On May 25, 1806, George Wythe became ill with a digestive complaint that most historians agree resulted from arsenic poisoning engineered by Wythe's great nephew, George Wythe Sweeney. It soon became apparent that Wythe would not survive, and ten days after the onset of Wythe's illness, William DuVal, the chancellor's friend and neighbor, began corresponding with Thomas Jefferson.
DuVal's first letter informed Jefferson, then serving his second term as third president of the United States, about the condition and circumstances regarding the health of the man the president regarded as a second father. DuVal, the executor of Wythe's will, followed with news of Wythe's death. DuVal and Jefferson exchanged twelve letters from June through December. The earliest letters convey the two men's thoughts and opinions regarding Wythe's murder. Many of the others discuss Jefferson's inheritance—Wythe bequeathed his library, some scientific instruments and other personal items to his favorite student and surrogate son—and Jefferson's efforts to procure an image of Wythe. Perhaps most poignantly, Jefferson's correspondence with DuVal provides a touching tribute to Wythe,
[H]e was my antient master, my earliest & best friend; and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life. I had reserved with fondness for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing him to pass much of his time with me.
The Jefferson-DuVal correspondence ends with DuVal's letter of December 10, 1806 in which he expresses his disappointment that the Virginia legislature did not choose to erect a tombstone "to transmit to future ages the High Lines they entertained of his Talents, his Patriotism, and his inflexible Integrity."
- 1 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 4 June 1806
- 2 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 8 June 1806
- 3 Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 14 June 1806
- 4 Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 19 June 1806
- 5 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 19 June 1806
- 6 Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 22 June 1806
- 7 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 29 June 1806
- 8 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 12 July 1806
- 9 Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 17 July 1806
- 10 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 21 November 1806
- 11 Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 4 December 1806
- 12 William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 10 December 1806
- 13 References
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 4 June 1806
Worthy Sir, Richmond June 4th 1806
Geo W. Sweeny who lived with Mr Wythe was committed to Gaol on the 27th. of May last for forging Six Checks on the Bank of Virginia on the 25th of May Mr Wythe was taken with a Cholera Morbus on the 26 & 27 all the Rest of the Family were seized with the same violent disorder on the 27 We had no idea that Sweeny had poisoned the whole Family — On Sunday Morning June the first last Michael the Mulatto boy died — Yellow Arsenic was found in Sweeny’s Room & many other strong Circumstances concurred to in duce a believe he had poisoned the whole Family — As a Magistrate I requested four eminent Physicians to open the body of the Boy — they did so, from the Inflamation in the Stomach & Bowels they said that it was the kind of Infla mation produced by Poison — Our Worthy Friend is still alive — he has suffered greatly — on Whitsunday Evening, he told me he never suffered more in his Life — That in the Morning he attended to his Official Duties, the Chancery Court being in Session, that he ate his Breakfast as usual, that about Nine O’Clock in the Morning he was attacked in the most violent Manner & had rose from his Bed Forty Times, to evacuate the Feces — I had Doctors McClurg, Currie & McCan to attend him — They pronounce his
Death to be certain in a day or two — They say that his Constitution was remarkably Strong for a person of his age — Thus by the hands of a Youth to whom he was kinder than a Father is about to be taken from us the most virtuous and illustrious of our Citizens — one among the best of Men
inwhom even Death, can’t terrify, or alarm.
I am Yr mo. Obd. Servt
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 8 June 1806
Sir, Richmond June 8th 1806
Our venerable great and pious Friend departed this Life about half an hour after Nine of the Clock this Morning — Doctors Foushes Currie Grumpers McClurg & McCan opened his Chest & Bowels, there was considerable in Flamation [sic] in the Stomach. It is strongly suspected that he & Michael Brown were poisoned with Yellow Arsenic by Geo W. Sweeny — On Thursday he said I am murdered but mentioned no name — The day before Yesterday he said Let me die
the Disrighteous — he during his severe complaint displayed uncommon Patience & Fortitude — He called on the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on him —
The Governour & Council have desired that his Body shall be conveyed to the Capitol
thatTomorrow at Four O’Clock in the Afternoon his Funeral Oration will be pronounced by Mr Wm. Montford who lived with Mr Wythe formerly, and is a Member of our Council of State. When Mr Wythe’s Will shall be proven. I shall enclose you a Copy of the Will with the Codicils — I believe he inclosed to you a Copy of it.
