Hustings Court Order Book
Hustings Courts, named after similar courts in England, were a system of courts unique to eighteenth and nineteenth century Virginia. They administered to independent cities, serving as the equivalent of county courts, adjudicating matters of lands and chattels, debts, and contracts. Hustings Courts also had a probate division for the administration of wills. The courts heard minor civil matters from their locality, passing major disputes on to the General Courts. The Hustings Courts also heard local criminal matters that did not involve potential penalties to life or body parts. In criminal cases involving such punishments, the Hustings Court acted as a grand jury, determining whether or not to indict the alleged offender. If the Hustings Court determined that the offender should be indicted, it was responsible for bonding the offender and any witnesses to appear at the next available session of the District Court. This function is illustrated by the transcripts of the Hustings Court at Richmond below, which recorded the twin indictments of George Wythe Swinney for fraud and murder. At the beginning of each transcript, the court notes the indictment. After testimony, it bonds the witnesses to appear at the next District Court session, lest they forfeit the property specified.
Hustings Courts also had some ancillary duties. A Hustings Court could appoint a guardian for an orphan, or bind an “orphan of small estate” out (make the orphan an indentured servant). The courts could also prescribe local liquor prices, seat juries that would recommend the location of new public works, commission the construction of infrastructure, suggest officials to be appointed by the Governor, and appoint local law enforcement personnel. The Hustings Court also admitted local attorneys to the bar. In essence, a Hustings Court fulfilled local judicial duties, served as a support structure to General Courts in the state, and served an administrative role in their localities.
Hustings Courts were abolished in 1850, replaced either by the General Courts or by corporation courts, which in turn were abolished in 1973 and replaced with general circuit courts.
This specific Hustings Court document contains testimony regarding the indictments for fraud and murder against George Wythe Sweeney, George Wythe's great nephew. The Order Book, drawn from the Hustings Court Minutes, is the official record of proceedings in the Hustings Court.
2 June 1806
At a Court of Hustings called and held for the City of Richmond at the Courthouse, on Monday, the second day of June 1806, for the examination of George W. Swinney, who stands accused of forgery. Present – Edward Carrington, Gentleman Mayor
Samuel Pleasants, Gentleman Recorder
Henry S. Shore, William Goodman, Anderson Barrett, David Lambert and William Richardson; Gentlemen Aldermen.
The prisoner was led to the bar in custody of the Sergeant of the City, whereupon sundry witnesses were sworn and examined, and the prisoner in his defense fully heard: ON consideration whereof, the Court is of opinion that the prisoner is guilty of the offenses aforesaid, and doth order that he undergo a trial therefor at the next District Court [illegible] by law to be holden at the Capitol in this City: and it is further ordered that the [illegible] George W. Swinney be bailed in a recognizance in the penalty of one thousand dollars, with sufficient security in alike penalty for his personal appearance before the Judge of the said District Court, on the first day of the next session thereof to answer the Commonwealth of the offenses aforesaid; and failing to give the security required, he is remanded to jail until he shall give such security or shall be otherwise discharged by due course of law.
William Dandridge (Teller of the Bank of Virginia), a witness on the foregoing examination, being sworn, deposeth and saith: to the Court:
Tuesday last, the prisoner presented to him at the Bank of Virginia a check therein for the sum of one hundred dollars, drawn in the name of George Wythe esquire, which the deponent paid; That some time thereafter on acquiring the check, he suspected it to be a forged one, and he thereupon went to the prisoner and stated that he believed there was a mistake in said check; That the prisoner immediately produced the money and returned the same to the deponent; That the prisoner frequently presented checks at the bank in the name of the said George Wythe, and the deponent verily believes that the checks now presented in Court were presented by the prisoner, and are all counterfeited.
Peter Tinsley, another witness sworn on the said examination deposeth and saith: That he carried to George Wythe, esquire seven checks drawn in his name on the Bank of Virginia, who denied having drawn or signed more than one of them.
William Dandridge and Peter Tinsley here in Court acknowledge themselves indebted to his Excellency William H. Cabell, governor and chief magistrate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the sum of one hundred pounds each of their respective goods and chattels, lands and [illegible] to be levied, and to the said governor and his executives for the sum of the said Commonwealth rendered. Yet upon this condition, that if the said William Dandridge and Peter Tinsley shall severally make their personal appearances before the Judges of the District Court as directed by law to be holden at the Capitol in this City on the first day of the next term thereof to give evidence on behalf of the Commonwealth against George W. Swinney, who stands accused of forgery, and shall not depart thence without the leave of the said Court, then this indebtedness is to be void.
