"A Venerable Old Tree"
"A Venerable Old Tree" is a newspaper article by Dr. William P. Palmer, published under the byline "W.P.P.", which appeared in The Times newspaper of Richmond, Virginia, on Monday, October 28, 1894. Palmer uses the prompt of seeing an old 'tulip bearing poplar' tree at the location of George Wythe's former residence at the corner of 5th and Grace Streets in Richmond to reminisce on the life and accomplishments of George Wythe, and give a brief history of the lot where the house once stood, after it was torn down.
This particular tree, probably a Yellow-poplar, was still standing as late as 1902, when it is mentioned in an article on "Homes of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence" in American Monthly Magazine. Mrs. Anne C. Harper is quoted as saying:
George Wythe lived at one time in Richmond, his residence being on the corner of Fifth and Grace streets. Although the original house was pulled down to make room for the present building, a large tulip poplar tree still graces the spot and overlooks the newer building as it did its predecessor. In a family letter, belonging to a friend of mine, this home is mentioned and attention is called to one of its chief attractions—its fine view of Manchester.
"A Venerable Old Tree" contains a short biography of Wythe, but also has a description of his physical appearance, as well as anecdotes concerning Wythe's burial and even suggests the possibility that Wythe's grave was disturbed during (undated) improvements to St. John's Church in Richmond. A clipping of the article was placed in George Wythe's copy of the Bible owned by Nicholas Philip Trist Burke, a great, great grandson of Thomas Jefferson.
Article text, 28 October 1894
A VENERABLE OLD TREE
STANDING NEAR FIFTH AND GRACE
IS NOW ONE OF THE LANDMARKS.
It Shows the Spot Where Lived Chanceller [sic]
George Wythe, and Recalls the Story
of His Life and Death.
Any one familiar with the streets of Richmond must be impressed by the changes made in appearnce [sic] of many of them during the past summer months. New buildings have been erected, waste places have been filled up, and the hand of improvement seems not to have been stayed, even by the stringency of the money market or the wasting hours of the heated term. To all of us, these evidences of prosperity are gratifying. To some those changes are not always pleasing. To older citizens they are always suggestive. The removal of a venerable structure, or the remodeling of an ancient landmark awakens in them painful sentiments. Sometimes these incidental reforms do little more than recall an event, or some historical association, which, when pursued, awakens other memories, "once green in our souls."
Such were my own impressions when lately passing along Grace street, I observed how narrowly the old forest, or tulip bearing poplar, standing near the corner of Grace and Fifth, had escaped destruction in consequence of the improvements made in that locality. This venerable tree has a history. Because, of itself, it cannot tell what has occurred on that lot: because it has been witness to, but could not see the doings of personages; nor hear what they said, or remember what they did; I propose to give it eyes, lend it ears, and perhaps, enable its withering foliage to whisper something of itself, which may not be known to many. It has long since reached the age of four score years: but until of late, has experienced neither labor nor sorrow. Now, however, it has had to submit, like many other veterans, to the decrees of fate. Its sources of life have been tapped, and its out-spreading limbs have been mutilated. What it suffers thereby, we know not; save that its existence as one of the venerable landmarks of the past, is seriously threatened. Long before it had attained a growth sufficient to throw its protecting shadows over man or beast, it was a promising ornament to a small two storied framed house, which stood immediately south of its present position, and fronting towards Fifth street. Its history is, therefore, associated with this humble dwelling and the great man who lived and died in it.
CHANCELLOR GEORGE WYTHE.
Before the present century began, the famous Chancellor, George Wythe, described by the historian, as "the patriot, jurist, and pure Virginian," came from Williamsburg to reside in Richmond. He was already known to the American people, but more particularly to the Virginia public. He was born in Elizabeth City county, in 1726, only ten years after Gov. Spotswoods' bugles had awakened the echoes of the wilderness, beyond the Blue Ridge, and when the western limits of civilization in Virginia had scarcely been established in the Piedmont region. His career thus began in the earliest of those days which soon became one of the most important epochs of modern history; and made specially remarkable by the prolific supply of patriots and statesmen, afforded by Virginia to the cause of human freedom.
One of the foremost of the latter was George Wythe. After filling many honorable positions in his native State, he became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and in his later years was made Chancellor of Virginia by the vote of the Legislature.
