President Thomas Jefferson credited George Wythe as having made him “the most honest advocate of my country’s rights.”
George Wythe sat up in bed on the morning of May 25, 1806, and rubbed his eyes with his thin, bony fingers. Frail, stooped and nearly bald at age 80, he hardly looked like one of the most respected men in America. A much younger George Wythe had earned the moniker “the father of American jurisprudence” and counted among his protégés such leading intellects as James Monroe, John Marshall and Henry Clay. But Wythe’s prize pupil was President Thomas Jefferson, who credited his “faithful and beloved mentor” as having made him “the honest advocate of my country’s rights.” In turn, Wythe had the honor of topping the list of seven Virginians who, in 1776, signed Jefferson’s magnum opus: the Declaration of Independence.
No pair of public men in the upstart republic had been so close for so long as Jefferson and Wythe. In 1759, when Jefferson was a 16-year-old freshman at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg he met Wythe, then 35, a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses representing the college. Jefferson’s father had died two years earlier, and Wythe and his wife, Elizabeth, who had no children of their own, took a special liking to the brilliant but emotionally rudderless youth. After completing his studies, Jefferson served as Wythe’s law clerk for five years and sat in on state legislative sessions, where he met George Washington, Patrick Henry and George Mason. Jefferson and Wythe would serve in the legislature together, and from 1776-79, the two spearheaded an effort to overhaul and rewrite the code of laws in Virginia.
After the death of his wife, Wythe left Williamsburg for the new state capital in Richmond in 1791, where he continued to dispense legal wisdom as the chief judge of the Virginia Chancery Court. On this Sunday morning, the elderly magistrate followed his usual routine at his elegant home in Richmond’s fashionable Shockoe Hill neighborhood. He doused himself with a bucket of ice-cold water from the well in his backyard, then returned to his room to dress and read the newspapers until his maid, Lydia Broadnax, brought him his breakfast of eggs, toast, sweetbread and hot coffee.
Broadnax, 66, had been Wythe’s faithful servant since he freed her from slavery two decades earlier. She carried the breakfast tray upstairs and then returned to the kitchen to have a cup of coffee with Michael Brown, a 16-year-old mulatto boy who lived in the house and was Wythe’s latest intellectual protégé. A few minutes later, Broadnax was stricken with horrific pains, and Brown collapsed on the table. Upstairs, Wythe finished his coffee and then vomited. When a doctor arrived to find all three in terrible agony, the judge raised himself up on the pillows of his bed and said in a hoarse whisper, “I am murdered.”
For the next 3 1/2 months, all of Richmond would be fixated on the fate of one of its most famous residents and on what turned out to be an increasingly bizarre tale of familial greed, incompetence on the part of attending physicians and local officials, and grandstanding lawyers. Overshadowing the affair were intractable race laws that Wythe and Jefferson had failed to untangle when they revised the Virginia Code and which ultimately contributed to a tragic miscarriage of justice.
Richmond’s three most renowned physicians, James McClurg, William Foushee and James McCaw, all showed up to tend to the members of the Wythe household. The doctors had trained at the world’s finest medical school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and had helped Virginians through smallpox and yellow fever epidemics during the past 10 years. They were soon convinced that the symptoms exhibited by Wythe, Broadnax and Brown—sudden, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and acute pain—pointed to cholera, not attempted murder. All three victims had eaten strawberries the night before, and the fruit had a whitish hue that looked like mold. Though cholera was usually caused by contaminated water, it had also been linked to overripe fruits and vegetables.
Cholera was often fatal within 48 hours, and Richmond residents stood by with bated breath, waiting to see if an epidemic threatened. As that deadline of fear came and went, Broadnax began to recover, though the trauma she experienced permanently damaged her eyesight. Meanwhile Brown and Wythe remained in critical condition, the judge all the while stubbornly rejecting the doctors’ original diagnosis. Wythe insisted fervently that he and his housemates had been poisoned by his ne’er-do-well grandnephew and namesake, 18-year-old George Wythe Sweeney.
Sweeney, the grandson of Wythe’s sister Anne, was a frequent visitor to the Wythe home. He sometimes stayed for weeks or months and had assumed an air of entitlement, as if he were Wythe’s own son. The brash, headstrong and irresponsible young man came and went as he pleased, and Wythe tried to exert a positive influence on him without much success. Sweeney was a regular at Richmond’s notorious gambling dens, and to pay his prodigious debts, he was not above selling books stolen from Judge Wythe’s prized library or even kiting checks using his uncle’s name. The exasperated judge finally threatened to cut his profligate nephew out of his will if he didn’t change his ways.