(Minutes signed) E. Carrington, Mayor
23 June 1806
At a Court of Hustings called and held for the City of Richmond at the Courthouse, on Monday, the 23rd day of June, 1806, for the examination of George W. Swinney, who stands accused of murder. Present: The same Justices as above.
The prisoner was led to the bar in custody of the Sergeant of this City, whereupon sundry witnesses were sworn and examined, and the prisoner in his defense fully heard: On consideration whereof, the Court is of opinion that the prisoner is guilty of the offense aforesaid, and doth order that he undergo a trial therefor before the next District Court directed by law to be holden at the Capitol in this City, and thereupon the said George W. Swinney is remanded to jail.
Tarlton Webb, a witness for the Commonwealth on this examination, being sworn, deposeth and saith: That about a fortnight or three
three weeks before the prisoner was committed to jail, he enquired of the deponent where he could procure any ratsbane. The deponent replied that it was against the law of the United States to have it. The day before the prisoner was apprehended, he came to the house of the deponent’s mother, and showed the deponent something wrapped in paper, which he said was ratsbane, and informed the deponent that he intended to kill himself, and offered to give the deponent some if he wanted to die. The deponent, being shown some drugs found in the jail and produced in court by Mr. Rose, deposed that what the prisoner showed him was like that in Mr. Rose’s possession, and that there was about one table-spoonful. The prisoner stated to the deponent that he was very unhappy and something pressed upon his mind, but though applied to, he would not disclose the cause of his uneasiness to the deponent.
William Rose, another witness sworn on the said examination, deposeth and saith: that his servant girl, Pleasant, went into the garden about twelve o’clock the day after the prisoner was committed to jail and brought the paper this day produced, the contents of which the deponent immediately knew to be arsenic. When the prisoner was committed to jail, the deponent did not search him, but about an hour and a half after, or thereabouts, hearing that it was probable he had pistols, he went into the jail and felt his pockets, and felt that there was a heavy substance wrapped in paper, but supposing that it might be coppers, or some eighteen penny pieces, he did not take it out of his pocket. The prisoner had the use of the debtors room and the jail yard at his option. As soon as the arsenic was found the deponent suspected that Mr. Wythe was poisoned.
Samuel McCraw, another witness sworn and on the said examination, deposeth and saith: That being informed by Mr. Rose that Arsenic had been found in his garden, he proposed to have the servant carried into the garden to see the place where found to ascertain whether it was deposited there or thrown from the jail yard; That at the place where the servant stated the arsenic to have been found, the deponent found two papers lying about eighteen inches apart; That the crude arsenic had penetrated a little into the earth, and there were two plants on a fennel, the other a beat, broken off as he supposed by throwing the arsenic over the jail wall. The deponent thinks it must have come from the jail yard, The beat that was wounded was near the jail wall and was wounded considerably farther from the ground than the fennel. On the first of June, one week after Mr. Wythe’s attack, the deponent was required to go to attend Mr. Wythe’s will. Mr. Wythe requested the prisoner’s room and trunk to be searched. The deponent, with others, was conducted to the room where the
the prisoner lodged, opened the chest and found a port folio with a [illegible] of folding paper, which the deponent believes to be of the same kind with what was found wrapped around the arsenic found in the garden. In the prisoner’s room on a writing table, the deponent found a paper on which there were a half a dozen strawberries with the appearance of arsenic having been sprinkled over them. He found a phial with an appearance of having had a liquid, some of which adhered to the side of the phial, and on examination it was believed to have been a mixture of arsenic and sulphur. He also found two pieces of coarse brown paper with something adhering to each, which was also declared to be arsenic and sulphur. The deponent frequently visited Mr. Wythe in his last illness and he appeared to be in very great agony from the first time to his death. Some time before the death of Mr. Wythe, while this deponent was sitting by him, Mr. Wythe exclaimed ‘cut me’. The deponent supposed he wanted to have his flannel cut loose, which the deponent accordingly did, but this gave apparent displeasure to Mr. Wythe, who then, putting his hand to his throat and chest again called out ‘cut me’, but could make no further explanation. This induced a belief in the deponent and those present that it was his wish to be opened after his death. The deponent never did hear Mr. Wythe express any suspicion that he had been poisoned. Fleming Russell, another witness sworn on the said examination, deposeth and saith: That the day he received the warrant he went to Mr. Wythe’s and found the prisoner; when he showed the prisoner the warrant and carried him to Major Duval’s and discovered he had no pistols, took his knife from him and put his hand in his coat pocket, he felt very distinctly that he had two separate parcels of something wrapped up in paper in his pocket, but made no further search. After the prisoner was committed to jail, the deponent informed Mr. Chase that the prisoner had something else in his coat pocket and advised him to make a search, but did not go with Mr. Rose to make it.