During his long life he was identified with the social, political, and judicial history of Virginia, and on all occasions exemplified the virtues of the citizen with the dignity of the jurist. His purity and simplicity of character, together with his great learning as a lawyer, commanded the respect and admiration of his co-temporaries. Mr. Wythe had been without the advantages of early education. But by application and the exercise of a discriminating taste he became an erudite and polished scholar. His familiarity with the Greek and Roman classics, enabled him to decorate his easy and graceful conversation with gems from the best ancient authors.
A man so gifted and with such acquirements could not but exercise great influence. Mr. Jefferson considered himself a most fortunate man in being allowed to study law under his special direction. By reason of his benign nature and devotion to the personal interests of others he attracted the love and veneration of those worthy of his attention. On this account we find his eminent name intimately associated with families to whom he was not at all related; but who chose to manifest their admiration of the man by acknowledging their grateful appreciation of his favors. In the person of George Wythe Munford, son of the translator of Homer, was embodied the memory of Mr. Wythe's devotion to his gifted father.
When his widowed mother felt obliged to withdraw her son from college at Williamsburg, for want of funds, Mr. Wythe insisted this should not be done; and for several years educated in his own house, the future scholar and poet. Wythe was then Professor of Law at the college. And so when Thomas Mann Randolph became the son-in-law of Thomas Jefferson, he could not forget the abiding devotion and friendship of the great chancellor to his illustrious father-in-law, while a very young man, and during his subsequent career. Having married the favorite daughter of Mr. Jefferson, he bestowed upon one of the sons of this union the honored name of the early patron and friend of his father-in-law. The late George Wythe Randolph therefore lived to impersonate the grateful sentiment of his father, as well as to illustrate many of the gifts and virtues of his great namesake.
The personal appearance of Mr. Wythe was in keeping with the qualities of his mind and his heart. A contemporary, after referring to his extreme simplicity of character and of the delight he took in the "innocent prattle" of children whose confidence he always gained, thus describes him. "His stature was of middle size. He was well-formed and proportioned, and the features of his face, manly, comely, and engaging. In his walk he carried his hands behind him, holding the one in the other, which added to his thoughtful appearance.
In his latter days he was very bald. The hair that remained was uncut and worn behind curled up in a continuous roll. His head was very round, with a high forehead: well-arched eye-brows, prominent blue eyes, showing softness and intelligence combined, a large aquiline nose, rather small but well defined mouth, and thin whiskers not lower than his ears. "* * * His countenance was exceedingly benevolent and cheerful."
His costume was that of most of the gentlemen of the day. It was a Quaker cut coat of black material and high collar, a long vest with broad flaps and deep pockets. He wore shorts, with silver knee and shoe buckles, a white cravat, and "was particularly neat in appearance." His habit of taking a cold bath, every morning at sunrise, was never neglected. The water for this purpose, he drew himself, fresh from a well in his yard. After this came his "frugal breakfast" and then, his daily routine of business and social life, all of which were tempered with decorum and the benevolence for which he was especially remarkable.
His court was held in a basement room at the southern end of the capitol; its sessions being characterized by official dignity and the respect due to authority. Thus was passing, serenely away, the public and private life of George Wythe, when its easy plan was suddenly arrested by a cruel and unexpected tragedy.
Mr. Wythe had been twice married, but had lost his only child in infancy. He was now a widower. His favorite relation was a great nephew, who was of weak mind, and as it turned out of disreputable character. This deluded young man had frequently been reproved by his uncle for his numerous misdemeanors and habit of dissipation. He had even told him of the provision he had made for him in his will, but at the same time warned him against the consequences of his continued irregular and unworthy life. The young man not only treated with indifference the warnings of his uncle, but fearing he might actually change his will, determined to take the life of the old man before his threat could be carried out.
The shocking details of this act need not be here given. It is well known, that soon after the unheeded warnings referred to, Mr. Wythe and several of his house servants were suddenly poisoned. It was proven that George Wythe Sweeney, his dissipated nephew had caused arsenic to be put into the coffee breakfast, with the intent to destroy the life of his uncle. The record of this diabolical deed has been preserved. It is only proper to add that although Mr. Wythe died from the effects of the dose, he lived long enough to disinherit his graceless relative and to devise the greater part of this estate intended for him to his brothers and sisters. One of his most faithful servants also fell a victim to the poison.
