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Episode 87 Watery Grave The Mysterious Death of Fannie Madison

On March 14,1885, the body of Fannie Madison was recovered from the Marshall Reservoir in Richmond, Virginia. Police quickly arrested Fannie’s cousin Thomas Cluverius who was believed to be the father of her unborn child. Did Thomas murder his cousin? Did Fannie take her own life? Or did someone else have motive to kill her?

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The Old Marshall Reservoir was constructed in Richmond in the early 1880s. It no longer exists but in 1885 the reservoir was situated on six acres near the James River. The area consisted of a brick lined facility that housed water along with the reservoir keeper’s house and a small garden behind the street and path that led to the top of the walls surrounding the grounds.

Map showing location of the Marshall Reservoir, Reservoir Street
Photo Source: The Shockoe Examiner

On the morning of March 14, 1885, reservoir keeper, Lysander Rose, was making his rounds when he saw a broken shoestring and a red glove on an embankment near the water. As he looked around he noticed two sets of footprints on a nearby muddy path. Lysander assumed some sort of struggle had taken place on the grounds. 

As he looked out across the reservoir he did a double take when he saw something floating in the water. He called in his work men who pulled from the water the lifeless body of a young woman who was noticeably pregnant. 

When the coroner examined the body he noted she had not been in the water long and there were signs of an assault. She had bruises on her face, a swollen mouth and her dress was torn near the elbow. The coroner ruled she drowned and determined she was eight months pregnant with a baby boy at the time of her death. 

The young lady wore no wedding ring which made the coroner wonder if she was perhaps an unwed mother who had been shamed and taken her own life. 

On March 17th, a woman met with the coroner, viewed the body and identified the body that had been pulled from the reservoir as her cousin, 23 year old Fannie Lillian Madison. 

Police learned just days before Fannie’s lifeless body was found in the reservoir, she had checked into Richmond’s Exchange Hotel under the name Fannie Merton. The more the coroner learned about the circumstances surrounding Fannie’s final days the more he questioned his initial belief that she had taken her own life. 

In the end, the coroner ruled Fannie had been murdered.

Richmond police quickly arrested a suspect in her murder…the man believed to be the father of her child…her cousin, Thomas Judson Cluverius. 

The grave of Lillian Madison in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery
Photo Source: Find A Grave

Newspapers across the country followed the story of the murder of Fannie Madison and the sensational rumors and details of her life and that of her cousin, Thomas. There was a lot to write about but there’s a fine line between the truth and what actually made it into the papers and into the courtroom.

The best place to start is with the complicated family dynamics and the relationship between Thomas and Fannie.

Thomas Cluverius

Thomas Cluverius was born in King William County Virginia, an area northeast of Richmond, on August 10, 1861. He was one of three children raised on the family farm in the community of Walnut Hill. Cluveruis described his childhood as untroubled and care-free. 

His father made a decent living but when Thomas expressed interest in studying law he told his son he could not pay for his education. When Thomas was 15 years old, he and his older brother William went to live with their uncle and aunt, Samuel and Jane Tunstall, in the village of Little Plymouth in nearby King and Queen County.

A few months later Samuel passed away. His widowed and childless wife inherited his estate and offered to help Thomas and William with their education, ensuring Thomas could fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.

While living in Little Plymouth, Thomas attended Olivet Baptist Church and in 1877  he made a profession of faith and was baptized. Thomas was faithful in his service to the church, teaching Sunday school and serving as the Assistant Superintendent.

By 1880, Thomas was studying law at Richmond College. When he graduated in 1882, he returned to his aunt’s home and established a successful law practice in Little Plymouth. 

His reputation was stellar with one of his fellow parishioners saying of Thomas Cluverius: “I look upon him, as one of the most correct, straightforward, and Christian young men in my whole acquaintance.”

Fannie Madison

Fannie Madison’s upbringing was less peaceful than the life Thomas had known. 

Born in Virginia in 1862, Fannie was one of eight children raised on her family’s farm. Her parents, Charles and Lucy, struggled to put food on the table. Fannie dreamed of following her friends to boarding school but her family could not afford to send her away. This drove a wedge between Lillian and her parents and was a constant source of arguments between them.

In an effort to help Fannie, who no longer wanted to stay with her parents, Fannie’s Aunt Jane Tunstall invited her to stay in her home in Little Plymouth where she could attend public school. This is where Fannie and Thomas’s worlds intersect. They were cousins whose aunt cared deeply for both of them. 

