Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.
On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.
On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)
From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.
Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.
We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.
ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?
JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.
Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.
Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.
That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.
I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?
In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.
The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?
That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.
And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?
Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.
Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?
That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.
I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.
What are you working on next?
I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.
Thanks for inviting me on your blog.
* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.