The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe - Articles

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Posted by: Daniel Berexa on Dec 22, 2010

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2011

Journal Name: January 2011 - Vol. 47, No. 1

On June  5, 1806, 80-year-old Chancellor George Wythe cried in agony, "I am murdered!" Days later the distinguished jurist, statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence died following a horrific two-week illness. The apparent poisoning at Wythe's home also caused the illness of Wythe's former slave, Lydia Broadnax, and killed Michael Brown, a young freed slave who worked and lived in the house. Our fledgling American nation was shocked to learn that Wythe's death allegedly came at the hands of his namesake, and reprobate grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney.[1] Wythe had taken Sweeney into his Richmond home with the hope of molding and educating the teenager, as he had done with so many young men over the years. Many of Wythe's former pupils were the nation's most prominent leaders, his most notable protégé and closest friend being none other than President Thomas Jefferson. The president and the young nation would follow the case closely with the expectation that the prosecution would prevail under a Virginia system of justice, which developed in large part because of the efforts and influence of Wythe and Jefferson.

George Wythe (pronounced "With") was born in 1726 in what is now known as Hampton, Virginia. He was educated primarily by his Quaker mother, who taught him Latin, Greek, mathematics, logic and grammar. At age 16, after studying briefly at the College of William and Mary, Wythe "read law" under the tutelage of an uncle and passed the bar when he was 20. Wythe then married and started practicing law, riding the circuit throughout the settled areas of Virginia. After only eight months of marriage, his first wife, Anne, died from fever.

In search of a new start, Wythe settled in Virginia's capital, Williamsburg, where he began his ascent of the colonial social and legal establishment. In addition to private practice, Wythe would serve as the King's Attorney, representing the interests of the crown. He would also serve a number of terms in the House of Burgesses, the colony's equivalent to the English House of Commons. At age 29, Wythe married Elizabeth Taliaferro and moved into what is now known as "The George Wythe House," which stands near the Governor's Palace in present-day Colonial Williamsburg. As the Enlightenment was sweeping across the colonies, Wythe regularly dined with Royal Governor Fauquier and other local intellectuals who shared an interest in music, mathematics, science and philosophy. Wythe maintained a close friendship with Fauquier and his successor, Baron de Botetourt, despite growing differences in opinion regarding the governance of the colonies and the tension created by the Burgesses' increasing expressions of displeasure with the crown.

Wythe's most coveted roles were judge and teacher. He would continue in both capacities until his death.

Wythe was first appointed to the bench in 1755 and would eventually serve as chancellor in the Commonwealth's highest court. He was known for probity and virtue beyond reproach. As a lawyer he refused causes that he believed to be unjust and would not tolerate a client that was not completely truthful with him. As a judge he became known as the "American Aristides" " a truly just man. More than 20 years before the decision in Marbury v. Madison, Wythe issued an opinion enunciating the doctrine of judicial review, insisting that the court should invalidate any legislative enactment that contravened the Virginia Constitution.[2]

He was unafraid to make an unpopular ruling, even when it outraged his electorate. For example, he authored a number of opinions that undermined the institution of slavery. Wythe's Quaker-influenced upbringing led him to advocate for the equality of women, humane treatment of the mentally ill, the rights of Blacks and Indians, co-equal education, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and freedom of thought and speech.[3]

Wythe's interest in the study of the law, the classics, philosophy and science was a lifetime pursuit. He was Virginia's foremost classical scholar and was also the first professor of law in America and only the second person to hold such a position in the English-speaking world, Britain's William Blackstone being the first. After his appointment as professor of law and police at the College of William and Mary, Wythe developed moot court and mock legislative sessions, teaching tools that are still employed in law school curricula today. Wythe taught law to men who would influence the nation for generations, including James Monroe, Henry Clay and John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. In all, he would teach more than 30 governors, senators, congressmen, ambassadors and judges.