Taylor Williams, a witness sworn on the said examination, deposeth and saith: That about three weeks before the prisoner was apprehended, he mentioned something to the deponent about poison. The deponent informed him that copperas and water was poison. In about six or seven days after, the prisoner began a conversation with the deponent about poison: the deponent then told
told him ratsbane was poison, and that a gentleman of his acquaintance used it for the purpose of killing rats, and that was to be bought in the shops, but does not recall with certainty whether the prisoner asked him where it might be had.
Major William Duval, another witness sworn on said examination, deposeth and saith: that on the 25th day of May he went to see Mr. Wythe without knowing he was sick, and found him very ill, extended on his back. Mr. Wythe said he had not caught cold, that he was well as ever in the morning, eat [sic] his breakfast as usual, but was immediately taken extremely ill, confined on his back except when forced up, which was upwards of forty times, and had fifteen large evacuations. After the prisoner was committed for the forgery, he applied to the deponent by letter to be bailed. Mr. Wythe would have nothing to do with bailing. Mr. Wythe said he was taken ill on the twenty-fifth day of May, about nine o’clock, after having had his breakfast; that on Wednesday or Thursday after, the prisoner was apprehended. Mr. Wythe requested that the prisoner’s room and trunk might be searched, which request he repeated frequently, and finally on the first day of June prevailed on Mr. McCraw and some other gentlemen who searched the room and trunk and found some paper with something adhering to them, which was declared by Dr. Greenhow to be arsenic. The deponent saw the appearance of arsenic in an out house of Mr. Wythe’s, in his yard, used in his shop, and that some was also found in an old smoak house on a wheel barrow, which on being tried with a pin was proved to be arsenic. On Thursday before Mr. Wythe’s death, he made an ejaculation and declared he was murdered in a low tone of voice. It was generally believed that Mr. Wythe had left the prisoner a great portion of his estate, and known that he had made some provision for the mulatto boy, Brown.
Samuel Greenhow, another witness sworn on said examination, gave the same evidences upon the search with McCraw.
William Price, another witness sworn on said examination, gave the same evidence as McCraw and Greenhow on the subject of the search of the prisoner’s room, and of McCraw on the subject of Mr. Wythe’s request to be cut. Mr. McCraw mentioned at that time that he supposed Mr. Wythe wanted to be cut open. Mr. Wythe appeared to be in great agony during his illness, and more so particularly when moved.
Nelson Abbott, another witness sworn on the said examination, deposeth and saith that on Saturday, the 24th day of May last, he put an axe, now produced, into a shop in Mr. Wythe’s yard,, which he had lent him for a work shop,
that on the 27th he went to Hanover and returned on Friday the 30th, when he discovered the arsenic in its present situation and a hammer, much stained with yellow, which has since been cleaned. The negroes in the shop said the prisoner had beat something (they did not know what) on the side of the axe with the hammer.
William Claiborne, another witness sworn on the said examination, deposeth and saith: That he went to Mr. Wythe’s the Wednesday after his illness, who informed him that the Sunday preceding, in the morning, he was as well as usual, immediately after breakfast he was taken with a colarimorbus and then a violent lax, went forty times that day, and had at least fifteen large evacuations; That on Saturday night he supped on milk and strawberries. Mr. Wythe said all the negroes were taken at the same time. The deponent went into the kitchen and found most of them very ill. He then went to Major Duval’s and he proposed his opinion that the family were poisoned, and suspected the prisoner in consequence of his having been detected in the forgery, as the death of Mr. Wythe before the detection could only prevent an alteration in his will, which the deponent believed was much in favor of the prisoner. The deponent frequently told the prisoner that he would be well provided for by Mr. Wythe if he behaved well. After the death of the yellow boy the deponent was told by some of the negroes that arsenic was found in the outhouses. The deponent took some off the wheelbarrow in the smoke house, applied fire to it, and found from the smell that it was arsenic. The deponent asked Mr. Wythe whether the prisoner breakfasted with him the morning before he was taken. At first he did not answer. Afterwards he said he did not know, he was always called to his breakfast, but sometimes took nothing to eat or drink. Mr. Wythe observed he died in peace with all the world, and said he should leave for his executor to search the Prisoner’s trunk. This took place after the death of the boy Michael, about sunset on the first June.