Jane Tunstall offered to cover the tuition for Fannie to attend Dr. Garlick’s Burlington Academy. Fannie’s parents were uncomfortable with this but in the end agreed and accepted the gift. When Aunt Jane offered to pay for a second year, Fannie’s parents said no.

The already tense relationship between Fannie and her parents was made worse by their refusal to accept Jane’s offer. Fannie eventually returned home where her parents told her she was to have no association with her Aunt Jane again.

Jane Tunstall Home
Photo Source: The Shokoe Examiner

The Madisons and the Tunstalls were at odds. Fannie and her parents were at odds and by some accounts, Fanny was suffering abuse at the hands of her father. By the time she turned twenty-one, Fannie Madison left home for good.

She moved to Bath, Virginia where she stayed with her uncle John Walker and worked as a teacher. Fannie’s decision to move in with her uncle infuriated her father and drove a wedge between him and his brother in law. Charles Madison would refer to Jane Tunstall and John Walker as “bitter enemies who destroyed the family”. 

Tension was high between the Tunstallls, Walkers and Madisons but in 1884 a close friendship was forming between Fannie and Thomas. That summer Thomas stayed in the home of John Walker and he and Fannie spent a lot of time together. One friend noted the two seemed quite attached.

In January 1885, Fannie and Thomas were seen together at a hotel in Richmond where they allegedly shared a room. The day before Fannie Madison died, witnesses claimed to see the cousins together in Richmond. 

Detectives spoke to witnesses who claimed they saw Thomas Culverius and Fannie Madison walking down Reservoir Street. Dr. Thomas Stratton said a man matching Thomas’s description stopped him on the street to ask if they were headed in the right direction to get to Marshall Reservoir. The woman with him didn’t say anything but he did remember she was a petite and noticeably pregnant. (Note: Fannie was 4’11”)

There were other sightings of the couple which led police to believe Thomas Cluverius was concerned his life would be ruined when people learned of his relationship with Fannie and their unborn child. They theorized Thomas chose to eliminate both of his problems by murdering Fannie. 

Police had theories, a few pieces of potential evidence and a mountain of circumstantial evidence leading them to believe Thomas had killed Fannie. When a cornoners inquest handed down a murder indictment against Thomas Cluverius, Richmond police arrested him at his Aunt Jane’s home.

Word of the arrest sent shockwaves through the community who knew Thomas as a wholesome and respectable man. Hearing rumors that he was the father of his unwed cousin’s baby and he may have murdered her to cover up the shame of it all was very hard for his friends and parishioners to believe.

The case against Thomas Cluverius was circumstantial and there were front page stories about Thomas and Fannie just about every day in local and regional newspapers. 

Folks in Richmond seemed split over whether or not Thomas was guilty. Many were convinced Fannie had the weight of the world on her shoulders and knew the road would be hard for her as a single unwed mother…and she took her own life. 

This made seating a jury of 12 men…very difficult.

The first jury pool was made up of about 200 people…of which only four were selected for the jury. The judge had to call in a new jury pool from Alexandria for screenings and selection of the final jurors.

By the time of the trial in Richmond’s Hustings Courtroom on May 5, 1885…the story of Fannie’s murder was national news.

The prosecution’s opening arguments showed the heart of their case against Thomas was to prove he was living a double life and had a deviant side. Publicly he was a beloved young lawyer and man of faith while privately he was alleged to have visited prostitutes and was so driven by his sexual desire that he crossed lines and engaged in a sexual relationship with his cousin Fannie. Their child, born out of incest, would have ruined his career and his entire life.

The defense countered saying there was no proof of a relationship between the cousins. They called witnesses who cast doubt on the witness accounts of sightings of the cousins the night Fannie died and presented evidence that police ignored other potential suspects. Fannie’s Aunt Jane Tunstall was also called to the stand to testify about letters Fannie had written to her that revealed she had contemplated taking her own life.

There’s so much more to the story that’s still debated 136 years on…did Thomas Cluverius murder Fannie Madison? Listen to the whole story in the new episode and decide for yourself.


Cluverius, Thomas J.. Cluverius: My life, trial and conviction. Richmond, Va.: S.J. Dudley, 1887.

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.

Kissing Cousins. Murder by Gaslight. December 4, 2010, 

A Woman’s Watery Grave. Richmond Dispatch. March 15, 1885. 

Fannie Madison’s Death. The New York Times. March 20, 1885

Lillian Madison Buried. The New York Times. March 21, 1885

The Reservoir Tragedy. Richmond Dispatch. March 31, 1885

Firm To The Bitter End. The Norfolk Virginian. January 20, 1887


Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.

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