I just finished reading The Reservoir: A Novel by John Thompson. Published in 2011, this is the fictional account of the trial and conviction of Thomas J. Cluverius, a true crime story that made headlines in 1885. I love reading about the history that happened in our backyards and I enjoy reading novels based on the history.
I read it after listening to Episode 87 Watery Grave The Mysterious Death of Fannie Madison of the Southern Mysteries podcast. Even Thomas J. Cluverius published a book, Cluverius, My Life, Trial and Conviction in 1887 while he was in jail. He writes, “I crave the poor privilege of telling my own story in my own way” (Cluverius 3). So often such stories are focused on the criminals not the victims.
What also continued to bother me each time I found another post about the murder and trial was that the same picture of F. Lillian Madison’s grave was used for each and every piece. Had no one gone out to the grave?
Visiting a grave is one way I connect with a story. So, I went searching for Lillian.finding her grave was a bit of a challenge but it shouldn't be for you since I added the GPS coordinates on Find A Grave.
I first went out to the cemetery on June 24th but I didn’t have the grave location and the cemetery is 176 acres. I walked around the cemetery for a few hours going off a lead that the grave was under a tree. I think I went to every tree in the cemetery except the one where she is actually buried. I called the cemetery the next day to see if they could give me any information about her father’s grave, which is a larger stone and I figured that I would have a better chance of spotting it. I returned to the cemetery on the 26th, the day before her birthday. Even with the lot number, the cemetery sections are not well-marked so I wandered and just when I had given up, I felt drawn to walk over to look at something cool. That’s when I saw her father’s grave… and there was her grave at the furthest point of the family plot tucked next to a tree. Her grave is right behind her father’s and that, to me, is probably the saddest part of a sad, sad story. I’m reading this from the perspective of 2021 but in her letters, Lillian Madison wanted more than what her parents wanted for her; she had so much potential and she felt abused. She just wanted to be away and have her own life. In death, her body remains with the family from whom she tried to distance herself.
Lillian first attended public school in the Manquin school district of King William. Demonstrating that she was an intelligent young woman, she was removed from public school and received private tutoring by Miss Nannie Price. She then moved to her great aunt’s home near Little Plymouth where Jane Tunstall, a wealthier family member, helped Lillian afford to be taught by Miss Mary Bland. Lillian then attended Bruington Academy for a short time. She was said to be “the model girl” of the school and was praised for “her kind ways and studious habits [which] caused her teacher and classmates to love her and refer to her in terms of highest praise.” (“The Reservoir Tragedy,” Richmond Dispatch, March 31, 1885).
|Fannie Lillian Madison, circa 1883.|
From correspondence, it appears that her father felt that Lillian should live in the area where she grew up and become a wife; Lillian had bigger dreams and these did not mesh well with the expectations of Virginia women in the 1880s or her immediate family’s plans for her.
In 1881, Lillian had moved to her maternal grandfather’s home to live. In letters to Jane Tunstall, she writes that she had “suffered” and had been “abused.” She writes, “what a terror my life is…if suicide were not a sin how soon the lingering spark of my life would vanish” (Trotti 48). Her words would be used against her years later after she had perished.
In 1884, she planned to go to Bath County where she hoped to earn a living. She found a position of governess in the home of Mrs. Dickinson. She arrived on October 10th (“The Reservoir Tragedy,” Richmond Dispatch, March 31, 1885). From an outward appearance, life seemed to be improving for Lillian; yet, she had a secret that would not be revealed until her death.
She was killed on Friday the 13th of March in 1885. Her body, which was with child, was found in The Marshall reservoir, which in 1885 was just west of Hollywood Cemetery. The Clark’s-Spring property included a 16 acre Small-Pox Hospital and grounds. The area around the old reservoir was renovated into a public park and became a popular destination for young people to visit in the late 1870s and 1880s. Although the reservoir grounds were closed at night and the surrounding gates were locked, it was not difficult to access (“The Reservoir Tragedy,” Richmond Dispatch, March 31, 1885). Immediate speculations were that she had killed herself because of her situation (being pregnant and unmarried) but her cousin, who was also a lover, was apprehended.She is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond just a few feet away from her father. Her coffin was “of neater appearance [and] more elaborate finish” included a coffin plate inscription “At Rest” (“The Plot Thickens. Law Officers on the Trail,” Richmond Dispatch, March 19, 1885).
There’s always a bit of victim-blaming in these true crime pieces. Here’s a woman in 1885 who is pregnant and unmarried. She must be the naughty one. From her letters, her relationship with her family was not a positive one. In The Reservoir: A Novel by John Thompson, the fictional character Lillian is part seductress and part free-spirit. The author expands on the family conflict by including that Lillian was raped by her father. With her words of reported abuse from her own letters, I cannot imagine being able to rest in peace with one’s abuser just feet away.
The fictional character of Thomas Cluverius in Thompson’s book is presented in a way that readers might sympathize with him. In real life, many Richmonders did. Thomas Cluverius, Lillian Madison’s cousin, was an up-and-coming lawyer. He had attended Richmond College and graduated in 1882. By all means, he had his life ahead of him. The jury saw through all that promise and while much of the evidence was circumstantial, he was convicted and executed on January 14, 1887.
Her marker is located behind her father's grave, D-B 20-4. On the map, it’s the top point of that section. If you’re at the corner of Bright Horizon Loop and Lee Drive, go up the hill and she’s under the tree.
|Old map of Oakwood Cemetery|
Thomas J. Cluverius, Cluverius: My life, trial and conviction. Richmond: S.J. Dudley, 1887.
John M. Thompson, The Reservoir: A Novel. New York: Other Press, 2011.
Micheal Ayers Trotti, The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Commonwealth of Virginia versus Thomas J. Cluverius, 1885. Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.
The Murder of Lillian Madison, 1885. The Shockoe Examiner. June 18, 2010.
A Woman’s Watery Grave. Richmond Dispatch. March 15, 1885.
The Reservoir Tragedy. Richmond Dispatch. March 31, 1885.
Portrait: Fannie Lillian Madison, circa 1883. (Commonwealth of Virginia versus Thomas J. Cluverius, 1885)