The Curious Death of George Wythe: “I Am Murdered!”

Submitted by Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Author’s note: This is my third submission about events of historical significance following pieces about George Washington and The Boston Tea Party. It is quite lengthy and for that I apologize, but the story and the people involved are both larger-than-life and fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading  this history as much as I do writing about it.

Clutching the mahogany bannister of his elegant  home located in the Shockoe neighborhood of Richmond’s River District, the old man haltingly descended the steps. Sweating profusely, and  doubling up in pain, he could not even summon the energy to cry out. Almost falling numerous times, the  ‘father of American  jurisprudence,”  finally reached the kitchen only to find his freed-slave housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax, and her son, Michael Brown, writhing in distress and afflicted with the same intestinal ailment. Hours later when one of the triumvirate of Richmond’s elite medical establishment would arrive, the Judge would purposefully sit-up in his bed to declare, “I am murdered.” It was May 25, 1806. Fourteen agonizing days and numerous repetitions of the charge later, that prediction would come true.

Member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence; intellectual “Father of  the Bill of Rights”; mentor to Thos. Jefferson, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and John Marshall; America’s first professor of law;  Virginia’s foremost classical scholar and innovator in legal education; and designer of the Great Seal of Virginia, Judge George Wythe was arguably the most powerful figure in American law for a generation.  Now doubled up in pain, the Chancellor of Virginia’s venerable and influential High Court of the Chancery, desperately needed medical help. Strangely, both his loyal housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax, and a her son, a 16-year-old mulatto to whom the abolitionist Judge had offered refuge and counsel, were  stricken at the exact same time with the crippling  malady that caused their bowels to seize, and their bodies to convulse. Only Judge Wythe’s ne’ er-do-well grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, seemed unaffected. Sweeney was a frequent, if uninvited, guest in the Judge’s home. Young, reckless, larcenous, and an admitted drunk and gambler, Sweeney’s presence was tolerated by the Judge  as much out of family loyalty as his affection for young people wrought by the loss of  his infant son, and the childless union of his second marriage.

The Judge’s household was an odd collection by Virginia standards.  Becoming disgusted with slavery, the Judge had freed Lydia Broadnax two decades earlier, but the former slave remained as a paid house servant. Her teenage son, Michael Brown, was the last in a long line of the Judge’s scholarly  protegé’s beginning with the Thomas Jefferson. As with Brown, the Judge had served as a “second father” and mentor to the future president while he studied law with Wythe.  Jefferson would “read the law” for five years in Williamsburg, though the normal course of study was just one year. 

The collaboration was never far from Jefferson’s mind. In October 1776, he chose Judge Wythe along with, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason and Robert Ludwell Lee  to assist him in the monumental job of revising and amending the Virginia Code in just three years. During that process, the committee would seriously consider scrapping Virginia’s 1732 law forbidding negroes from giving testimony against white persons in Virginia courts.  Refusing to excise the discriminatory law, Jefferson would lament, ” the public mind would not yet bear the proposition.” Later, Jefferson would use his influence to have Wythe appointed as America’s first professor of law at The College of William & Mary, where he would regale his students with unorthodox teaching methods like  the use of moot courts and mock legislatures as ways to bring the dry recitations of  law and political process alive for his students.

Historian Fawn Brodie postulated what much of colonial Richmond  whispered — that the Broadnax-Wythe-Brown collaboration was more that servant-master-ward.  Instead the UCLA historian and author of  Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, contended that Broadnax was Wythe’s concubine, and Brown his bastard son. There is scant direct evidence to support that conclusion, but what cannot be disputed is that Wythe provided Brown a remarkable education at a time when such an advantage was generally denied to persons of color. Wythe even went so far as to appoint Thomas Jefferson as the executor in charge of Brown’s “maintenance, education & other benefit” in his Will. It is also without contradiction that Wythe made generous bequests to both Broadnax and Brown, leaving his house and real property in Richmond to the former and all of his bank stocks to the latter. Even Sweeney, who along with Jefferson would receive the rest of Wythe’s estate, referred to Lydia Broadnax as “Aunt Liddie.”