I am, with great Respect
yr obd. Servant
Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 14 June 1806
Sir Washington June 14. 06.
Your letters of the 4th. & 8th. inst. have been duly received, the last announcing the death of the venerable mr Wythe, than whom a purer character has never lived. his advanced years had left us little hope of retaining him much longer, and had his end been brought on by the ordinary decays of time & nature, al-tho' always a subject of regret, it would not have been aggravated by the horror of his falling by the hand of a parricide. Such an instance of depravity has been hitherto known to us only in the fables of the poets. I thank you for the attention you have been so kind as to shew in communicating to me the incidents of a case so interesting to my affections. he was my antient master, my earliest & best friend; and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life. I had reserved with fondness for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing him to pass much of his time with me. it would have been a great pleasure to recollect with him first opinions on the new state of things which arose soon after my acquaintance with him; to pass in review the long period which has elapsed since that time, and to see how far those opinions had been affected by experience & reflection, or confirmed and acted on with self-approbation. but this may yet be the enjoyment of another state of being. You seem to suppose mr Wythe had inclosed to me a copy of his will, but this was not the case. I hope he had time to alter its dispositions as to him who has brought it prematurely into force. Accept my salutations & assurances of esteem & respect.
Mr Duvall Th Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 19 June 1806
Dear Sir Washington June 19. 06.
I have this moment received by post the paper directed to me in the handwriting of my best & most revered departed friend, mr Wythe, & superscribed by yourself as found among his papers. it covers his will in his own handwriting, dated Apr. 20. 1803. with a codicil of Jan. 19. 1806. with a label indorsed ‘Testament of G. Wythe to be published when he shall cease to breathe, if not by him required before’ and making yourself his executor. is this a duplicate, of which another copy is with you? or is it the sole original? if the latter, it shall be forwarded for publication & proof by the first safe conveyance, & in the meantime a copy shall be furnished you. he recommends in it to my patronage 'the freed boy Michael Brown.' is this the boy who is said to have died a few days before mr Wythe, or is he still living, & in this case will you be so good as to give me such information of him as may enable me to judge how I may best fulfill the wishes of my friend. Accept my friendly salutations & assurances of esteem & respect.
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 19 June 1806
Sir, Richmond June
As soon as I can obtain an Authenticated Copy of the Will & Codicils of Mr Geo. Wythe, decd. I
inshall enclose them. I have twice applied to the Clerk for them. Michael being dead, I shall extract as much as relates to your self.
"I give my Books and small Philosophical Apparatus to Thomas Jefferson President of the United States of America, a Legacy considered abstractlie, perhaps not ^ deserving
wortha place in his Musaeum, but estimated by my Good Will to him the most valuable to him of any thing which I have power to bestow."
dated January 19th 1806
Codicil dated February 24th 1806
I give to my Friend Thomas Jefferson my Silver Cups and Gold headed Cane.
Be pleased to appoint an Agent here, to receive the above legacies, a Catalogue of the Books &c will be delivered to him — The House where Mr Wythe lived will be rented, I expect in a few days. I shall with pleasure aid you in having them sent to where ever you may direct. I think they are worth about £500 —
Geo W Sweeny was examined Yesterday before Col. Edward Carrington Mayor of this City, on the charge of having murdered Mr Wythe & Michael Brown the Freed Boy, two other Magistrates at
tended the Examination of Witnesses, which lasted near Five Hours. They were of Opinion that they, Mr Wythe & Michael, were poisoned by Geo. W Sweeney. On Monday next a Court of Examination is to be held in this City G. W. Sweeny was remanded to Gaol —
G. W. Sweeny’s Case in some Respects resembles that of Capt. John Donellen for the Willful Murder of Sir Theodosius Edward Alleslay Boughton Bart. at the Assizes at Warwick on the 30th day of March 1781 before the Honble Mr Justice Buller who was convicted and Executed for poisoning the brother of Mrs. Donnellen — I do not recollect to have seen it in any of the Reporters. But is published at large in the 68 Vol. of the British Universal Magazine for Jany, Feby, March, April, May & June of 1781. Beginning at page 205.
