The Magazine

Founder's Killing

The strange death of a pioneering jurist.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I Am Murdered

George Wythe, Thomas
Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation

by Bruce Chadwick

Wiley, 288 pp., $24.95

"Instead of haggling on half-way measures," George Wythe demanded an absolute break with Great Britain and root-and-branch revolution at home. He was one of the most erudite of the Founders, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Yet his greatest legacy was to the law, both as a jurist and a teacher. He later served as chancellor of Virginia's Chancery Court, a poorly remunerated post but one that allowed him to indulge his love for the law and to transmit that affection to generations of students.

As a new century dawned, this kindly old widower had become a familiar sight to the citizens of Richmond, the state capital. His hair had thinned and his aquiline nose seemed more prominent with age, but his intense blue eyes still sparkled as he tottered along the cobblestone streets, gold-headed cane in hand, dressed in an out-of-fashion black broadcloth coat, short pants, and silver shoe
buckles. He had lived to see his most famous pupil elected president of the Republic, and thus his murder in 1806 at the age of 80 struck Thomas Jefferson as "such an instance of depravity [as] has been hitherto known to us only in the fables of the poets."

Wythe's demise came on the heels of another outrage when a Virginia farmer hacked nine family members to death with an ax. Only five years before, panic over Gabriel's Rebellion had yielded its gruesome harvest of slaves judicially murdered for plotting to slay their masters. These earlier events fueled the belief that violent crime was on the upswing, and primed Richmonders to greet the circumstances of George Wythe's murder with horror. This is the context for the tale that the prolific writer Bruce Chadwick tells in his latest book.

On Sunday, May 25, 1806, Wythe took breakfast as usual from the hands of his free black housekeeper of many years, Lydia Broadnax. Shortly after, the chancellor doubled over in pain from acute and unrelenting gastric distress. The same symptoms prostrated Broadnax and Michael Brown, a free mixed-race youth who lived in the house and, according to some sources, was Broadnax's son. Others said he was Broadnax and Wythe's son. The old man lingered in agony for two weeks. Brown died before him; Broadnax recovered, her eyesight permanently impaired. Suspicion immediately fell on a fourth member of the household, Wythe's grandnephew and namesake.

George Wythe Sweeney and young men like him flocked to the bustling state capital, a boom town built on tobacco and slave trading. It was not the study of law that attracted Sweeney to his great uncle's house, however, but its proximity to the brothels and gambling dens down the hill in Shockoe Bottom. Wythe, of "dovelike simplicity and gentleness of manner," doted on the 18-year-old wastrel, who repaid kindness by forging his great uncle's name on checks to cover gambling debts. He also probably pawned law books and a missing terrestrial globe that the old man meant to bequeath to Jefferson. Wythe knew about Sweeney's thievery but discouraged his bankers from pressing charges.

On the Sunday morning in question, Sweeney ostentatiously drank a cup of coffee in front of Lydia Broadnax and hurriedly left the house. Just after he poured his coffee from the pot, she saw him toss a small white paper into the fire. It meant nothing to her at the time but in retrospect was "monstrous strange." A later search of Sweeney's room turned up a vial of arsenic.

A week after he was stricken, Wythe learned that Michael Brown had succumbed. As convulsions wracked his dehydrated body, the chancellor summoned his lawyer. Brown, though a freed slave, had stood to share much of Wythe's estate with Sweeney. Indeed, the chancellor's will asked the president of the United States to assume the care of Brown, whom Wythe was tutoring in the classics.

As friends gathered around his bed, he moaned "I am murdered!" but had the strength to dictate a codicil to his will. It disinherited Sweeney entirely. Wythe did not name his grandnephew as his killer; there was no need.

Two days after Wythe fell ill, the feckless Sweeney forged his name on one more check. He dumbfounded the magistrate who arraigned him by asking that the dying Wythe post bond. Sweeney was thus already in jail for forgery when Wythe died, and he remained there until charged with murder.

The city of Richmond decreed trappings of public mourning more effusive than those observed at the death of George Washington seven years before. Wythe's remains lay in state in the gleaming new capitol designed by
Jefferson, the first neoclassical building in America. Another Wythe protégé, William Munford, delivered an affecting eulogy that, toward the end, startled his audience by denouncing Sweeney without naming him.

Even if Munford had not condemned Sweeney publicly, few citizens doubted the young man's guilt. Gossip mongers speculated about who would be foolish enough to defend such a heinous criminal.

