On the morning of 14 March 1885, Lysander Rose, caretaker of the Old Reservoir in Richmond, went about his normal duties, but this morning would not be a typical one for Rose. As he approached the reservoir, Rose found what appeared to be a piece of broken shoe string, a woman’s red glove, and what he described as signs of a “desperate struggle.” When he peered over into the water, Rose saw “floating near the top the flounce or something of a woman’s dress and one leg jutting up.” After the coroner arrived, the muddy body of a young woman was lifted from the water. A cursory examination revealed that she had slight bruising on her face, a swollen mouth, and a rent in her gown at the elbow. Later, it would be discovered that she was also eight months pregnant. Several days and several false identifications passed before the body was finally identified as that of Fannie Lillian Madison.
At the time of her death, Lillian Madison, as she was commonly called by friends and family, was 23 years old, pregnant, and unmarried. Lillian had checked into the Exchange Hotel in Richmond under the name Fannie Merton mere days before her body was discovered. Lillian’s pregnancy (without the prospect of a husband) supported the coroner’s initial ruling of suicide, but as more evidence began to surface, the coroner was overruled and the cause of Lillian’s death was ruled a murder.
Within days of the body’s identification, Lillian’s cousin Thomas Judson Cluverius was arrested for the murder. Although they were cousins, Lillian Madison and Thomas Cluverius had very little in common. Lillian had a complicated past – she was estranged from her parents and had a history of scandal. Cluverius, however, was the poster child of middle-class normalcy – he was white, well educated, and well regarded in his community. Lillian grew up on her parents’ small farm in King William County. In October 1884, soon after learning she was pregnant, Lillian left for Bath County where she served as a teacher and governess. Thomas Cluverius, born in King William County, received a law degree from Richmond College and was practicing law in both King and Queen and King William Counties. Before his arrest, Cluverius was considered an upstanding citizen, but once the trial began, it was unclear if he was an innocent victim or a nefarious seducer and murderer.
It was soon discovered that Thomas Cluverius had also been in Richmond on 13 March 1885, and the case against Cluverius began to build when a young Richmond boy found a watch key caught on the fence leading to the reservoir. (Cluverius had been arrested wearing his watch and a chain but without a key.) The trial started on 5 May and would last until 4 June 1885. Two of the most damaging eyewitness accounts to Cluverius’s case were given by members of the community whose opinions and accounts would have been little regarded during the nineteenth century – a prostitute and an African American.
Mary Curtis testified that Cluverius had visited her at a “house of bad repute” where she was working as a prostitute and claimed to have seen the couple together in a bedroom located in the back of a Richmond cigar store. While she was able to identify Cluverius by sight, Curtis could only describe Lillian as being heavily veiled and wearing a dark colored dress. The only distinguishing feature on Lillian was her red shawl, an article of clothing that was used by several witnesses as proof that it was indeed Lillian with Cluverius and not some other woman.
One of the most detailed accounts of the couple’s activities came from William Tyler, an African American night watchman at the Exchange Hotel. According to Tyler, Cluverius visited the Exchange Hotel and asked to see the woman in room 19 – the very room that Lillian was staying in under the name Fannie Merton. When told that the lady was not in, Cluverius asked that a note be passed along to her – “I will be there as soon as possible, so do wait for me.” The note never reached Lillian, but was torn up and discarded only to be later reassembled by hotel employees and entered as evidence.
In the end, the jury was left to decide whether or not the long chain of circumstantial evidence was enough to prove Cluverius’s guilt. The jury was instructed that “proof of guilt by circumstantial evidence” did not require “an absolute and demonstrative certainty” but only a “moral certainty.” The jury certainly took these instructions to heart because Cluverius was convicted on the circumstantial evidence of a watch key, a torn note, and a handful of witnesses who testified to seeing the couple together on the day of the murder.
What makes this case so interesting is the doubt that still lingers over a hundred years later. We will never know what really happened to Lillian that night at the reservoir. Was it suicide? Possibly. Was she murdered? Maybe. Was Thomas Cluverius a vile seducer of women or was he merely another victim? These are just some of the many questions that have no easier answers today than they did in 1885. Despite several appeals, Thomas Cluverius was finally hanged for the murder of Lillian Madison on 14 January 1887. Cluverius would reportedly claim to the very end that, “I did not see F. L. Madison during the day and night of the 13th of March. That is all the ‘confession’ I have to make.”
Records related to the criminal trial can be found in the Commonwealth of Virginia versus Thomas J. Cluverius, 1885 (Barcode 1170946). The collection includes correspondence between Cluverius and Lillian (including a sexually explicit poem “On the Delaware”) showing the couple shared an intimate relationship, correspondence between Lillian and her aunt Jane Tunstall illustrating Lillian’s emotional state at the time of her death, a watch key similar to one supposedly owned by Cluverius, and photographs found in Lillian’s possession at the time of her death.
Want to hear more about the murder and the relationship between Thomas Cluverius and Lillian Madison? Come to the Library of Virginia for a book talk on Thursday, January 12, from 12:00-1:00, to hear John Milliken Thompson discuss his novel The Reservoir, which is based on these events.
-Bari Helms, Local Records Archivist