Book Reviews

Virginia’s Murder Trial of the 19th Century

Cluverius V. The Commonwealth, A Novel Based on True Characters and Events

Publisher: Self Published, available through Amazon

Author: D.N. Wilson

Reviewer: Ralph Peluso, Literary Editor

Zebra Rating – 4 Stripes

ALEXANDRIA,VA- On Friday, March 13, 1885, Thomas Judson Cluverius killed his cousin and lover, Fanny Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child. The Columbus Daily Enquirer called this an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.”

From their illicit affair to the scandalous crime and a damning final piece of evidence—a lost watch key found at the site of the murder—everything made dramatic headlines, throughout Virginia and nationwide, from the time of the crime through the trial two months later.

Cluverius insisted upon his innocence. He gained support from favorable public opinion. Hundreds of Virginians tried to save the condemned man, literally to the last hour, and he maintained hope as the drama of a possible gubernatorial reprieve played out. Nevertheless, Cluverius was hanged.

D.J. Wilson’s first novel, based on the facts of this 135-year-old case, takes us through this provocative tale of the “kissing cousins,” from the discovery of the Lillian Madison’s body in the Old Marshall Reservoir through the events of the rushed trial.

This book is not only about the intrigue of a murder trial; it is 83 days of Richmond history. It’s replete with all the elements of a great story: forbidden love, sex, murder (perhaps multiple murders), lasciviousness, lying, cheating, witness tampering, corruption. All juxtaposed with honor, duty, perseverance, loyalty, and adherence to the law. And it takes place under the scrutiny of a voracious local and national press.

Richmond was only 20 years removed from the devastation of the Civil War, trying to heal and to find a post bellum identity. The story is considered in the context of Virginia’s long history of victories and losses, achievement and failure, morality and immorality. D. N. Wilson brings to light the conflicts and choices that men and women in those times faced: war and peace, law and order, the role of the federal government, sectionalism, social pressures, race, and corruption. The author views these issues as important to continual renewal and redefinition of the “American Experiment.”

The author’s view of these historical events, including his own research, did not go unnoticed, even drawing inflammatory comments on his conclusions. This is a terrific read for history buffs and those with more than a casual interest in Virginia history. A solid 4 Zebra stripes.

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