Throughout his life Wythe also served as a private instructor. Although childless, he enjoyed the company of children and would often entertain young guests with impromptu lessons and scientific experiments. When a Williamsburg grammar school closed, Wythe took it upon himself to teach the students without pay.[4] He also accepted law students as boarders and taught private lessons in his home. His most famous resident pupil was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson spent five years living in the Wythe household after beginning his studies at William and Mary at age 17. Jefferson emulated many of Wythe's personal habits, such as following a vegetarian diet, taking a cold shower in the morning and recording a strict daily schedule of work and studies. Wythe's tutelage continued as Jefferson became a young lawyer, a member of the House of Burgesses, and an intellectual leader in the Revolution.

The Revolution

As the American Revolution approached, Wythe became an outspoken critic of the crown. In 1764, he was appointed to the Committee of Petition and Remonstrance and asked to draft a petition to the House of Commons protesting the Stamp Act. Four years later, he was elected mayor of Williamsburg and clashed with John Murray, the royal governor. In 1775, Wythe was elected to the First Continental Congress and traveled to Philadelphia. Despite his quiet demeanor, Wythe became known as a radical, pressing for independence, treaties and trade with other nations. Wythe's pupil and protégé, Jefferson, was selected to draft the Declaration of Independence. As evidence of his influence at the time, Wythe's signature appears first among the Virginia delegates on the Declaration of Independence.

In 1787, Wythe briefly attended the Constitutional convention but was forced to return home because of his second wife's illness. Back in Virginia, he was instrumental in the Commonwealth's ratification of the Constitution and the drafting and compromise relating to the proposed amendments that were eventually reflected in the Bill of Rights. Wythe also had a prominent role in the drafting of the Virginia Constitution and served on the committee that proposed extensive revisions to Virginia's code. He is also credited as the designer of the seal of Virginia.[5]

In late 1787, Wythe's second wife died. Wythe freed his slaves, and those that he did not have the ability to liberate were returned to his wife's family. He severed ties with William and Mary and moved to Richmond, which had become the capital, after accepting an appointment as judge of Virginia's Court of Chancery in the state's restructured judicial system. His new home was located on Shockoe Hill, close to the capital building, where court was held. Wythe started a small law school and continued giving private lessons. He dedicated considerable time to educating and mentoring Henry Clay, who came from a broken family in rural Kentucky. Wythe corresponded with his life-long friend Jefferson and presided over the Virginia College of Electors in support of his former student's march to the White House in 1800. At a celebration dinner for Jefferson's reelection in 1804, the crowd toasted the president with nine cheers. Wythe, who was still an object of public affection, was also given nine cheers and recognized for his wisdom and integrity.[6]

By 1806, Wythe was 80 and still on the bench. With his wife gone he was no longer interested in socializing but was as vigorous as ever in pursing intellectual interests. Wythe's household included his grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, and two of his former slaves, Lydia Broadnax and Michael Brown. Lydia worked in the house as a paid servant. Michael was a servant as well and one of Wythe's students. Unlike his friend Jefferson, Wythe believed blacks were just as capable of learning as whites. Wythe tutored Brown in Latin, Greek and math. Wythe's interest in educating Brown, and the young man's light skin, fueled speculation over the years that Michael was Wythe and Lydia's son.[7] Available records indicate that Michael was the offspring of neither, nor was he the first person of color to receive an education from Wythe.

The Evidence

On May 25, 1806, Wythe woke and went about his normal Sunday morning routine. After dousing himself with a bucket of cold well water, the chancellor dressed for the day and read the newspaper. As Lydia prepared breakfast, grandnephew George Sweeney entered the kitchen in a hurry. He did not have time for a proper breakfast, so he asked "Aunt Lyddy," as he called her, for a piece of toast. Lydia thought nothing of it when Sweeney poured himself a cup of coffee and then threw a small piece of white paper into the kitchen fire.[8] Sweeney then went on his way. At 9 a.m. the chancellor rang his silver bell and Lydia brought him a breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee. Lydia and Michael also drank coffee from the same pot.