The night before the mysterious illness descended on the Wythe household, Broadnax had come upon Sweeney in the judge’s office, reading his will. Moreover, she told the doctors and others who came to visit the ailing judge, Sweeney acted mighty peculiar the morning everyone took sick. He insisted that Broadnax, whom he called “Aunt Liddy,” fix him some toast before she made his uncle’s breakfast. While she was busy at the griddle, Sweeney poured himself a cup of coffee. She noticed him fiddle with the coffeepot’s lid and toss a small piece of paper into the stove. Then he quickly ate the toast, finished his coffee and hurried out the door.
Two days later, Sweeney cashed a $100 check with his uncle’s signature at the Bank of Richmond. Knowing the judge’s grave condition—and aware that Sweeney had passed bad checks on at least six other occasions—the bank president called for a constable. With Sweeney already under suspicion of forgery, Wythe’s doctors agreed to search the young man’s room for evidence of poison. They found a bowl of strawberries and a glass vial that contained a suspicious white powder.
On June 1, Michael Brown died. He was the last in a long line of young men that Wythe had taken under his wing and tutored over the years. Back in Williamsburg, the Wythe house was always full of students and their guests, surrogate children to George and Elizabeth. White students weren’t the only ones to benefit from this largesse. Wythe was convinced that blacks were as intelligent as whites and, given the same opportunities, would be just as successful. Moreover, he was so fond of Brown that he had planned to leave part of his considerable estate to him. Now, with Brown’s death, that share was slated to be added to Sweeney’s inheritance.
Gravely ill and overwhelmed with grief, Wythe sent for his lawyer, Edmund Randolph, and wrote his nephew completely out of his will. The next day, June 2, Sweeney was arrested on forgery charges and incarcerated in the Henrico County jail. Wythe refused Sweeney’s request to post the $1,000 bail.
George Wythe died on June 8, and Richmond prepared an elaborate funeral, the largest held in the state’s history to that time. Hundreds of somber official mourners—members of Congress, state legislators, judges and lawyers—crammed the statehouse on June 11 for the eulogy by William Munford, another Wythe protégé. Businesses in the city shut down for the day, and thousands of Virginians quietly lined Main Street as the funeral procession traveled the three miles to the gravesite at St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry had given his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. But one very important person was not in attendance: Because of slow mails, President Jefferson did not learn of his dear friend’s death until the day after the funeral.
Sweeney was soon ordered to stand trial for the murders of Wythe and Brown, and the circumstantial evidence against him was damning. The morning after he was arrested for forgery, a slave belonging to Richmond 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 it was arsenic. Taylor Williams, a friend of Sweeney, claimed that Sweeney had asked him for advice on procuring poison. Assuming Sweeney wanted to kill rats, which ran amuck all over the city, Williams suggested ratsbane, a common arsenic-based poison. Richmond Mayor William DuVal, a friend of Wythe, told police he had found what he believed to be arsenic powder in a shed on the judge’s property. Two slave carpenters working there had watched Sweeney grind a chunk of something with an ax into powder.
At first the case against Sweeney appeared to be open-and-shut, especially since Philip Norborne Nicholas, Virginia’s highly regarded attorney general, would be the chief prosecutor. But just before the trial was set to start on Sept. 1, 1806, Sweeney was astonished to learn that he had two volunteer attorneys: William Wirt, an ambitious and brilliant young trial lawyer looking to make a name for himself, and even more surprising, Wythe’s longtime friend Edmund Randolph.
Wirt craved fame and power and was eager for a high-profile case. In a letter to James Monroe, he admitted he was convinced of Sweeney’s guilt: “The young villain had been in the habit of robbing his uncle with a false key, had sold three trunks of his most valuable law books, had forged his checks on the bank to a considerable amount and wound up his villainies by this act.” Getting an obviously guilty defendant off the hook, Wirt confided to his wife, would “give me a splendid debut in the metropolis.”
Randolph, on the other hand, was trying to reclaim his once-promising career. Appointed by President George Washington as the first attorney general of the United States in 1789, he subsequently served as secretary of state until 1795, when he resigned after being accused of passing along privileged information to the French ambassador to the United States. Two years later, it was alleged that while attorney general, he had “misplaced” $50,000, and the U.S. government ordered him to pay it back. If he could win the Sweeney case, Randolph could jumpstart his legal career and start paying down his government debt.
The key to the prosecution’s case was testimony from the medical dream team of McClurg, Foushee and McCaw who performed autopsies on Wythe and Brown. The effects of arsenic poisoning on the body were well known and relatively easy for trained eyes to detect. In arsenic cases, blood vesicles in the gastrointestinal tract rupture, causing severe inflammation in the stomach. The doctors testified that the stomachs of both victims were inflamed and full of bile, another sign of arsenic poisoning.
