What’s the Verdict?
Candlelight Theatre Production’s “The Trial of Nancy Clem” Coming In July
Writer: Suzanne Huntzinger
Many of us could probably name at least a handful of sensational murder trials, some of which captivated the nation, even some that were local. Believe it or not, Indianapolis was the scene of the Cold Spring Murders, one of the most gruesome double murders back in 1868.
A true story about the double murder of an Indianapolis couple, “The Trial of Nancy Clem,” a Candlelight Theatre Production, sets the stage for the murders and follows the sensational trials of three accused suspects. The production runs July 20-21 and July 27 and 29 at the Cook Theater.
Guests are sure to get an authentic historical experience at “The Trial of Nancy Clem.” Although most of Candlelight Theatre’s productions are staged in the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, this production will be at the Cook Theater, 1201 Central Avenue, Indianapolis, just a short walk from the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. The venue has just as much of a historical vibe as the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, but it’s got the extra space needed to host this full-length play.
The adaptation, written by playwright James Trofatter, captures the scene of the murders of Jacob and Nancy Jane Young, 150 years ago. A crime from that long ago hardly seems relevant, but this play offers some shocking details you never would have imagined possible in post-Civil War Indianapolis. The victims, the Youngs, were found the next day along the White River in Cold Spring. Both had been shot, and Mrs. Young’s body had been burned. Three business associates of the Youngs were quickly found and accused. But the most scandalous part of this tale is that one of the three suspects was a woman. That’s right, one of the three accused suspects was Nancy Clem, Indianapolis’ first female ever accused of murder.
Two of the three accused suspects, William Abrams and Silas Hartman (Clem’s brother) were found guilty and imprisoned. But, all historical accounts reflect that Clem never served time for the murders of which she was accused. She did, however, endure four trials before it was over, and much of the mystery behind the story remains unsolved.
Candlelight Theatre’s Creative Director and Geist resident, Donna Wing, plays Clem in the production. Wing is a local actress who founded Candlelight Theatre in 2004. Candlelight Theatre is a group of 22 men and women who put on productions in the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. Their productions often revolve around historical events, given their venue, and the group often performs mysteries in the theater during Halloween.
“We’ve done short story mysteries before involving the tale of the Cold Spring Murders,” Wing says. “I’ve played the role of Nancy Clem before, but never from this perspective. This is a full-length play, so we have the time to delve into the details of the story, and this time, we get to see it from Nany’s point of view.”
Although Wing has played Clem in smaller productions of the story, she actually wasn’t interested in playing the role this time at first. “I didn’t want to play Nancy this time. I’d always played her from a witness’s perspective, and that’s always come with a presumption of guilt there,” she says. “But I was the most familiar with her character, so I studied her more and embraced the role.”
Exploring Clem’s possible innocence is just one of the intriguing aspects of the play. The play brings into focus the role played by a famous Hoosier. Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States, was co-counsel for the prosecution on Clem’s first trial and lead counsel on the subsequent three.
“Guests will get a flavor of the style that made the orator such a successful lawyer,” Wing says. “Harrison gave long, persuasive speeches. You’ll see how Harrison elevated this 25-day trial into the trial of the century and nationwide spectacle.”
“The Trial of Nancy Clem” offers more than just a historical account of the crime and the ensuing trials. It also weaves in the differences between women in post-Civil War society and modern society. Clem was a business lady. She became involved in a borrowing and lending business (much like a Ponzi scheme in modern times). Clem’s involvement in business handed her a black mark in society from the start because most women of that era centered their lives around their duties as a housewife. But, that certainly didn’t prove her guilt in the murders. You will be surprised at the volume of circumstantial evidence presented against Clem.
“This play will make you sit back and think what if maybe, just maybe, Clem was innocent,” Wing says.
No matter what you decide about Clem’s guilt or innocence, you can’t miss out on “The Trial of Nancy Clem.” Tickets are on sale now at bhpsite.org.