Death of George Wythe
George Wythe enjoyed good health late into life, remaining active as a judge at the age of 80. But on June 8, 1806, he died after suffering an excruciating illness that had suddenly afflicted his household. The cause of that illness was probably arsenic, administered by Wythe’s grandnephew and namesake, George Wythe Sweeney.
Wythe’s Household at the Time of His Death
At the time of the suspected poisoning, Wythe was serving as High Chancellor of the Virginia Chancery Court He had been living in a house at Fifth and Grace streets in Richmond for about 15 years. and had two household servants: his longtime cook and freedwoman Lydia Broadnax and a 16-year-old freedman, Michael Brown. Wythe’s wife had passed away many years before.
Wythe’s grandnephew George Wythe Sweeney (grandson of Wythe’s sister Anne) often stayed with Wythe, and had been living at the house for some time prior to the suspected poisoning. Wythe treated his grandnephew generously; Sweeney was free to come and go as he pleased, and Wythe instructed the servants to give him whatever he wanted. Sweeney was eighteen years old in 1806, and had already acquired a reputation as a troublemaker. Before the suspected poisoning, Sweeney had forged Wythe’s name on several checks and had stolen and sold some of Wythe’s possessions, probably to pay off gambling debts. Wythe was aware of some of Sweeney’s transgressions, but hoped that the young man would straighten out as he matured. Sweeney also was one of the main beneficiaries under Wythe’s will, which apparently provided an incentive for murder.
The Suspected Murder
On Sunday morning, May 25, 1806, Lydia Broadnax prepared breakfast as usual for the Wythe household. Sweeney appeared in the kitchen and asked for toast and coffee, saying that he could not stay to eat breakfast with Wythe. While Broadnax prepared the toast, Sweeney poured himself a cup of coffee from the kettle on the stove. Broadnax saw Sweeney replace the kettle on the stove, then throw a small white piece of paper into the fire. Sweeney quickly finished his coffee and toast and left.
Broadnax brought Wythe his breakfast, which included coffee from the kettle that Sweeney had handled. She also served coffee to Michael Brown and herself, then cleaned out the kettle. Within minutes of drinking the coffee, Wythe, Broadnax and Brown all became violently ill. Wythe immediately suspected that they had been poisoned, but the local doctors initially believed the household was suffering from cholera.
After the victims endured several days of excruciating illness, the doctors acknowledged that the symptoms were not consistent with cholera. In the meantime, with Wythe on his deathbed, Sweeney was caught cashing yet another check with Wythe’s forged signature. A search of Sweeney’s room turned up arsenic, and Broadnax revealed that she had seen Sweeney reading Wythe’s will the night before the alleged poisoning.
On June 1, 1806, Michael Brown died. It’s very possible that Sweeney had intended to kill him as well as Wythe. Wythe’s will named Brown and Sweeney as the main beneficiaries, and Sweeney would take Brown’s share if Brown died. After Brown’s death, Wythe exclaimed, "I shall not be far behind." He arranged for a codicil to his will revoking all bequests to Sweeney. Two weeks after the poisoning, George Wythe died on June 8, 1806.
On June 2, Sweeney was arrested for forgery and imprisoned awaiting trial. On June 23, he was charged with the murder of Wythe and Brown. The prosecutor was Phillip Norborne Nicholas, Attorney General of Virginia. The case attracted a great deal of attention, and observers were convinced of Sweeney’s guilt. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was President at the time, took a strong interest in the case.
Two of the nation’s best attorneys stepped forward to represent Sweeney. Edmund Randolph was a former U.S. Attorney General and ex-governor of Virginia. William Wirt was the former High Chancellor of Virginia and would go on to become the longest-serving U.S. Attorney General. They were apparently attracted to the case because of its notoriety.
Sweeney’s trial began on September 2, 1806, in a courthouse packed with spectators. In view of the evidence against him, Sweeney was expected to hang. Yet the jury returned a verdict of not guilty after only a few minutes of deliberation.
What had gone wrong? To begin with, the autopsies of Brown and Wythe were botched, and as a result, the prosecution failed to present any persuasive medical evidence. The defense took full advantage of this failure, and by the time the physicians’ testimony was concluded, there was serious doubt in the courtroom as to whether anyone had been poisoned at all.
Broadnax, who survived the poisoning and knew more about the case than any other witness, was barred from testifying on account of her race. She was the only living witness who had seen Sweeney handle the coffee pot, and without her testimony the prosecution could not present its theory that Sweeney had tampered with the coffee. Instead the prosecution argued that Sweeney had poisoned some strawberries on May 24—a theory that made little sense. As for the arsenic found in Sweeney’s room, that could be easily explained—many people in Richmond kept arsenic to poison rats.
Sweeney left the courthouse a free man. Because of the public anger against him, his attorneys advised him to leave the state as quickly as possible. Sweeney was never seen in Virginia again.
Reaction to Wythe's Death
Wythe's death prompted widespread praise for his legacy and condemnation of Sweeney. Articles appeared in newspapers nationwide, one declaring that "few have more strongly evinced the height of moral and intellectual excellence to which man is capable of ascending." Another article explained that "kings may require mausoleums to consecrate their memory; saints may claim the privileges of canonization; but the venerable George Wythe needs no other monument than the services rendered to his country, and the universal sorrow which that country sheds over his grave."