Called to treat the dying jurist were the cream of Richmond’s medical community – James McClurg, William Foushee and James McCaw. All three were trained at the world’s foremost school of medicine at the University of Edinburg in Scotland, and all were involved in Richmond society and state politics. Hearing that the Wythe household had dined on strawberries  with a “whitish hue” the night before, and in view of the sudden cramps and vomiting, the working diagnosis was cholera, not attempted murder. Cholera normally comes from tainted water as recent experience in Haiti now shows us, but it was thought that overripe fruit would also produce the Vibrio Cholerae bacteria.

Totally ignored by the physicians were the repeated assertions of Judge Wythe that he and his household had been poisoned.  The weight of the evidence clearly supported the Judge’s conclusions.  The night before the onset of the mysterious illness, Lydia Broadnax had come across Sweeney in the Judge’s study reading the old man’s Will. On the morning of the Judge’s attack, Broadnax had been beseeched by Sweeney to make him some toast before preparing the Judge’s breakfast. As “Aunt Liddie” busied herself at the griddle, the young vagabond poured himself a cup of coffee. From the corner  of her eye, Broadnax saw Sweeney fiddle with the lid of the coffee pot and then immediately throw a piece of paper in the fire. The young man hurriedly ate his meager breakfast and left as Broadnax was taking the Judge’s breakfast to him inhis bedroom.

Two days after the incident, Sweeny tried to pass a $100.00 check bearing the name of  his famous uncle at the Bank of Richmond. The bank president, aware that Sweeney had passed at least six other forged checks, called a constable who agreed to search Sweeney’s room for poison. The search revealed a bowl of strawberries and a glass vial with a strange whitish powder.

On June 1, 1806,  Michael Brown died.  On that day, the Judge summoned his lawyer, Edmund Randolph, and  completely cut George Wythe Sweeney out of the Will. The following day Sweeney was arrested on forgery charges and incarcerated. The Judge refused to post his bond, and Sweeney sat in the Henrico Jail until his trial. On the day after the arrest, a slave belonging  to Richmond City jailer, William Rose, found pieces of paper and clumps of white powder in the garden just a few feet from the jail wall. Dr. McCaw determined the powder to be arsenic, which by the 19th Century had been dubbed “inheritance powder” for its use in transforming  heirs into beneficiaries.

A friend of Sweeney’s came forward to tell authorities that Sweeney had asked him for advice on obtaining poison. Hearing the news, Richmond Mayor, William DuVal, told authorites he had found arsenic powder in an old shed on the Judge’s property. Two slave carpenters confirmed that they had watched Sweeney grind a chunk of  something with an axe-head in the shed. Instantly, the working diagnosis now changed from cholera to arsenic poisoning.

On June 8, 1806, Judge George Wythe died at age 80. Sweeney was charged with murder by Virginia’s Attorney General, Philip Norborne Nicholas, in what many Richmonders thought was an open and shut case. Defending the no-account were two Richmond trial attorneys with very different histories and motivations.  Shockingly, leading the defense was Edmund Randolph, the Judge’s old friend and personal lawyer. Randolph maneuvered to get the case because he needed  to reclaim a derailed legal career. Randolph had been appointed the nations’ first Attorney General by George Washington. That appointment ended when Randolph passed along secret information to the French and “misplaced” $50,000.00 of government funds.  Washington wanted the money back, and Randolph needed a big win to jumpstart his dead-in-the-water legal career.

Assisting Randolph was a brilliant trial lawyer, William Wirt. Wirt was politically connected as his brother-in-law was Virginia Governor Thomas Cabell. Along with that obvious advantage, Wirt was not above using his intellect and his political connections to aid his clients, and he did so in a monumental way for Sweeney. Knowing Governor Cabell was a friend of  one of Wythe’s treating physicians, William McClurg, he sought his help in defending the case. The help came in the form of McClurg supplying the Governor with a copy of the confidential Wythe autopsy report which Cabell promptly dispatched to Wirt. The  autopsy report was a gold mine for the defense.