In a short time the entire household, save Sweeney, was deathly ill. Symptoms included severe cramping, nausea, unquenchable thirst and endless vomiting and diarrhea. Lydia, who was the least ill of the three, was able to summon help. Three of Virginia's most prominent physicians attended to the members of the Wythe household. Contemporary accounts of the events are found in a series of letters from William DuVal to President Thomas Jefferson. DuVal served as an officer in the Revolutionary War and was the Mayor of Richmond. He was also Wythe's closest neighbor and would serve as the executor of the chancellor's estate. According to DuVal's first letter to Jefferson, dated June  4, 1806, it was first thought that the household was suffering from cholera morbus. Cholera is an extremely virulent disease that can kill in hours.[9] It is usually seen in areas with poor sanitation and is caused by bacterial contamination of food or water. Although the patients' symptoms were consistent with cholera, and there had been a number of large scale outbreaks over the prior centuries, there had not been a single case in the United States up to that time.[10]

The doctors began to question their initial diagnosis when the patients survived longer than expected for victims of cholera. Soon young George Sweeney became a suspect. Two days after the illnesses started, Sweeney was charged with forging Wythe's signature on a number of checks drawn on the Bank of Richmond. Refusing to post bond, Wythe insisted on a search of Sweeney's room while his grandnephew sat in jail. At first these requests were ignored, but an eventual search resulted in the discovery of several strawberries sprinkled with arsenic and other samples of an arsenic and sulfur mixture. Arsenic, which was commonly used as a rat poison, and called ratsbane, was also found in an old smokehouse and an outbuilding on Wythe's property, which was used as a shop.[11] A hammer in the shop was stained with a yellow substance that appeared to be a form of arsenic. Two black servants observed Sweeney using the hammer and an axe in the shop shortly before Wythe fell ill. When Michael Brown died on June  1, DuVal, who was also a local magistrate, requested an autopsy, which showed that Brown's stomach and bowels evidenced "the kind of Inflammation induced by Poison."[12]

The Motive

In DuVal's first letter to Jefferson, he questioned why Sweeney would poison the whole family.[13] Lydia Broadnax's observations provided not only an explanation for why everyone but Sweeney became sick, but also strong proof of the motive. The day before the illnesses, Lydia observed Sweeney sitting at Wythe's private desk, which was usually locked. She saw Sweeney reading "a paper that her old master had told her was his will."[14] When he was spotted, Sweeney quickly explained that his uncle asked him to review the will. Later describing these events and the illnesses, Lydia stated, "All these things make me think Mars George [Sweeney] must have put something in the coffee pot. I didn't see him, but it looks monstrous, strange."[15]

What Sweeney discovered was that Wythe executed a codicil to his will in February of 1806 that made provisions for the support of Michael Brown. In addition to bequeathing a number of personal items to Thomas Jefferson, Wythe asked Jefferson to take Michael Brown in, upon his death, and see to it that Brown was cared for. However, if Brown predeceased Sweeney, Sweeney would receive both his own share and the funds intended for the support of Brown.

In early 1806, Wythe was losing patience with his young grandnephew. He was well aware that Sweeney was keeping bad company, gambling, forging checks on Wythe's account and hocking Wythe's valuable books to cover gambling debts. Wythe warned Sweeney that if his conduct did not change, all bequests in his favor would be revoked.[16] The death of Wythe would not only ensure that Sweeney received his share of his great-uncle's wealth before being altogether disinherited, but could also prevent the public discovery of Sweeney's theft and forgery. Michael Brown's early death would mean Sweeney would receive a larger share of the estate.

Upon hearing of Michael's death on June  1, 1806, Wythe said, "I shall not be far behind."[17] Wythe called for a dear friend, who was an attorney, and gave instructions for the immediate drafting of a codicil revoking all prior bequests to George Sweeney and directed that the portion of his estate originally bequeathed to Sweeney and Brown be divided equally among Sweeney's siblings. Wythe clung to life for several more days. On June  5, 1806, he exclaimed, "I am murdered!" but failed to identify the perpetrator.[18] He also let it be known that he wanted to be autopsied. The next morning Wythe cried out, "Let me die righteous!" On the morning of June 8, 1806, Wythe passed away. On the day Wythe died, William DuVal wrote to President Jefferson, advising that when a number of prominent doctors "opened his Chest and Bowels, there was considerable inflammation in the Stomach. It is strongly suspected that he and Michael Brown were poisoned with Yellow Arsenic by Geo. W. Sweeney."[19]