Edmund Randolph, being also sworn, deposeth and saith: That on Sunday the First of June, about nine o’clock, Major Duval informed the deponent of the death of Michael from poison and Mr. Wythe probably dying with the same. Mr. Wythe told the deponent he had supped on strawberries and milk the Saturday before he was
was taken ill. He wished his will to be altered so as to give the prisoner’s brothers and sisters what he had given him. The deponent made the alteration and then returned home, and afterwards went again to Mr. Wythe and informed him of the death of Michael Brown. The former codicil to the will was then destroyed and the present one made. On Wednesday the fourth of June, the deponent was informed by old Lydia that more marks of poison had been discovered. The deponent went into the shop and saw Abbot’s axe. The negro was uncertain whether the 24th or 26th of May that the prisoner had caused the appearance, but at last settled that it was on Saturday when he found the prisoner in the shop, and one of the doors forced, and the prisoner was in the act of pounding something on the axe. The prisoner asked him what it was? The negro replied he believed it was ratsbane. The prisoner then scraped it as clean as he could off the axe and folded it up in a piece of paper, wiping the axe with shavings. It was generally understood and believed that Mr. Wythe had left the bulk of his estate to the prisoner.
Dr. James McClurg, another witness, being sworn, deposeth: That he was present at the opening of the body of Michael Brown. The lower part of the stomach was very much inflamed and had the appearance of black vomit. The deponent went to visit Mr. Wythe on the day before the boy died and found him with a fever, his tongue very foul, had had no passage for twelve hours, and was free from pain. The appearance of the boy was such as arsenic might have produced, but such as might also have been produced by a great collection of bile. The deponent was also present at the opening of the body of Mr. Wythe. The whole of his stomach and intestines had an uncommonly bloody appearance, that if produced by arsenic, in his opinion, death would have ensued much sooner. Mr. Wythe had been frequently attacked with disordered bowels within three years past.
Dr. James D. McCaw, being also sworn, deposeth: that he was called to attend Mr. Wythe on the 26th of May between four and five o’clock. He had been up with a violent puking and purging, and the deponent gave him an opiate, after which he got better, and was better until the discovery of the prisoner’s forgery, when he became
became worse and continued to grow worse. The deponent saw the boy on the day before his death, when he had a fever and complained of great pain. The deponent saw him opened after his death, and thinks that his death might have been caused by a great accumulation of bile.
Doctor William Foushee, being sworn, deposeth: That he attended the opening of Mr. Wythe’s body in the presence of many other physicians. The stomach was much inflamed, and appeared as if a new inflammation was coming on. There was very little bile in the gut. The same appearance that his stomach and intestines exhibited might have been produced by arsenic, or any other acrid matter.
James McClurg, William Foushee, James D. McCaw, William Rose, Samuel McCraw, Fleming Russell, William Claiborne, William Price (register), Nelson Abbott and Taylor Williams, here in court acknowledge themselves severally indebted to his Excellency William H. Cabell, governor and chief magistrate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the sum of one hundred pounds each of their respective goods and chattels, lands and [illegible] to be levied, and to the said governor and his executives for the use of the said Commonwealth rendered. Yet upon this condition, that if the said James McClurg, William Foushee, James D. McCaw, William Rose, Samuel McCraw, Fleming Russell, William Claiborne, William Price (register), Nelson Abbott and Taylor Williams, shall severally make their personal appearance before the judges of the District Court, directed by law to be holden at the Capitol in this City on the first day of the next term of that Court, to give evidence on behalf of the Commonwealth against George W. Swinney, who stands accused of murder, and shall not depart thence without the leave of the said Court, this recognizance is to be void.
(Minutes signed) E. Carrington, Mayor
- Death of George Wythe
- Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder
- George Wythe Sweeney
- Hustings Court Minutes
- Last Will and Testament
- Memoranda Concerning the Death of Chancellor Wythe
- The Murder of George Wythe
- Richmond, Virginia Hustings Court Order Book No. 6 (1804-1806). Microfilm at the Library of Virginia. See also "Trial of George Wythe Sweeney (June 2 and 23, 1806)" from the Encyclopedia Virginia.
- George Lewis Chumbley, Colonial Justice in Virginia: The Development of a Judicial System, Typical Laws and Cases of the Period (Richmond: The Dietz Press, 1938), 77.
- John P. Alcock, "18th Century Virginia Law," Presentation at the Library of Virginia, November 17, 1999.
- W. Edwin Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder: A Documentary Essay," in Julian P. Boyd and W. Edwin Hemphill, The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays (Williamsburg, Va.: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955), 40.
- Alcock, "18th Century Virginia Law."
- Code of Virginia (1950) § 17.1-500
- "The minute book can be viewed as the clerk's own note-taking mechanism ... [T]he clerk made concise notes of the proceedings in the minute book during the court's session and later used these notes to create a more formal record of the court's activities ... in the order book." Rebecca G. Bates, "Official Court Records in Print," in Virginia Law Books: Essays and Bibliographies ed. by W. Hamilton Bryson (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000): 130.
- "Murder by Namesake: The Poisoning of the Eminent George Wythe," Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2013).