At the trial, the scientific evidence of arsenic poisoning seemed unassailable. All three physicians testified that the signs of arsenic poisoning are unmistakable. Since the poison caused rupture of the vessels of the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach of its victims becomes inflamed and filled with bile. The doctors testified this was the case in both victims.  Armed with the autopsy report, Wirt bore down on Dr. McClurg forcing him to admit that bile in the stomach could come from many causes and the Judge had a history of such conditions. He also got the all-too-helpful physician to admit that while young men like Brown typically didn’t present with bile in the stomach, the condition was not unheard of in the medical research. More damning was the revelation that none of three leaders of the medical establishment had conducted basic examinations of the lungs and heart for inflammation, nor had any of them noted external signs of arsenic poisoning like conjunctivitis of the eye, or blackening of the penis. In addition, none of the typical and available chemical tests  for arsenic poisoning were conducted during the autopsy.

The testimony of the three physicians was further decimated when each had to acknowledge that conventional wisdom held that arsenic caused death in 72-96  hours, but that Brown had lived for seven days and Wythe for fourteen. Faced with the sloppy forensics and their own misgivings displayed on the autopsy report, each, in turn, admitted that bile could have caused the deaths, and they could not state to any degree of certainty that arsenic was the actual culprit based on the autopsy that was conducted.

The case fell apart from there. Each of the remaining witnesses admitted that Richmond’s rat problem was pervasive, and half of the homes in Richmond had some form of arsenic lying about.  The law itself conspired with the defense as the very 1732 statute that Wythe and Jefferson despised denying negroes the right to testify against whites was used to bar Broadnax from telling the jury about the suspicious activities of Sweeney on the night before and the morning of the illness’ onset. The testimony of jailer’s slave and the two slave carpenters were  likewise never heard by the jury.

In less than an hour the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the murder charges.  The prosecution had one last chance to hold Sweeney accountable for some of his wrong-doing. The check forgery charge was still pending.  However, Wirt argued to the Court that the very Virginia law approved by Wythe and Jefferson in 1779, made forgery a crime only as against an individual and not a commercial bank which didn’t exist in Virginia  when the Code was revised. In the intervening 26 years the legislature had never amended the law, and according to Wirt, must not have intended to do so. The Court reluctantly agreed that the statute did not cover the charge and George Wythe Sweeney left the courtroom a free man.

Very little is known about what happened to Sweeney afterwards. The last historical record puts him in Tennessee and convicted of horse stealing. Following his release from prison on that charge, he seems to have disappeared. The Virginia forgery statute was amended when the legislature next met, but Virginia’s prohibition against negroes testifying against white citizens had to wait until 1867 and Reconstruction to finally be excised from the Code.

George Wythe left behind a host of mourners and his funeral was cause for Richmond to close its businesses and public offices.  He  is buried in the cemetary of  St. John’s Church just a few yards away from where Patrick Henry gave his famous oration seeking liberty or death.  “No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country.”

Sources: Bruce Chadwick, I Am Murdered:  George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the killing that shocked a new nation; The Mysterious Death of George Wythe by Bruce Chadwick; The Marshall-Wythe School of Law website; Colonial Williamsburg Official history website.

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

16 thoughts on “The Curious Death of George Wythe: “I Am Murdered!””

  1. I wanted more info on the death of George Wythe. I am reading about
    Jefferson’s life – this was very interesting – Thank you

  2. mespo,

    I’m not even going to try and guess … I simply will quiet the boys and with much anticipation we will wait …

  3. Blouise:

    Here’s a little hint for a future installment: How about a Wall Street financier who comes to Washington with his hand out — to lend the US Treasury money and save a banking system and a Presidency?

  4. mespo,

    Wonderful … I have mixed my ink and it is in the well, my quill is sharpened and the parchment is pressed … George, Thomas, Alexander, Benjamin, John, and James are gathered round my chair, arguing with each other as is their want or need … we wait …

  5. You are quite welcome there Blouise. I am going to do one every couple of weeks or so.

  6. mespo,

    Thank you … that was a great post

    I’m going to second drf: “Thank you very much. I love things like this.”

  7. Epic portrayal of the human nature that guarantees courts and lawyers endless employment. Did I mention doctors too?

  8. That brief essay was a splendid historical account, Mespo. I prefer today’s health care and attending physicians, and who is not intrigued with a story involving columbines, er, concubines…

  9. Very interesting story, would make a great movie, and no reason to apologies for the length, it read well and was a good historical story……………….thanks

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