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Friday the 13th: What happened 130 years ago dubbed Richmond’s crime of the century

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Along a winding stretch of Route 14, 50 miles outside Richmond in King and Queen County, at the end of Cedar Lane, sitting under a towering magnolia and just steps from Vernice Dabney’s back door, you’ll find the rusted, final resting place of one of the most notorious killer’s in Virginia History.

Thomas Cluverius was a respected and well groomed attorney.

“I wasn’t really aware that the gravesite was there really,”said Vernice Dabney.

“Tommy seemed like a very sweet innocent guy. He was a Sunday school teacher. He was a lawyer. Soft spoken. He was polite,” said Charlottesville based writer John Milliken Thompson.

But the straight laced man, so full of promise, was hiding a dark secret.

Thompson says Cluverius was in love with Lilly Madison who happened to be the attorney’s cousin. The pair would carry on a torrid affair and exchange steamy letters and rendezvousing when they could.

“People were just riveted by this case,” said Thompson. “This is an age old story of lust, betrayal and revenge and search for justice.”

In the summer of 1884 Lilly would become pregnant. Setting in motion a series of events -- the likes of which were never before seen in the River City.

Historian Selden Richardson says the couple’s closeted romance takes an unexpected turn.

“He lured her to Richmond with a promise of being able to fix this somehow,” explained Richardson. “He became more and more desperate.”

The young lawyer hatches a sinister plan.

“She even said I think something bad is going to happen to me there,” said Thompson. “It just takes an instant. A bad decision and your life is ruined.”

On a bone chilling night, in March of 1885, witnesses see Lillian walking with a man near Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

It was a Friday the 13th. It would be the last time Lillian Madison was seen alive.

“She received a blow on the side of her head that may have been enough to kill her,” said Richardson.

The next morning a caretaker finds Lillian’s body floating in the Old City Reservoir.

“It was discovered that she had the mud from the bottom of the reservoir clenched in her hands,” said Richardson.

Investigators would rule out suicide.

“There were two sets of footprints. Two different sizes apparently,” said Thompson.

Suspicion soon turns to Cluverius. He is arrested and charged with murder.

“The news of this violent murder. The scandal. The pregnant girl. The disgraced young lawyer. I think it hit Richmond really hard,” said Richardson.

Newspapers from Boston to Britain would carry stories of the riveting trial.

“This case garnered huge amounts of attention. I compared it to the OJ case,” Thompson said.

But Cluverius vehemently denied the charges.

“Cluverius built this façade of innocence and calm,” Richardson said.

Prosecutors would introduce damaging evidence like a watch key found at the crime scene, a note written by Lillian to Thomas and Lillian’s red shawl found near the crime scene, but no hard evidence linking Cluverius to the killing.

“Was he there? We don’t know,” said Thompson.

It would not matter. Following a lengthy trial, a jury convicted Cluverius purely on circumstantial evidence -- one of the first examples in Virginia history.
“I think Lillian Madison was above all a victim betrayal of trust,” said Richardson.

The judge would sentence the attorney to death for killing his cousin.

“They wanted to see him. They wanted to see his face,” said John Thompson.

On the morning of Jan. 14, 1887 thousands of Richmonders, thirsty for revenge, would circle the jail yard in Shockoe Bottom to witness the execution.

“People were up on telephone poles. Up on rooftops all across the city just to try to get a view of this,” Thompson explained.

Thomas Cluverius would be hanged for the heinous crime.

“Tell the people back home I bear them no ill will,” said Thompson. “Those were his final words.”

A cheer erupted when he was pronounced dead.

“He maintained his innocence to the very end,” added Richardson.

But almost immediately questions surrounding his guilt would surface.

“I think he did something. ‘What?’ is the question,” said Thompson. “I don’t see him as this evil, calculated, scheming killer.”

Was Lillian’s kind-hearted cousin, the man who led Bible studies, responsible for her death? John Thompson would pen, The Reservoir a book based on the riveting case.

“Whether he killed her or not we will never know,” Thompson said.

Thompson asks how could Cluverius be convicted with so little evidence?

“You can sift through it all and decide he was very guilty. The next day you come back and look at more evidence and say ‘Maybe not,’” Thompson explained.

In the eyes of the law Cluverius was culpable.

“I think Lillian Madison was above all a victim betrayal of trust,” said Richardson. “Oh, I absolutely think he did it.”

Richardson says the Cluverius’ prosecution was an air tight case from the beginning.

Page McLemore with King and Queen County Historical Society said, “It does sound like fiction. He was lost to our history. But he has been brought back now. I think that was a story that did not get passed down through the generations.”

What really happened that frigid Friday the 13th in 1885? The answers may have gone to the thorn covered grave in Vernice Dabney’s yard so long ago.

“By him being out there he is not going to do any harm by me,” said Dabney. “I just made up my mind that the dead is dead.”

Much of the evidence of the trial still exists at the Library of Virginia, 130 years after the crime.

Lillian Madison was buried with her baby in Oakwood Cemetery in the east end of Richmond.