On June 18, Sweeney was charged with the murders. At a preliminary hearing, the mayor and two colleagues concluded that "Mr. Wythe and Michael, were poisoned by Geo. W. Sweeney."[20] On June  23, 1806, the matter then went before the Court of Hustings, on charges for the murders of "Wythe and Michael Brown the Freed Boy."[21] The Court of Hustings comprised of the mayor, the recorder and several alderman vested with the powers of a justice of the peace. The body heard evidence of crimes committed within the city. If the Hustings Court found a defendant guilty of a serious crime, the case was referred for a trial by jury. Detailed summaries of the testimony presented in the Hustings' proceedings survive. In addition to much of the evidence previously discussed, testimony was presented detailing Sweeney's inquiries directed to various acquaintances, in the weeks prior to the illness, regarding poisons, such as arsenic, and where they could be acquired. There was also testimony from a number of witnesses about arsenic found outside of Sweeney's jail cell, which indicated that the prisoner had some of the poison in his possession when he was arrested and made efforts to dispose of the poison while in jail. Doctors testified regarding the illnesses, deaths and autopsies of Wythe and Michael Brown, including descriptions of tissue and organs that appeared consistent with ingestion of arsenic or other poisons. After hearing the evidence the Hustings Court was of the "opinion that the prisoner is guilty ... and doth order that he undergo a trial therefore before the next District Court."[22] In separate proceedings the Hustings Court also concluded that Sweeney was guilty of forgery.

The Attorneys

Later in the summer of 1806, the matters were also presented to a grand jury, which returned true bills on the two murder and four forgery indictments. The prosecution would be led by Philip Norborne Nicholas, an aggressive and talented state attorney general. Nicholas admired Wythe and was a close friend and supporter of Thomas Jefferson.[23] He had every reason, personal and political, to see to it that Sweeney hung for the murder of Wythe. In the press and court of public opinion, Sweeney was guilty. The governor of Virginia, William Cabell, summed it up: "There was but little doubt of his guilt in the minds of most persons."[24] It also seemed clear that no lawyer was going to voluntarily take on the task of representing young Sweeney. If he had counsel at all, it would likely be a young lawyer who was conscripted into service by appointment.

As the trial approached, Sweeney was desperate. Perhaps the best indication of his state of mind was evidenced in a conversation with a young friend, Tarlton Webb, the day before Sweeney's arrest for forgery. Sweeney was very upset and showed Webb something wrapped in paper which Sweeney identified as ratsbane. Sweeney said he intended to kill himself and suggested that his "friend" could do the same by ingesting some of the arsenic.[25] Whether Sweeney's mental state was a product of mental illness, guilt, or the realization that he would likely face the gallows, he clearly understood his prospects were grim. Thus, what happened next had to be unimaginable, not only to Sweeney, but to a nation following the case with great interest. Not only would counsel step forward and offer to represent Sweeney, but his defense team would comprise two of the best trial lawyers in the country, William Wirt and Edmund Randolph.

William Wirt was tall, charming and one of the best courtroom orators in the country.[26] Wirt and Wythe served together on the Virginia Chancery Court. However, a paltry judge's salary did not suit the ambitious 34-year-old.[27] Shortly before Wythe's death, Wirt gave in to his wife's insistence that the family move from Norfolk to her hometown of Richmond. Later, Wirt received a visit from George Sweeney's uncle, who pleaded for Wirt to represent his nephew.[28] Wirt had already expressed strong feelings about Sweeney's guilt. He told other lawyers that Sweeney would suffer the fate he deserved and that he hoped no lawyer would step forward to defend the accused.[29] In fact, two days after Wythe's death, Wirt wrote James Monroe and told the future president, "The poor old Chancellor Wythe had a dose of arsonick [sic] administered to him, in his coffee ... by his nephew George Wythe Sweeney, to whom he had devised his estate ...."[30] Wirt went on, explaining that Sweeney poisoned Wythe to cover up his acts of theft and forgery, and in the process, also killed Michael Brown.