You may suppose that the Conduct of Sweeney has excited the most lively sympathy for the deceased and detestation agt the supposed Culprit — Pardon me for dwelling so long on a Subject, that must be painful to your feelings.
with great Respect
Yr. mo. obt Servt
Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 22 June 1806
Dear Sir Washington June 22. 06.
Yours of the 19th is received & anticipates the answer to mine of the same date, respecting the will of our deceased friend, and the freed boy Michael Brown. I sincerely regret the loss of the latter 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 wishes of my friend. does there exist a portrait of mr Wythe? I fear not, if there be one I presume it must be with some member of the family of Majr. Taliaferro his father in law.
Mr. Jefferson of Richmond will receive from you the bequests of my venerable friend & take off of your hands the trouble & expence of packing &c. I salute you with esteem & respect.
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 29 June 1806
Dear Sir Richmond June 29th 1806
Your favors of the 14. 19 & 22d Instant have been regularly received the last Letter I got from the Post Office Yesterday.
I believe that the great & good Mr Wythe loved ^ you as sincerely as if you had been his Son, his attachment was founded on his thorough knowledge of you, personally — Some Years ago he mentioned that if there was an honest Man in America, T. J. was that person, every thing that he said has been verified. About fourteen Years ago my intimacy with that good Man commenced & continued untill his last moments. He taught me to be rich and contented, when my income had been greatly reduced, he taught me there could be no happiness, unless we endeavored to love that great being, who made the universe supremly — he weas pleased with a Mr John Courtney, a Baptist of this City. Mr Courtney informed me, that some time ago, Mr Wythe told him that every Night & Morning he addressed the great Creator — some Years ago venerable Friend told me, he believed he never put his head on ^his Pillow, but that he said the Lord's Prayer. his great desire, he told me, was to be holy and innocent. He thought that Faith without good Actions, were of no avail. He loved every good Man. He thought that God is no respecter of persons But in every Nation he that feareath him and walketh righteous ways, is accepted with him.I think he loved his God with all his heart, and with all his Soul, and with all his Mind, and with all his strength.
Charity as described by high Authority, seemed later ingrafted in his Soul — Happy would he have been, had he been spared to have conversed with you, on the changes, if any had been made of Opinions & things that Experience & Reflection had confirmed or affected, & to have spent most (?) of his Time with you — Resignation is a duty we owe to him that cannot err — but I still feel as if I had lost half of my self —
When Mr Wythe heard of the untimely death of Michael the Freed Boy — He made a Long Breath — and pathetically said — Poor Boy — The Boy was personable and good, he had caught the Suavity of his Master's Manners.
The Picture of Mr Wythe I hope to obtain from Lydia Brodnax she had it — never had a Man a more faithful Servant. her Attention to Mr Wythe was incessant & always studied to please him.
I send you the Whole of Mr Wythe's Will & the Three Codicils which have been proven in the General Court of Virginia.
Mr Geo. Jefferson is attending to your Books & small Philosophical Apparatus &c.
Mr Ben. DuVal has undertaken to pack up the latter.
I am with the highest Respect
Yr. Mt. obt. Servt
NB In my next letter I shall state all the Circumstances as proved agt. G W. Sweeny. The Court of Examination was unanimous touching his Guilt —
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 12 July 1806
Worthy Sir, Richmond July 12th. 1806
A Catalogue of the Books, the Small Phylosophical Apparatus, with the two Cups & Goldheaded Cane, also Mr. Wythe’s portrait are delivered to the care of Mr. Geo Jefferson. The Terrestrial Globe is missing, it is apprehended G.W.S. sold it. He sent last year several Books belonging to Mr. Wythe to Vendue. Have you the profile of Mr. Wythe in Miniature? If you have not I can furnish you with one – I have not sold Mr. Wythe’s Watch, it was appraised to $20. It is an Old Silver Watch. Mr. Wythe told me it kept good Time. The Seal & Key I suppose Cost about $12. The Stone is a white Cristal found in Virginia. It has ingraved, the Initial Letters of his Name, under which are some Greek Characters, on the other side is his Coat of Arms – I did not know but the Seal might attract your Attention.
