Michael Brown

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Michael Brown (b. ca. 1790; d. 1806), was a mixed-race free boy and a member of George Wythe’s household in Richmond. A beneficiary of Wythe's will, Brown died of arsenic poisoning one week before Wythe’s own death from the same poison in June 1806.

Little is known of Brown’s early life. In Wythe’s will, he is referred to as a "freed boy," but there is "no evidence that he was a former Wythe slave," whom Wythe himself had manumitted.[1] His surname, Brown, was a common last name among free African-Americans in Richmond, and provides little evidence of his origins.[2]

Various theories have been proposed to explain his presence in the Wythe household. One suggests that he was somehow connected to Wythe’s friend William DuVal, who freed several slaves with the last name of Brown in 1797.[3] Another proposes that Brown may be Thomas Jefferson’s first child with Sally Hemings.[4] Hemings gave birth to a child in 1790, and newspaper articles published in 1802 claimed that a twelve-year-old mixed-race boy named Tom was Jefferson’s son.[5] All records of Tom disappear after 1802. According to this theory, he was taken away from Monticello to avoid a scandal, and brought to Richmond to live with Wythe under the name Michael Brown.[6] Some accounts refer to Brown as Wythe’s biological son with his cook and former slave Lydia Broadnax, but this theory, unsupported by any contemporary sources and with its origin in the untrustworthy Dove Memorandum, is almost certainly untrue.

Brown is first mentioned in Wythe’s will of April 1803, in which Wythe left the rent from his property and the interest from his stock for the support of Brown and Wythe’s former slaves Lydia Broadnax and Benjamin. Wythe was tutoring Brown in Latin, Greek, and math,[7] and wanted Brown to continue with his studies even after Wythe’s death. In a codicil to his will dated January 19, 1806, Wythe entrusted Brown’s future care and education to Thomas Jefferson.

Wythe’s great-nephew George Wythe Sweeney was another beneficiary of the will. If Brown were to die "before his full age," Sweeney would receive not only his own inheritance, but also Brown’s portion of Wythe’s estate. Plagued by gambling debts, and apparently aware of the contents of his great-uncle’s will, Sweeney poisoned the Wythe household's morning pot of coffee with arsenic on May 25, 1806. Wythe, Brown, and Lydia Broadnax all drank the poisoned coffee, and all became violently ill.[8]

Brown’s symptoms were the most severe: he was "cold in his extremities and [had] convulsions.[9] One week later, on June 1, he died from the effects of the poison.[10] Wythe died a week after Brown. Broadnax survived, but was left almost blind.[11]

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated June 29, 1806, in which he recounted the recent events in Richmond, William DuVal wrote of Brown: "The Boy was personable and good, he had caught the Suavity of his Master’s Manners." Jefferson himself also expressed his sadness at the news of Brown’s death: "I sincerely regret [his] loss ... 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 attentions which would have gratified me unceasingly with the constant recollection & execution of the wish of my friend."[12]

Sweeney was indicted on two counts of murder.[13] He was ultimately found not guilty of murdering Wythe — Lydia Broadnax was not allowed to testify against Sweeney because she was African-American — and, as reported by the Richmond Enquirer on September 9, 1806, the indictment against him for poisoning Michael Brown "was quashed without a trial."

See also


  1. Philip D. Morgan, "Interracial Sex in the Chesapeake and the British Atlantic World, c. 1700-1820," in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, ed. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 59.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Polly Longsworth, "Jefferson’s ‘alleged child:’ Could he have been Michael Brown, murdered with George Wythe?," Colonial Williamsburg 21, no. 2 (April/May 1999): 19.
  5. Ibid., 13.
  6. Ibid., 19.
  7. Daniel Berexa, "The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe," Tennessee Bar Journal, Dec. 21, 2010.
  8. Ibid.
  9. 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), 15.
  10. Ibid., 17.
  11. Andrew Nunn McKnight, "Lydia Broadnax, Slave, and Free Woman of Color," Southern Studies 5, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 1994): 23.
  12. Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 22 June 1806.
  13. 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), 54.