AN ILLUSTRUOUS LIFE. [sic]
Much more might be added to this sketch of a man, whose illustrious life and character have not been made known to Virginians, as they should be. How he not only freed his slaves, but made provision for their support; how, in his will, he did not forget his best friends. To Mr. Jefferson, he bequeathed his books and philosophical instruments, his silver cups, and gold headed cane; to his friend, William Duval, his "silver ladle, and table and tea-spoons." And how, during his last illness and after his death, the entire community bemourned his loss, and his unhappy fate.
He died in his eighty-first year and was buried on Monday, the 9th of June, 1806, in the burial ground on the hill in old St. John's church yard. No tombstone ever marked the spot, which should have been made sacred to his memory. Some years ago, the lawyers of Richmond, under the lead of Mr. Conway Robinson, took steps to fulfill this long-neglected duty. But the matter fell through, for some unknown cause. It was a matter of doubt where his body had been buried. Some said his remains had been deposited on the west side of the church, very near the building. Others insisted that his last resting place, although west of the church, was quite near the wall of the cemetery. If this be so, his remains have probably been removed. When the city of Richmond committed the sacrilege of pulling down this wall and exposing the bones of many of the dead near it, the remains of Chancellor Wythe must have shared the fate of those of others.
It is said the bones thus exhumed were taken "en massee" and undesignated, and placed in a pile under the church, while the slabs which had marked some of the graves where used as crossings in the mud of the neighboring streets. If this be true, doubtless the great chancellor's remains were among those so roughly handled, and now be mouldering "unhonored and unsung," under St. John's church.
The following order, made by the Executive Counsel, settles all doubt as to whether Mr. Wythe was buried in Richmond or as some have said, in Elizabeth City. It shows also the state of public feeling on the solemn occasion:
"Council Chamber, Jan. 8, 1806. — Preparatory to the interment of George Wythe, late judge of the High Court of Chancery for the Richmond district, a funeral oration will be delivered at the Capitol, in the hall of the House of Delegates, to begin precisely at 4 o'clock P. M., on the to-morrow; after which, the procession will commence in the following order: The clergymen and orator of the day, coffin, with the word "corpse" on the lid, physicians, the executor and relatives of the deceased, the judges, members of the bar, officers of the High Court of Chancery, the Governor and council, other officers of government, the mayor, aldermen, and common council, the city of Richmond citizens.
The Enquirer added "Need it be said that the crowd which assembled in the Capitol was uncommonly numerous and respectable? After the delivery of a funeral oration by Mr. William Munford, a member of the Executive Council, the procession set out towards the church. It is no disparagement to the virtues of the living to assert that there is not, perhaps, another man in Virginia whom the solemn procession would have attended to the grave. Let the solemn and lengthened procession which attended him to his grace, declare the loss which we have sustained." So passed away almost a hundred years ago, the sage, patriot, and jurist, and typical Virginian.
People may now form some idea of the age of our venerable tree. From the best authority it is known that the great Chancellor held it in high favor. When it was young he cherished and nurtured it. Under its shade he and his friends spent many hour in the enjoyment of a society so congenial to each other; indulging the literary tastes for which he and they were so well fitted. It is said that the learned coterie, of which he was the distinguishing centre, might often be seen reading the ancient classics in the original and discussing the themes suggested by both Greek and Latin authors. Among these welcome guests were the two "parsons," Blair and Buchanan, the Munfords, Randolphs, and Major Wm. Duval, his devoted neighbor across the street, and the three noted medical men of the day, Doctors McClury, McCaw, and Foushee.
Long after the death of Judge Wythe, the lot on which he had lived, began to undergo changes. At a much later date, an Irishman named Shaw kept a boys school in a framed house on the lot near Franklin street, where Mr. James Dunlop afterwards erected a private residence, and which was owned by the late James Alfred Jones. As a school boy, I can never forget Shaw. He was an accomplished scholar. Most well-educated Irishmen are gentlemen. They have taste, and their sensibilities are generally attuned to the softening effects incident to the study of the humanities. But this man was a brute. His personal appearance was mot forbidding. His red hair stood stiffly up over his high forehead, his fierce and reddish eyes expressed a capacity for extreme passion, and his harsh, sibilant voice came upon the juvenile ear with a terror unspeakable. His pupils were from all classes of the community, and judging from their number one would have supposed he was a prosperous member of the pedagogue profession.
