The Magazine

Founder's Killing

The strange death of a pioneering jurist.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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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.