I am Sir with the highest Esteem,
Yr. mo. Ob. Srvt.
Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 17 July 1806
Dear Sir Washington July 17.06.
Your favor of the 12th. was received yesterday. I infer from it's tenor that the seal, key & perhaps the Watch itself of mr Wythe are
perhapsto be disposed of. if so, I will take them with desire, either at the appraised prices stated by you, or any greater prices at which they shall be estimated by any persons of skill whom you may chuse to consult. mr Jefferson, has I expect by this time funds of mine in hand, out of which he will pay for these articles on sight of this letters. I infer from a former letter that the portrait of mr Wythe was the property of Lydia Broadnax or, if not, doubtless it would be desired by some of his relations. I ask only therefore to borrow it that I may get it copied by mr Peale & the original shall be safely returned. Accept my salutations and assurances of esteem & respect.
William DuVal esq.
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 21 November 1806
Sir Richmond November 21st 1806
I have a profile of the venerable
GeorgeGeorge Wythe taken by Mr W. Bache in 1804 ^ by an Instrument he calls by the name of his patent Physiognotrace which profile much resembles that great and good Man, & Mr E Deane, I have written to, who is a man of some eminence as a portrait Limner to take a Copy thereof, — Both of which I will leave with Mr George Jefferson, that you may take either of them —
The profile you have, will shew his Appearance at that period of his Life, & the one I have, will exhibit a strong likeness a few Years before his untimely Death —
I was at the Sweet Springs when your Letter of the 17 July was received here — The portrait of Mr Wythe which you desired was inventoried and accounted for at the appraised value
If you preferred the Original Lyddia would be contented with a profile Copy — I know from what Mr Wythe often said, that you were dearer to him than any Relation he had — That his attachment arose from that impulse that unite great Minds, the sincere Love of Virtue —
May providence long preserve you to be a Blessing to our Country and an Example to all Nations
I am with sincere Respect
Yr obedient Servt
Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 4 December 1806
Dear Sir Washington Dec. 4. 06
Your favor of Nov. 21. has been duly recieved and I thank you for the offer of the profile of mr Wythe, every trace of whom will be dear to me. If you will be so good as to desire Mr. Jefferson to forward me either the original or the copy, as you please, it will be received with equal thankfulness. it should be rolled on a stick, & not folded. the original of the other profile, after taking a copy, I had packed in a box addressed to yourself that it might be returned to Lydia with my thanks for the opportunity of copying it. in the same box I put 2 folio volumes of mr Wythe's accounts which had come by mistake with his books. the box I directed to be forwarded to you. Accept my friendly salutations & assurances of great respect.
William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 10 December 1806
Dear Sir, Richmond Decemr 10th. 1806
I received your favor of the 4th Instant. The origional profile of our Friend Mr George Wythe set in a plain neat Frame is this day delivered to Mr George Jefferson to be conveyed to to Washington for you Sir —
I received the other profile of our good and Virtuous Friend with the two folio fee Books which were packed up thro' mistake for which I return you my thanks—
I think they should have done more for an incitement to Virtue and Patriotism. I would have had them to have erected at the public Expence a plain Tomb Stone, to transmit to future ages the High Sense they entertained of his Talents, his Patriotism, and his inflexible Integrity — his was a rare Character, such an One as is scarcely to be met with in many Centuries
I am, Sir, with great esteem & Respect,
your mo. Obt Servt
- See: Julian P. Boyd and W. Edwin Hemphill, The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays (Williamsburg, Virginia: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955); Alonso Thomas Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty (Williamsburg, Virginia: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), 80-82.
- Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 14 June 1806.
- William DuVal to Thomas Jefferson, 10 December 1806.
- Vendue: public auction.
- Journals of the Council of Virginia, vol. 27, 448. Cited in Imogene E. Brown, American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981), 301.