His appearance did not belie his real character. His daily occupation seemed to be to torture, rather than teach those under his control. In his hand he habitually carried a ferule, which he indiscriminately plied upon good and bad, and upon the silent and the obstreperous of his juvenile subjects. This cruel and relentless policy at length caused the ruin of his school. He lost money, took to drink and ran off to avoid imprisonment for debt.
Another Irishman, but an accomplished gentleman, succeeded the Hibernian tyrant in the same building. His name was Reynolds; had a properous [sic] school, was a rival of Saunders, Burke and other popular teachers who at different times taught the boys of Richmond. I can remember a few incidents connected with Mr. Wythe's lot, while I was a pupil at these two schools, I saw the Wythe dwelling pulled down. Boys delight to be troublesome whenever work is going on. One day during play-time we all went to see the workmen destroying the walls that had once enclosed the private life of this great man. Of course we knew nothing of him then. I saw one of the men tear an old carved mantle-piece from its fastening against the ancient chimney. Amid the dust and rain I saw fall out from behind the mantel, a large copper coin, which had doubtless been there many years. The workman, to my chagrin saw and secured it. It was only an English penny, but would have been a precious relic, unless promptly exchanged for a horse cake or a molasses stick. The lot at that time unenclosed, like many other vacant places in the town, was given up to horses, cows, hogs and goats. There were then no legal restraints upon the roaming privileges of domestic or other animals. Another incident I recall connected with that historic lot.
Old Mr. John Robinson was then Clerk of the Circuit Court, and lived in a large lead-colored house occupying high ground on the east side of Sixth street, gardens included, between Franklin and Main. His stable was on the opposite side of the street on the vacant space in rear of the Y.M.C.A. building the dwelling now occupied by the Rev. M.D. Hoge was at the time the only house on that square. As usual the horses were allowed to graze at large, and had wandered over the Chancellor Wythe's vacant lot, just as Shaw's boys were turned loose. Of course they frightened the horses and pelted them with all sorts of missiles. As they fled away from their pursuers, one of them suddenly disappeared into the bowels of the earth. He had unfortunately run over an old unfilled well, covered with decayed plank and hidden among the briers and surrounding rubbish. Of course he went to the bottom, crushed by the fall. This was the very well out of which the great Chanceller [sic] had been accustomed to draw the water for his daily morning bath.
But the fashion of these times was now rapidly undergoing a change. The plain old dwellings were disappearing to be succeeded by more pretentious and expensive structures. Our old tree had now increased in size, and being the only one left on the lot, was considered too important an object to share the general destruction. It soon had another friend and protector.
About the year 1833 Mr. Abram Warwick, having married a belle of Richmond, famous for her beauty and accomplishments, determined to provide himself with an appropriate dwelling. He purchased the historic lot and erected the handsome residence last occupied by Mr. Legh R. Page, and sold immediately after his death. Mr. Warwick spared no pains or money in its construction. The bricks were brought from Baltimore. Its outside decorations were of white marble and its classic entrance was mad chiefly of the same material. The timbers were of the best in the country and were selected by his special agent, who is now living, one of the oldest and best known citizens of Richmond. Although more than sixty years have passed since it was erected, and before its grounds were contracted by recent so called improvements, it was still a striking feature of the city. The spot which it adorned was long known to be the highest point in Richmond. Its elevated situation, graceful proportions and finish would suggest to any stranger or observer, that it was planned by a man of taste, and must be the home of a gentleman. The grand old poplar still survives, and although much encumbered by newly erected buildings, stands the suggestive witness of a spot where in the years gone by, continuous "Blessings waited on virtuous deeds."W. P. P.
- William P. Palmer, "A Venerable Old Tree," The Times (Richmond, VA), October 28, 1894, 9.
- The author is identified by Beverley B. Munford in Random Recollections (New York: De Vinne Press, 1905), 226.
- Mrs. Robert E. Park, "Homes of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence," American Monthly Magazine (February, 1902), 111.
- The Holy Bible,
- Quotes about Wythe's appearance and habits appear in: George Wythe Munford, "Chancellor Wythe's Death", in The Two Parsons, (Richmond, Virginia: J.D.K. Sleight, 1884), 416-417.
- Richmond Enquirer, June 10, 1806, 3.
- Read this article on Library of Virginia website.
- Fit to Print, "George Wythe: FFDWR (Founding Father Deserving Wider Recognition)," Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia.