Lydia Broadnax

From Wythepedia: The George Wythe Encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Lydia Broadnax (b. ca. 1742; d. between 1820 and 1827) was George Wythe's cook.[1] In his book The Two Parsons, George Wythe Munford described Broadnax as "a servant of the olden time, respected and trusted by her master, and devotedly attached to him and his—one of those whom he had liberated, but who lived with him from affection."[2]

Broadnax was born a slave, and was probably trained to be a domestic servant for the Wythe family, or for Richard Taliaferro, the father of Wythe's second wife Elizabeth.[3] She is first listed as a member of Wythe's household in the tax records of 1783,[4] and appears in other records the following three years.[5] In each of these records she is identified only as "Lydia." It is possible that she adopted her last name after gaining her freedom in 1787.[6]

Wythe freed four slaves, including Broadnax, between his wife's death in 1787 and his move to Richmond in 1791.[7] According to her manumission record, she was over forty-five years old at the time she was freed. Under the law authorizing the manumission of slaves, this meant that Wythe would remain "responsible for her financial stability," even if she left his household.[8]

Broadnax probably moved to Richmond with Wythe in 1791 and worked for him as a paid servant.[9] Tax records show that by 1797 she owned her own property, "a small wooden home on a half-acre of land,"[10] where she took in boarders and earned enough money to support herself.[11] This property may have been given to her by Wythe, or she might have bought it herself.[12]

Wythe included Broadnax in his will, initially devoting the rent from a piece of property in Richmond to her, another freed slave named Benjamin, and Michael Brown. In a codicil dated February 24, 1806, Wythe also left her his fuel.

On May 25, 1806, Wythe's great-nephew George Wythe Sweeney poisoned the Wythe household's morning pot of coffee with arsenic with the intention of murdering Wythe and Michael Brown and gaining immediate access to his inheritance.[13] Broadnax, in the Wythe home on the morning of the poisoning, was also a victim of the poisoning.[14] Unlike Brown, who died on June 1, and Wythe, who died on June 8, she survived the attack. Her health suffered, however, and she was left almost completely blind.[15]

In his book The Two Parsons, George Wythe Munford reported Broadnax's version of the events of May 25 "in her own language."[16] According to this account, Broadnax found Sweeney looking through Wythe's private desk and reading his will on the day before the poisonings. The next day, while she was making breakfast, she observed Sweeney pour himself a cup of coffee, and afterwards "throw a little white paper in the fire." Soon after these events, Broadnax, Wythe, and Brown all became violently ill. Broadnax concluded, "All these things makes me think Mars George must have put something in the coffee-pot. I didn't see him, but it looks monstrous strange."[17]

If this story is true, Broadnax would have been an invaluable witness in Sweeney's later murder trial. Not only could she speak to his possible motive, but she could testify to highly suspicious behavior, strongly probative of his guilt.[18] However, African-American witnesses were not permitted to testify against white defendants in Virginia at that time, and Broadnax was barred from presenting her evidence to the court.[19] Sweeney was found not guilty of murdering Wythe.[20]

Little is known of Broadnax's life after the poisonings. She was in poor health, as revealed in a letter written to Thomas Jefferson in 1807 in which she asked for financial assistance: "I have tolerable, and comfortable house to live in, but being almost intirely deprived of my eyesight, together with old age and infirmness of health I find it extremely difficult in procuring merely the daily necessities of life—and without some assistance I feel I shall sink under the burden ... I believe it is owing to the dreadful complaint the whole family was afflicted with at the decease of my poor Master—supported to be the effect of poison." The letter may be some indication that Broadnax was literate, although it could just as easily have been written for her, either because she could not write herself or because, as she indicated, she was nearly blind. Jefferson sent Broadnax $50.[21]

Despite her infirmity, Broadnax lived another thirteen years at the minimum, and was at least 85 years old at the time of her death. In her will, dated September 25, 1820, she directed that she be buried in the back of her property, and bequeathed her property and possessions to her two greatnephews.[22] There is no evidence that Broadnax was married or had children to whom she could leave her property, but some historians believe she was married to Benjamin,[23] another former Wythe slave and a beneficiary of Wythe's original will, who died some time between April 1803 and January 1806. Broadnax's will was entered into the Court of Hustings in Richmond on February 26, 1827.[24]

See also

External links

  • Harriott Lomax portrays Lydia Broadnax in "Bought and Sold in Williamsburg," in the episode "Unearthing Secret America," Scientific American Frontiers (Season 13, episode 1, at 27:34). Transcript at the Internet Archive; video at Chedd-Angier (direct link to video).


  1. "Lydia Broadnax," Colonial Williamsburg Foundation website, accessed November 5, 2015.
  2. George Wythe Munford, The Two Parsons; Cupid's Sports; The Dream; and the Jewels of Virginia (Richmond, J.D.K Sleight, 1884), 417.
  3. Andrew Nunn McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax, Slave, and Free Woman of Color," Southern Studies 5, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 1994): 18.
  4. "Lydia Broadnax," Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
  5. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 18.
  6. "Lydia Broadnax," Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
  7. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 19.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Bruce Chadwick, I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 112.
  11. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 19-20.
  12. Ibid., 19.
  13. Daniel Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," Tennessee Bar Journal, Dec. 21, 2010.
  14. Ibid.
  15. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 23.
  16. Munford, The Two Parsons, 422.
  17. Ibid., 422-423.
  18. Julian P. Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," in The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays, Julian P. Boyd and W. Edwin Hemphill (Williamsburg, VA: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955), 14.
  19. W. Edwin Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder: A Documentary Essay," in The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays, Julian P. Boyd and W. Edwin Hemphill (Williamsburg, VA: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955), 56-57.
  20. Ibid., 56.
  21. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 22-23.
  22. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 23.
  23. "Lydia Broadnax," Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
  24. McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax," 24.