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Mr. History

Why were Thomas Jefferson and Lydia Broadnax never suspected in the poisoning deaths of George Wythe and Michael Brown? As you must know, George Wythe Sweeney was charged with the murders of Wythe and Brown, 1n 1806. In a sensational trial, Sweeney was found not guilty, by a jury of his peers, in less than an hour of deliberation.

While most historians argue that Sweeney simply “got away with murder,” the case, in the eyes of the law, is still unsolved. Interesting to note, Broadnax miraculously survived the group poisoning, and, like Sweeney, she was an heir to the Wythe estate. Jefferson was Wythe’s live-in protégé when Jefferson was first left the college of William & Mary. At the time of the murders, he was in the middle of his second term, as President of the United States, so, he seems to get an automatic pass from being a suspect. He too, however, was a beneficiary named in Wythe’s estate (heir to his tremendous library), and he had motives that far surpassed those of Sweeney’s. Although the record indicates that Jefferson did not know Broadnax before the murders, it also indicates that he helped her financially, shortly after the tragic event. The library, left to Jefferson in Wythe’s will, pales in comparison to Jefferson’s other two motives for wanting the deaths of Wythe and Brown – he would benefit greatly from the simultaneous deaths of Wythe and Brown. So, other than being the President of the United States, why was he not a suspect?


Michael C



Dear Michael C,

The reason that Lydia Broadnax and Thomas Jefferson were not suspected in the poisoning deaths of George Wythe and Michael Brown in 1806 is simple: neither had sufficient motive for murder. Wythe had been a friend and legal mentor to Jefferson. Wythe was also in the process of altering his will to the financial advantage of Lydia Broadnax and her son, Michael Brown, in preference to his wastrel nephew George Wythe Sweeney, whom he had caught in the act of forgery and theft. Also, Lydia Broadnax had become violently ill from the same coffee that she had served Wythe and her son Michael on June 1, 1806, though she alone survived the ordeal. Sweeney had to most convincing motive, but to everyone’s surprise he was represented by two of the country’s most skilled lawyers—William Wirt and Edmund Randolph, neither of whom thought him innocent, but who believed that successfully defending him would greatly enhance their careers. Broadnax’s testimony was dismissed based on Virginia laws prohibiting blacks from testifying or offering evidence against a white defendant, and belated testimony from Sweeney’s jailors that they had found a packet of arsenic outside of his cell, as well as claims that there was arsenic in his home, were dismissed as hearsay. Given Sweeney’s acquittal in what seemed an open-and-shut case, due to a botched prosecution and a brilliant defense, is it any wonder that no further suspicions, based on far thinner grounds, were ever pursued?

See further references below, none of which even mention your conspiracy theory.



Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History

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