west into Henrico and become known as the University of Richmond).  It would also bring shame to his family and especially his aunt, Jane Tunstall, who took Cluverius into her home and paid for his education.  The fact the mother of his child was his cousin and related to Mrs. Tunstall only made matters worse.  Cluverius must have felt he had to do something to escape this situation, and drastic action was becoming the only course.

Much of the evidence from Cluverius’ murder trial still exists in the archives of the Library of Virginia, including this poignant note from Madison to Cluverius.  Never delivered, and later torn up by Madison and dropped in her hotel trash can, it reads, “I will be there as soon as possible so do wait for me.”

Madison, for her part, apparently loved her cousin or at least trusted him to get her out of her dilemma.  Perhaps she thought her worldlier lover and relative, well versed in the wicked ways of Richmond, could provide a solution and she could soon return to Bath County to recover.  Perhaps Cluverius told his cousin that they would “meet a man” at the Marshall Reservoir.  It seems the only explanation as to why she would accompany him in the cold and snow all the way out to that unlikely destination in what was then considered the far western reaches of the city.  The fact she would walk half a mile on a snowy and cold March night while so very pregnant speaks volumes about her desperation, and the trust she placed in her cousin, Tommy.

 Map showing location of the Marshall Reservoir, Reservoir Street
(now Harrison) and Beverly Street (now Idlewood Ave.).

As Cluverius and Madison continued south, the houses became fewer along Reservoir Street.  They passed over what is now the Downtown Expressway.  To their left, above the leafless trees of Hollywood Cemetery, the stone pyramid of the Confederate monument was silhouetted against low clouds, reflecting the gas lights of downtown Richmond.  Beyond the pyramid, houselights could be glimpsed, and the smell of wood smoke was in the air from the chimneys of Oregon Hill that spoke of snug homes, warmth, and security.  In contrast, the black hunk of the earthen walls of the reservoir, lightly dusted with snow, loomed up in the distance, cheerless, dark, and foreboding. 

Marshall Reservoir, constructed in the early 1800s, was Richmond’s first municipal water source and still in use in 1885.  The reservoir and the surrounding area would have been familiar to Cluverius as it stood on the path used by Richmond College students on their way to swimming and fishing in the James River.  The facility consisted of a large rectangular brick-lined impoundment of water several hundred feet on each side, a keeper’s house, and a small formal garden beside the street and a gravel path along the top of the earth walls.  Marshall Reservoir stood on the small rise west of Hollywood Cemetery now occupied by Clarke Springs Elementary School, and was demolished in 1934.
Cluverius probably had to give Madison his arm to help her up the embankment, and the two then walked for some distance down the gravel path beside the still, black water of the reservoir.  His entire relationship with his young cousin had led inexorably to this night, and to this place.  Perhaps as other avenues had been eliminated and his options closed on him, one by one, the young lawyer had imagined that Madison’s suicide was his only way out of this predicament.  Since she didn’t seem inclined to do away with herself, the situation had to be engineered for her.  The idea that she would travel from Bath County to Richmond just to fling herself in the municipal reservoir in the middle of the night seemed improbable, but for Cluverius there was no time to develop a more sophisticated plan.

Later analysis of the two sets of tracks showed a struggle had taken place between the young man and the diminutive (she was less than five feet tall) and heavily pregnant girl on the gravel path at the top of the reservoir wall.  Cluverius punched Madison in the side of her head with his fist, and she fell backward, down the embankment and into the water, where a combination of her weakened and pregnant condition and the blow to the head killed her.  When her body was later examined, no water was in Madison’s lungs, but the mud from the bottom of the reservoir was found clenched in her fists.  The murderer was probably well on his way away from the scene before the ripples in the otherwise flat, onyx-colored cold water of the reservoir settled around the floating body of Lillian Madison, and were once again quiet.

 This was where Cluverius lived with his aunt and where police officers
from Richmond arrested him six days after the murder of Lillian Madison.

Fleeing Richmond and leaving many clues behind, Cluverius returned to his aunt’s home at the tiny crossroads of Little Plymouth in King and Queen County.  It was here, at his aunt’s house, “Cedar Lane,” that police officers from Richmond arrested the young lawyer, put him in a carriage, and delivered Cluverius to the Richmond Jail in Shockoe Bottom.  

 The Richmond Jail, where Cluverius was held for two years during his trials for the murder of Lillian Madison.  The site of the jail is now buried under Interstate 95 where it runs between downtown Richmond and Shockoe Bottom.

Throughout the city’s history, Richmond has consistently consigned certain types of activities to the Bottom, and before the Civil War the area had been home to the slave trading industry, a slave cemetery, as well as the municipal jail.  The jail was an ugly and windowless collection of various building stages, which began in the early 1800s.  It stood on Marshall Street, on the floor of the valley and tucked against the steep hill below the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU Medical Center).

The scene of Cluverius’ trial was the Hustings Court in the temporary
 Richmond City Hall.  It was the same low building in this photograph marked
“Home Office – Life Insurance Company of Virginia,”
on the block between Broad Street and Capitol Square.