Despite Wirt's personal views on the case, and his close ties to Wythe and many of the judge's former students, such as Jefferson, Marshall and Monroe, Wirt could not pass up a chance for fame and fortune that would surely follow if he was successful in defending Sweeney. There was no better way for Wirt to announce his presence in Richmond and enhance his reputation. He wrote to his wife that an acquittal would "give me a splendid debut in the metropolis."[31]

While Wirt was a young man who yearned to enhance his reputation and earn a fortune, Edmund Jennings Randolph sought redemption after his astonishing career was marred by two well-publicized scandals. As a young man, Randolph was a supporter of the Revolution and served as General George Washington's aide-de-camp in 1775. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress and then served as a member of Constitutional Convention. After service as the attorney general of Virginia, and the state's governor, Randolph was appointed the first attorney general of the United States by Washington. He was named as secretary of state in 1794, but a year later resigned in the face of accusations that he attempted to extort money from France and wrote letters to French diplomats critical of President Washington.[32] Randolph was then found guilty of malfeasance in connection with the loss of $49,000 in government funds and ordered to repay the sum.

Randolph viewed Sweeney's defense as an opportunity to rehabilitate his badly tarnished public image and did not let his close relationship with the chancellor get in the way of taking up Sweeney's defense. As a testament to the closeness of the relationship, Randolph was one of the first persons summoned to Wythe's bedside after the judge became gravely ill. After Michael Brown's death on June  1, 1806, it was Randolph whom Wythe instructed to draft the codicil revoking all previous bequests to Sweeney.

What kind of man would agree to represent the alleged murderer of a long-time friend and client? To many, concern turned to disbelief when they came to realize that Randolph not only had little regard for his relationship with Wythe, but that he had already testified for the prosecution in the Court of Hustings.[33] In addition to testimony about Wythe's will and the directive to change the will to exclude Sweeney after Michael's death, Randolph testified that Wythe told him that he ate strawberries the night before the illness. Randolph also described conversations with servants that placed Sweeney in Wythe's workshop, crushing ratsbane with an axe, the day before everyone became ill.[34] Thus, Randolph's testimony alone went a long way to establish Sweeney's motive, means and method for committing the crime. Further complicating matters, Randolph took the case knowing the prosecutor was none other than his own son-in-law, Philip Norborne Nicholas.

The Trial

The trial for the murder and forgery charges was set for Sep.  2, 1806. Wythe's colleagues, Judges Joseph Prentis and John Tyler Sr., presided over the trial in Virginia's District Court. Prior to the trial, the magistrates, Court of Hustings and grand jury had all reached the same conclusion " that Sweeney was guilty. Thus, it was a great surprise, and there was great public outcry, when the Richmond Enquirer reported that after hearing the proof and eloquent argument by counsel for the parties, "the jury retired, and in a few minutes, brought in the verdict of not guilty [for the murder of Wythe]. A similar indictment against him [Sweeney] for the poisoning of Michael, a mulatto boy (who lived with Mr. Wythe) was quashed without a trial."[35]

The records of the District Court trial did not survive a fire that occurred during the evacuation of Richmond during the Civil War. Newspaper accounts provide insight on the basis for the acquittal. First and foremost, the testimony of Lydia Broadnax, and any other black witness, was excluded pursuant to Virginia law. The Richmond Enquirer reported that some of the "strongest testimony," that had been heard by the Hustings Court and by the Grand Jury, was excluded from the District Court trial since "it was gleaned from the evidence of negroes, which is not permitted by our laws to go against a white man." The Virginia statute in place at the time of the trial provided "any negro or mulatto, bond or free, shall be a good witness in pleas of the Commonwealth for or against negroes or mulattoes, bond or free, or in civil pleas where free negroes or mulattoes shall alone be parties."[36]

Although the most direct and intended effect of this, and similar laws, was to deprive blacks of the ability to offer evidence in any case they might bring against a white, the secondary effect was to deprive white parties of the benefit of the testimony of black witnesses. Thus, by depriving blacks of their civil rights, the law also undermined the Commonwealth's efforts to seek justice for the murder of one of its most prominent and respected white citizens. It can be argued that Wythe and Jefferson had some culpability for allowing the status quo to be preserved, which ultimately resulted in injustice in the Sweeney trial. Wythe, Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton undertook the task of revising Virginia's laws during the Revolution. Although there was some discussion of the abolition of slavery and extending certain rights and privileges to blacks, it was ultimately concluded that any initiative along that line was politically futile and the existing laws were maintained.