Rising attorney William Wirt doubted Sweeney's innocence, but that hardly set him apart from his usual clients. Wirt had pointedly shunned George Wythe's example, joking that he might otherwise "grow old in judicial honors and Roman poverty." Honor, he quipped, "will not go to market and buy a peck of potatoes." And so he made a name for himself defending rogues like Sweeney. Indeed, he needed Sweeney: If he could exonerate him, he might wipe clean the public humiliation of his last case, a spectacularly failed defense of a gutter journalist.

Even more astonishingly, Edmund Randolph joined Wirt for the defense. He had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, governor of Virginia, and Washington's attorney general. But he resigned in disgrace, accused of influence peddling, and earned Washington's wrath for subsequent disloyalty. Considered a waffler by some--Jefferson called him "the purest chameleon I ever saw"--Randolph, like Wirt, sought vindication in the courtroom.

But how could he defend Sweeney? He had been one of the first to rush to his old friend's deathbed. Indeed, Randolph was the lawyer who wrote Sweeney out of the will at Wythe's dying request.

Wirt and Randolph hated one another but put that aside for the moment and yoked themselves to Sweeney in hopes of an improbable courtroom victory. It would be improbable because, by then, the whole city knew the sordid details, how the dissolute Sweeney repeatedly betrayed his great uncle, how they found arsenic in his room, how he would inherit even more once Michael Brown was out of the way (though, in this last detail, the rumors were out of date).

The most eminent doctors in Virginia had examined Wythe. The lead physician, James McClurg, enjoyed an international reputation and an ego to match. He doubted Wythe's insistence that he had been poisoned. He thought, instead, that his symptoms suggested cholera--despite the fact that cholera had not yet made an appearance in America.

Then, on the witness stand, McClurg speculated that a buildup of black bile could have killed Wythe, not cholera, and probably not arsenic. Two colleagues agreed. They conceded arsenic might have been the cause, but they could not be sure. In fact, they had botched the autopsy: They had not conducted standard tests available to them for detecting arsenic and focused on black bile found in both Wythe's and Michael Brown's bodies. The fact that stomach inflammation and a build-up of bile occurred with arsenic poisoning seemed not to have troubled them. The doctors, Chadwick concludes, transformed the case into "a colossal medical and forensic nightmare."

There was still the testimony of Lydia Broadnax to sway the jury against Sweeney. She was proof that George Wythe had been no hypocrite about slavery. He opposed it on moral grounds, urged legislation against it, and decided court cases against slaveholders' rights. Long before, he had freed his slaves, including Broadnax, who remained with him as a devoted housekeeper.

The jury, however, never heard from Broadnax for a simple, straightforward, and racist reason. Under Virginia law, the word of an African American could not be used in court against a white person. Nor could any white witness be called to repeat her statement collected by the preliminary investigation. The doctors' inept performance and the inadmissibility of Broadnax's testimony doomed the prosecution, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Not convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, the jury opted for acquittal.

Yet amid public shock at the verdict, the Richmond Examiner admitted it was the law banning the testimony of blacks against whites that freed Sweeney. When Wythe and Jefferson had radically reformed Virginia's statutes in the middle of the revolution, Wythe had let that ban stand. Three decades later it enabled his murderer to escape the hangman.

Bruce Chadwick is a competent and experienced writer, with numerous historical accounts to his credit. It is unfortunate, then, that he stumbles occasionally in small matters. For example, he describes the Virginia capitol as a Greek temple built of white marble. It is, in fact, stuccoed brick, Jefferson's paean in humble masonry to the Roman temple in Nîmes.

Moreover, Chadwick's narrative sometimes awkwardly loops back on itself, the fault of oddly sequenced chapters on earlier periods in Wythe's and Jefferson's lives. And the author indulges in too many shorter digressions: lurid tales of arsenic poisonings, the spread of cholera, and the body snatchers who supplied corpses to medical schools. Diverting as these anecdotes may be, they militate against a taut unfolding of the main story. Chadwick also struggles with an apparent shortage of key primary sources. For example, we never hear directly from the defendant. Presumably nothing in his own words survives to give that vital dimension of the story its own voice.

After acquitting Sweeney of Wythe's murder, the court dropped the same charge concerning Brown and convicted Sweeney of forgery. It sentenced him to six months in jail and an hour in the public pillory. He still escaped punishment. The law, his attorneys discovered, left a loophole regarding bank forgery, a loophole that his case goaded the legislature to close. Sweeney himself soon disappeared, like thousands of other restless young men, into the wilds of the frontier West, and nothing more was heard of him.

Despite Chadwick's shortcomings as a narrator, he has rescued from obscurity a once-celebrated murder case involving a Founding Father in the tumultuous early years of the Republic--another world, now long past, foreign in so many ways to our sensibilities, yet peopled with familiar human appetites and frailties. The story calls to mind the words of the British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan: "The poetry of history," he mused, "lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow."

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.