Wythe's friend and former student William Munford delivered a moving eulogy at Wythe's state funeral in Richmond on June 9. His speech was later published in the Richmond Enquirer under the headline "Oration Pronounced at the Funeral of George Wythe." Munford remarked that Wythe's "public virtues were of the greatest importance, not to a few persons only, but to all America." He noted Wythe's role in the first Congress that declared American independence in 1776: "He was an active, useful and respected member of that body, the most enlightened, patriotic and heroic that perhaps ever existed in the world." Munford went on to assert that Wythe may have been even more important than Jefferson in shaping the country, noting that Jefferson was guided by Wythe.
Thomas Jefferson exchanged a series of letters with William DuVal on the Wythe case. After DuVal informed him of Wythe's death, Jefferson wrote that "a purer character has never lived." He described Wythe as his "ancient master" and "earliest and best friend." With respect to the suspected murder, Jefferson opined that "such an instance of depravity has been hitherto known to us only in the fables of the poets." Jefferson's grief affected more than just his correspondence. He was noticeably despondent over Wythe's death and Sweeney's acquittal, and his personality seemed to sour in 1806 despite political triumphs.
Perhaps the most intriguing reaction to Wythe's death came in a letter from John Page to St. George Tucker dated June 29, 1806. Page was a friend of Wythe's and a former governor of Virginia. Writing at a time when most observers were convinced that Sweeney would hang for his crimes, Page voiced doubt that the law could sufficiently deter and punish murderers like Sweeney. Page expressed his faith in ethics and religion, which he contrasted with a legal system that was more concerned with exerting power over others than achieving justice. In hindsight, Page's June letter appears to uncannily predict the trial that unfolded in September. Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Sweeney was acquitted thanks largely to Virginia's pro-slavery laws that barred a black freedwoman from testifying against a white man.
- Main article: Wythe Monument
George Wythe was buried on Monday, June 9th, 1806, in the cemetery of St. John's Church in Richmond, at 24th and Broad streets. Although the exact location of his grave has been forgotten, a monument to his memory and accomplishments was placed on the west side of the church in 1922. His memorial reads:
THIS TABLET IS DEDICATED
TO MARK THE SITE WHERE LIE
THE MORTAL REMAINDS OF
BORN 1726—DIED 1806
JURIST AND STATESMAN
TEACHER OF RANDOLPH
JEFFERSON AND MARSHALL
FIRST PROFESSOR OF LAW
IN THE UNITED STATES
FIRST VIRGINIA SIGNER OF THE
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
- Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder
- Hustings Court Minutes
- Hustings Court Order Book
- Memoranda Concerning the Death of Chancellor Wythe
- The Murder of George Wythe
- Oration, Pronounced at the Funeral of George Wythe
- Richmond Enquirer, 10 June 1806
- Wythe Monument
- Alonzo Thomas Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty (Williamsburg, Virginia: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), 79; Bruce Chadwick, I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a Nation (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons 2009), 3.
- Dill, George Wythe, 80-81.
- Ibid., 79-82.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 3.
- Dill, George Wythe, 77.
- Dill, George Wythe, 79-80; Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 9, 114.
- Dill, George Wythe, 65.
- Julian P. Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," in The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays (Williamsburg, Va.: Institute of Early American History and Culture 1955), 8.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 9, 13.
- Ibid., 9-10.
- Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," 8-9; Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 92.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 10, 13.
- Ibid., 37, 104-105.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 13; Daniel P. Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe." Tennessee Bar Journal 47 (Jan. 2011): 24.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 14-15.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 15-16; Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," 24.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 36; Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," 24.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 124.
- Ibid., 36-38.
- Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," 25.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 37.
- Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," 25.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 124-125.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 17-18, 129-130, 161-163.
- Ibid., 130-131, 238.
- Ibid., 163-164.
- Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," 29.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 195-215.
- At the time, Virginia law barred blacks from testifying against whites in criminal cases. Ibid., 228-229.
- Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," 27-28.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 230.
- Ibid., 234.
- Ibid., 17-23.
- The Enquirer (Richmond, VA), June 10, 1806, 3.
- "Full of Years; and Full of Honor," Scioto Gazette, July 3, 1806, 3.
- Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, June 14, 1806.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 162, 235-236.
- Ibid., 44.
- Chadwick, I Am Murdered, 236; City of Richmond, "Historic Cemeteries," http://www.richmondgov.com/parks/Cemeteries.aspx.
- Berexa, Daniel P. "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe." Tennessee Bar Journal (January 2011): 22-29.
- Boyd, Julian P. and W. Edwin Hemphill. The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays. Williamsburg: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955.
- Chadwick, Bruce. I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.
- Chadwick, Bruce. "The Mysterious Death of Judge George Wythe". Historynet.com (December, 2008).
- Jarrett, Calvin. "Was George Wythe Murdered?" 13, no. 3 Virginia Cavalcade (Winter 1963-64): 33-39.
- Theobald, Mary Miley. "Murder by Namesake: The Poisoning of the Eminent George Wythe." 35 Colonial Williamsburg (Winter 2013): 24-30.
- "Murder by Namesake: The Poisoning of the Eminent George Wythe," Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2013).