The exclusion of the testimony of black witnesses, and any hearsay statements attributed to those witnesses, resulted in significant deficiencies in the prosecutor's proof. Lydia Broadnax's testimony would have included her observation of Sweeney reading Wythe's will and provided the only link that tied Sweeney to the coffee that was consumed by all of the household's inhabitants on the morning everyone became ill. The exclusion of the testimony of numerous other blacks deprived Attorney General Nicholas of testimony that placed Sweeney in the workshop, crushing arsenic, and the testimony of Pleasant, the young servant girl who first found the arsenic outside Sweeney's jail cell. The exclusion of the circumstantial evidence suggesting that Sweeney poisoned the coffee may have left the prosecution in the position of having to argue that the poison was administered through the strawberries that Wythe ingested on the evening prior to the onset of the illness. However, how could Nicholas explain Lydia and Michael's illness and why did it take so long for Wythe to become ill when the onset of symptoms of arsenic poisoning was usually quite sudden?

In contemporary terms, the prosecution also suffered from a deficiency in medical causation testimony. First and foremost, the autopsies done on Michael Brown and Chancellor Wythe did not take advantage of the various laboratory tests available in the early 1800s, which could have supported a definitive determination that Wythe and Brown were poisoned with arsenic. Instead, the autopsies merely consisted of various physicians offering contradictory opinions based on nothing more than their observations of the appearance of the deceased's tissue and organs. Although a record of the medical testimony offered during trial does not exist, the summaries from the Hustings' proceeding show there was a difference of opinion among the physicians regarding whether the deaths were caused by poisoning or "the accumulation of bile."[37]

Undoubtedly, the involvement of William Wirt and Edmund Randolph had a profound effect on the outcome of the case. While the prevailing opinion at the time was that Sweeney, as a criminal accused, should have access to competent counsel, the involvement of Wirt and Randolph stacked the deck in Sweeney's favor. Wirt and Randolph were two of the most capable trial lawyers of the day. Randolph's involvement as Sweeney's counsel also deprived the prosecution of his testimony offered before the Court of Hustings. In connection with his involvement as a witness in this case, Randolph also realized that the case depended, in large part, on the testimony of black witnesses who were incompetent to offer testimony against Sweeney under Virginia law. William Wirt expressed the same thought in his June 10 letter to James Monroe shortly after Wythe's death. Wirt was also the beneficiary of information that led him to believe that an acquittal could be secured on Sweeney's behalf; despite his belief early on that Sweeney was guilty of the murder of his good friend and former colleague. In a letter to his wife, Wirt related conversations with Judge William Nelson, who was knowledgeable of the case, indicating that there were contradictions and weaknesses in the medical testimony that could be exploited.[38] It is apparent from Wirt's correspondence that this information factored into Wirt's decision to accept the representation of Sweeney. Although it is certainly conceivable that Wirt or Randolph would have discovered this information on their own, the fact that a judge was directing Wirt's attention to this issue, and encouraging him to take the representation, is certainly problematic. It is also reasonable to conclude that Randolph's mere involvement as Sweeney's defense counsel influenced the jury toward acquittal. Randolph vouched for Sweeney by his participation in the defense. After all, Wythe and Randolph were long-time friends and Randolph was Wythe's lawyer. A jury, not knowing Randolph's real motivations, may have concluded that Randolph would not have accepted the defense of Sweeney unless he believed the young man did not kill his good friend and client.

Post Script

Although Sweeney was acquitted of murder, he was convicted on two of the counts of forgery. One of the forgery convictions was overturned on the basis that the Virginia statute, under which he was prosecuted, applied only to instances where the victim was a natural person. The Bank of Virginia was the victim and not considered a "person" under the laws of the Commonwealth. The other count was based on different circumstances and the conviction was upheld. However, for reasons unknown, the trial court granted a new trial on that count and the prosecution never pursued the matter.[39] Sweeney never served a day of his sentence and disappeared from Richmond shortly after the trial. It was reported that he fled to Tennessee and served a lengthy prison sentence after being convicted for stealing a horse. Sweeney never saw a penny from Wythe's estate since the codicil drafted by Edmond Randolph effectively revoked all bequests to Sweeney.

