03 July 2020

“I am Murdered!”


Tomorrow popularly marks the 244th birthday of the United States. By far, the most popular myth about the Fourth of July is that the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were universally persecuted, hounded to death, and otherwise had their lives ruined for signing that document. Yes, some lost their homes and property in the Revolutionary War. Some saw family members jailed; some were themselves captured and/or briefly held by the British. But no signer died at the hands of the British government.

Only two signers died by violence. Button Gwinnett, a Georgia signer, became embroiled in a spat with a military rival and died in a duel about a year after he signed the Declaration.

Another signer, George Wythe of Virginia, died by poisoning. In a life that spanned eight decades, Wythe was a judge, classics scholar, and the nation’s first law professor. (The law school at the College of William and Mary, where he taught, today maintains an online encyclopedia dubbed Wythepedia, of course.)

Wythe had learned the law the old-fashioned way: by reading and clerking for an uncle who was a lawyer. Many years later, in the 1760s, one such clerk would work five years in Wythe’s practice. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and for years later he would have nothing but praise for his old boss. “My second father,” Jefferson called Wythe. “My faithful and beloved mentor in youth and my most affectionate friend through life,” and “my ancient master, my earliest and best friend.”

Both men had lost their fathers at a young age, which may explain their bond. Besides Jefferson, Wythe mentored Chief Justice John Marshall, House Speaker and Secretary of State Henry Clay, and possibly President James Monroe, among numerous others.

George Wythe
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Sent to Congress in 1774, Wythe contributed significant legal arguments that shaped the American response to Britain. First, he suggested that America could become a separate but equal nation within the British Empire. (That is to say, a “commonwealth nation.”) When this didn’t fly, Wythe and another signer, the Virginian Richard Henry Lee, insisted that Congress must hold the King, not Parliament, accountable for the colonists’ complaints. If the King refused to remedy their grievances, then the colonies were legally entitled to sever all relations with the crown. Hence the conceit of the Declaration of Independence, which is a laundry list of complaints for which the colonies held the monarch directly responsible.

Despite his great influence, Wythe was not in Philadelphia on July 2 (the day of the actual vote for independence), and he did not sign the document on August 2, 1776, when the largest number of Congressmen signed. For many years it was assumed Wythe signed the Declaration when he returned to Philadelphia in the fall. But some scholars now suggest—horrors!—that Wythe may not have signed the Declaration of Independence at all, but authorized a clerk to act as his proxy. (Wythe typically signed his name “G. Wythe,” but on the Declaration his name appears as “George Wythe” and looks nothing like his usual signature.) This theory is unconfirmed, and Wythe is the only signer for whom this question has been raised.

Wythe left Congress early to help Virginia set up its new government and revise its legal code with Jefferson’s help. Wythe would later draft the state constitution and design the state seal.

Wythe married twice. No children. He and his spouses boarded students attending the College of William and Mary, and may have paid for some of the poorer students’ education. Wythe loved the classics so much that he freely tutored anyone who was down for Greek and Latin. In the late 1780s, he persuaded Virginia’s legislators to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and thus credited with helping Virginia become the tenth state.

But did anyone say murder?

When Wythe’s second wife, Elizabeth, died, he relocated from Williamsburg to Richmond. Giving up his classes and students, he took on the role of chancellor, the top position in Virginia’s Court of Chancery. Though he and his relations had long owned slaves, Wythe had become an abolitionist. (The list of the enslaved people, and what historians know of them, is carefully examined here.) In his old age, Wythe’s household consisted of his cook and housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax, a former enslaved woman whom Wythe had freed, and Michael Brown, a young biracial man who had never been enslaved. Wythe liked the young man and was tutoring him. Both were set to inherit part of Wythe’s estate when he died.

Into this surrogate family came Wythe’s own flesh-and-blood, George Wythe Sweeney, his sister’s 19-year-old grandson. Sweeney was a troubled youth, a heavy drinker and gambler, but Wythe generously designated his grand-nephew to inherit the larger portion of the estate. But should Brown and Broadnax predecease Wythe, Sweeney would get everything.

You can see this one coming a mile away.

Accounts of the deed differ. The one I’m going with goes like this: One morning Broadnax observed Sweeney drinking his coffee from the kitchen coffee pot, then tossing a slip of white paper into the fireplace. Sweeney left the house. Later, the entire household drank from the same coffee pot. All were seized with violent cramps. Broadnax recovered, but young Brown died. Wythe fell fatally ill. Aided by Broadnax, investigators pieced together what must have happened: Sweeney dumped arsenic in the pot, then tossed into the fire the flimsy paper with which apothecaries commonly wrapped rat poison in those days. Wythe lingered in painful agony for two weeks, but was lucid enough to instruct officials to search Sweeney’s room for poison, and to swear out a new will that disinherited Sweeney completely. Groaning, “I am murdered,” Wythe died June 8, 1806 at the presumed age of 80. (His birth date is unknown.)

Sweeney was charged with the two murders and the forgery of some of his uncle’s checks. Broadnax’s damning eyewitness testimony was inadmissible under Virginia law because at that time black people could not bear witness against white men. Sweeney was acquitted of murder. He was convicted of forging the bad checks, but somehow won a new trial, which the prosecutor declined to pursue. Sweeney walked out of the courtroom a free man, and vanished into history.

The final biting irony of Wythe’s story is that the man who spent so much of his life crafting legal statutes in his home state probably wrote the very law that allowed his murderer to go free.

* * *


BSP: You might enjoy one or both of the books I’ve co-authored on the signers of significant U.S. documents, entitled Signing Their Lives Away or Signing Their Rights Away (Quirk Books, 2009 and 2011). Those interested in delving specifically into the murder of signer George Wythe will want to investigate I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation, by Bruce Chadwick (Wiley, 2009).

9 comments:

janice law said...

Interesting and informative. I can see the Revolutionary and Federal periods are one mystery writers should explore.

R.T. Lawton said...

Thanks for the view into an interesting slice of history.

Eve Fisher said...

What a story! Among the lessons to be learned is,
(1) Never tell anyone who's in your will that they are.
(2) If they ask if they are, deny it.
(3) Don't take troubled alcoholic gambling addicts into your home and assume you can "kind" them into behaving.
All of these still hold true today, don't they?

John Floyd said...

Great column, Joe. Enjoyed this (and learned from it).

Joseph D'Agnese said...

Thanks, everyone. I do like that period of American history because it feels relatively modern but life was definitely different from what it's like today--and the British mindset permeates everything.

Eve, thanks for breaking it down. They do indeed.

Robert Lopresti said...

Very interesting. I knew this story because I sometimes lecture about the Nancy Randolph story and I use it as one of several scandals to fill out the time, but I didn't know as much about it a I thought I did!

Leigh Lundin said...

Wow, what a tale be told! That's fascinating, Joe. And I love the name of the Wythepedia.

Jeff Baker said...

I didn't know how the Wythe case played out! Thanks! Years ago I read "The Fifty-Six Who Signed" by Sam Fink ( who was just as fascinated with the actual signatures!)

Joseph D'Agnese said...

Thanks again for the comments.

Rob, we tell the Governor Morris/Nancy Randolph story in our Constitution book. One of these days, I'll share my story of the search for Gouv's wooden leg.

Jeff, Fink is a wonderful illustrator. We have his Constitution book, which is displayed on our bookshelf face out because the cover is so fun.