Under cross-examination, however, the doctors quickly found themselves hedging their conclusions. Dr. McClurg, always eager to ingratiate himself with important political figures, had given the autopsy results to Virginia Governor Thomas Cabell that summer. And Cabell passed those results along to his brother-in-law—William Wirt—enabling the defense to put together a careful line of questions that revealed the doctors had conducted only a cursory examination of the victims and could not identify the cause of death with any certainty. McClurg was forced to admit that the presence of bile in the stomach also indicated other bowel troubles of the kind he had often treated the elderly Wythe for. He also admitted that the build-up of bile in such a young man as Brown was unusual but not impossible.
What turned out to be most damning was the shocking revelation that the doctors did not examine the lungs or hearts for evidence of inflammation caused by arsenic. Nor did they check for any external signs of poisoning such as conjunctivitis in the eyes or a blackening of the penis. They performed none of the well-known chemical tests to detect arsenic.
Conventional wisdom held that arsenic took the lives of its victims in three or four days, but Brown lived for seven days, and Wythe for 14. Therefore, McClurg, McCaw and Foushee each testified, arsenic might have killed Wythe and Brown, but it was also possible that the stomach bile was the culprit. They could not be absolutely sure.
The defense also had little difficulty casting doubt on the material evidence—the arsenic found in Sweeney’s room and in the packet he’d tossed over the jailhouse wall. Wirt and Randolph pointed out that half the residents of Richmond had arsenic in their homes for the legitimate purpose of killing rats.
Finally, the law itself played into the hands of the defense. Since 1732, Virginia had prohibited blacks, free or slave, from testifying against whites, a provision in the state code that Wythe and Jefferson let stand. None of the black witnesses could be called by the prosecution. Lydia Broadnax could not tell the court that she saw Sweeney put something in the coffeepot the morning she and the others became ill. Neither could any of the whites that she’d told her story to because even second-hand testimony from blacks was inadmissible.
That left the prosecution with a very circumstantial case against Sweeney. After less than an hour’s deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
Sweeney still faced forgery charges that carried a sentence of several years in prison. There was little doubt that, in the language of Virginia’s forgery law, he was able to “falsely and deceitfully obtain or get into his hands or possession” money from his uncle’s account by using a “false token or counterfeit letter.” But Sweeney’s forgery trial started—and ended—the day after his murder acquittal when the defense told the jury and the courtroom full of startled spectators that the law applied to forgery against a person, not an institution like a bank. When Wythe and Jefferson had revised the Virginia Code in the late 1770s, there were no commercial banks in the state, and in the intervening 30 years, no one had thought to amend the law to include public financial institutions. Sweeney, therefore, could not be tried for breaking a law that did not exist. The judge dropped the forgery charges. George Wythe Sweeney was a free man.
A few weeks after Wythe’s death, Richmond Mayor William DuVal sent a touching letter to President Thomas Jefferson. “I believe that the great and good Mr. Wythe loved you as sincerely as if you had been his son; his attachment was founded on his thorough knowledge of you, personally,” DuVal wrote. Some years ago, he mentioned that if there was an honest man in America, Thomas Jefferson was that person; everything he said has been verified.”
Jefferson wrote back to DuVal: “I had reserved with fondness, for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing [Wythe] to pass much of his time with me. It would have been a great pleasure to recollect with him first opinions on the new state of things which arose soon after my acquaintance with him; to pass in review the long period which has elapsed since that time.” The president was also saddened by the death of Michael Brown, whom he had agreed to take in as a White House boarder if Wythe should die while the young man was still in his care: “I sincerely regret the loss of Michael not only for the affliction it must have cost Mr. Wythe in his last moments, but also as it has deprived me of an object for attention which would have gratified me unceasingly with the constant recollection and execution of the wishes of my friend.”
Wythe bequeathed his treasured collection of books to the president, adding to Jefferson’s voluminous collection that would form the basis of the Library of Congress in 1815.
George Wythe Sweeney left Richmond soon after the trial. He drifted to Tennessee, where he was later convicted of horse theft and served several years in prison. After his release, Sweeney vanished without a trace from the historical record.
The Virginia legislature was quick to amend its forgery laws within months of the Sweeney trial, but was unmoved in its stance against allowing blacks to testify against whites, even though it appeared obvious the murderer of one of the nation’s most influential figures had walked free as a result.
Three decades earlier, George Wythe and his protégé Thomas Jefferson had broached the thorny issue of the legal status of blacks when they revised the Virginia Code, and even introduced an amendment calling for the emancipation of slaves, although they knew it would never be passed. Wythe and Jefferson also discussed changing court procedures for blacks—a move that could have greatly altered the outcome of Sweeney’s murder trial. But the two greatest legal minds in Virginia quickly dismissed the idea. “The public,” said Jefferson, “would not yet bear the proposition.”
New laws allowing the testimony of blacks in legal proceedings in Virginia were finally passed in 1867 under a Reconstruction government.