Sweeney's trial was not the last occasion that William Wirt and Edmund Randolph would share the courtroom. The year after Sweeney's trial, Thomas Jefferson appointed Wirt as the chief prosecutor in the treason trial of Aaron Burr. Edmund Randolph secured Burr's acquittal. Randolph continued to practice law for another decade, having mended much of the damage to his reputation. William Wirt eventually became the longest serving United States attorney general in history, serving in both the Madison and Monroe administrations.[40]

Thomas Jefferson and Lydia Broadnax corresponded periodically over the years. Jefferson helped Broadnax with medical bills incurred from the poisoning and with her later purchase of a home. Jefferson would miss his dear friend. Upon hearing of Wythe's death, President Jefferson wrote:

He was my ancient master, my earliest and best friend; and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life. I had reserved with fondness, for the day of my retirement the hope of inducing him to pass much of his time with me.[41]

While their time together on earth was cut short by Wythe's murder, Jefferson and Wythe continue to share a prominent place in American history. Wythe could not have been more proud than when he affixed his signature to his pupil's greatest work, The Declaration of Independence. Although it is true that the document represents the perfect expression of what the founding fathers sought for our fledging nation, the exclusion of the testimony of the black witnesses at the Sweeney trial is a reminder that justice is continually undermined when the laws and institutions of a state or nation fail to recognize and fully protect the civil rights of all citizens. Like the poison that killed Wythe, there are both intended and unintended victims, but the effects on all are equally vile. The Virginia rule of law prohibiting the testimony of blacks in cases in which whites were parties would not be cast away until shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. When it was, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation took one step in the long march toward fulfilling the notion embodied in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal."  


  1. Multiple variations of the spelling of the surname appear over the years. In contemporary letters, newspapers and court documents, both "Sweeney" and "Swinney" were used. W. Edwin Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder: A Documentary Essay," in The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays (The Institute of Early American History & Culture, 1955), 41 n. 26.
  2. Commonwealth v. Caton, 8 Va. (4 Call) 5 (1782).
  3. Joyce Blackburn, George Wythe of Williamsburg (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 45.
  4. Id. at 113.
  5. Julian P. Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," in The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays (The Institute of Early American History & Culture, 1955), 4.
  6. Blackburn, George Wythe of Williamsburg, 131.
  7. Drawing parallels to Jefferson in her 1974 biography, Fawn Broadie concluded that Broadnax was Wythe's mistress and Michael Brown their son. Fawn M. Broadie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1974), 390-91.
  8. George Wythe Mumford, The Two Parsons (Richmond: J.D.K. Sleight, 1884), 423.
  9. World Health Organization, Fact Sheet No. 107 (June 2010) [].
  10. Bruce Chadwick, I Am Murdered (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009), 31.
  11. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney," 47.
  12. June 4, 1806 letter from William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson.
  13. Id.
  14. Mumford, The Two Parsons, 422.
  15. Id. at 423.
  16. Id. at 421.
  17. Id. at 426.
  18. June 8, 1806 letter from William Duval to Thomas Jefferson.
  19. Id.
  20. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney," 43, n. 30.
  21. Id. at 40-3.
  22. Id. at 44.
  23. Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 130.
  24. Id. at 130.
  25. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney," 44.
  26. Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 132-33.
  27. Id. at 134.
  28. Id. at I40.
  29. Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," 55.
  30. June 10, 1806 letter from William Wirt to James Monroe, Monroe Papers, Vol. 13, Series 1.
  31. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney," 55.
  32. Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 151-55.
  33. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney," 49.
  34. Id. at 50.
  35. Id. at 56, citing Richmond Enquirer, September 9, 1806.
  36. Shepherd, Statutes, II, 300.
  37. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney," 50-51.
  38. Id. at 55.
  39. Id. at 62, n. 74.
  40. Chadwick, I am Murdered, 238.
  41. June  14, 1806, letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Duval.  

Daniel P. Berexa DAN BEREXA is the managing partner of Cornelius & Collins LLP in Nashville. He practices in the areas of personal injury, product liability, insurance law, professional liability and commercial dispute resolution. He is a former chair of the TBA’s Law Office Technology & Management Section and is a graduate of the TBA’s Leadership Law program. Berexa received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and graduated cum laude from the University of Tennessee School of Law in 1991, where he was a member of the Tennessee Law Review.