Cluverius’ trial for murder began in the Hustings Court, located in a temporary City Hall.  Richmond was without a municipal headquarters ever since the elegant 1818 City Hall was demolished in 1874.  The resulting empty lot was used for public events until construction began there in 1887 on what we today know as “Old City Hall.”  In the meantime, the City used a low, one-story building at 911 East Broad Street, which housed the Hustings Court.

A Richmond Dispatch article includes a view of
the scene of the murder - click here to view the newspaper.

Throughout his trial, Cluverius remained absolutely implacable, always appearing polite and calm and consistently wearing the same gray suit to court.  The trial with its stoic murder and the doomed and pregnant victim drew national attention, and details of the trial received coverage in newspapers across America.  The evidence was overwhelming, and Cluverius was convicted of the murder of Lillian Madison.  Several appeals were filed over the following months, but the conviction was upheld despite a change in Virginia law after his trial which would have allowed Cluverius to testify in his own defense.  

The date of the execution was set, probably much to the disbelief of Cluverius.  Fresh from law school, he may have had such an abiding faith in the law that, if properly presented and skillfully managed, it could free him despite the blood on his hands.  He never confessed, never broke, never faltered throughout.  Indeed, by the time his trial and various appeals were complete, his aunt, brother, and other family members had all perjured themselves in his defense, so a confession from Cluverius would subject those who tried so hard to save him to prosecution (Mrs. Tunstall, the aunt, also paid for her nephew’s legal expenses).  As with his disastrous relationship with Madison, fate seemed to hold the young man firmly in its grip as he drew inexorably nearer the gallows.

 The rear of the Richmond jail in Shockoe Bottom, showing the
yard where Cluverius was executed January 14, 1887.

Because of the amphitheater-like topography of Shockoe Bottom, hundreds if not thousands of people witnessed the hanging of Thomas Cluverius on a scaffold constructed behind the Richmond jail on January 14, 1887.  In addition to those who stood on rooftops and looked down on the scene from the hillsides, a large crowd was admitted to the jail yard.  A great roar went out from the throng when Cluverius was brought outside into the winter sunshine of Shockoe Valley.  Mounting the scaffold, he said little other than a few words to his spiritual advisor.  A reporter standing nearby said Cluverius’ face was bright red with shame and fear as a black hood was placed over his head.  

From the Daily Times of Richmond, Jan. 15, 1887 - Read the article HERE.

Unfortunately for the condemned man, the Sheriff decided to use an innovative braided silk rope that did not break Cluverius’ neck on the drop, as was intended.  Instead, the bungee cord-like rope stretched and Cluverius slowly strangled to death.  A deputy had the uncomfortable duty of mounting the scaffold, putting a foot on each side of the trap and pulling the condemned man up a few feet as Cluverius thrashed about, since his feet were by then practically touching the ground.

This large magnolia tree marks the Tunstall family plot behind their former
house in King and Queen County and is the burial place of Thomas Cluverius.

Both the murderer and victim were believed to have been buried in unmarked graves due to the ignominy of their fates.  This isn’t true.  Cluverius’ body was claimed by his brother and returned to his aunt’s home in King and Queen County where he was arrested almost two years before, and buried in a family plot in the field behind the house.  Today, no marker other than a small cast-iron fence remains in the Tunstall burying ground, but an enormous magnolia tree guards the spot.  When that tree finally falls, the graves of one of Richmond’s most famous murderers and the anguished aunt who tried so hard to raise, educate, and defend him will probably vanish under the plow.

The grave of Lillian Madison in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Lillian Madison’s relatives buried her in Richmond, in Oakwood Cemetery.  The body of her unborn son, removed during autopsy, was placed in the coffin beside her.  Today, a group of walnut trees shade the Madison plot in a quiet corner of the old cemetery, and as the decades roll by, lush moss threatens to overtake the stone.  The soft white marble of her grave marker has weathered until it has become hard to read the dread date of her death on March 13, 1885. Likewise, the seasons are slowly erasing the name of the murdered girl which was once on the lips of so many people in Richmond, and which was spoken in such tones of sympathy and horror at her fate.

[Read more about the murder at the Chronicling America site which has digital versions of several Virginia  newspapers. Here is an article about the murder from the Shenadoah Herald, March 27, 1885 - the article is entitled "A Horrible Tragedy."]

- Selden Richardson


Ed Miller said...

I have a photo of my great-great-grandfather, Roscoe Dabney Chesterman, a policeman for the city of Richmond in 1885. The information in the family photo album states that Mr. Chesterman was one of two arresting officers in the Cluverius murder case. They had apparently staked out a jewelry store and waited for Cluverius to come in and purchase a replacement watch key. His original key had been found at the murder site. I can send a scanned copy of the photo if you're interested. Ed Miller

Lucie said...

Reading Milliken's novel of the case now. Fascinating.

jackmarie said...

I love to know about “Lillian Madison” but feel some sad when reminds about his murder. I am please having this kind of extraordinary information about “Lillian”. Thanks for sharing here the images also. It is a great help to me for my ‘Thesis’ work on over it.
famous murderers