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Halloween Countdown, Day 13

Last month, I visited Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, in order to take part in a conference on the lessons we may continue to learn from the Iroquois Confederacy. While I was there, I was delighted to take in the local history and sample the atmosphere.

One of my favorite evenings included dining at the historic Shields Tavern.


(Photo from the official website.)


As you might imagine, Williamsburg is teeming with ghost stories and haunted history. One of the most troubling tales is that of George Wythe (1726-1806), who was the first of the seven Virginia signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, one of Virginia's representatives to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, and mentor to Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay, among others.

A long-time enemy of slavery, the aged Wythe lived in 1806 with his housekeeper Lydia Broadnax, a one-time slave he had freed, and a free-born biracial young man Wythe was raising and educating, Michael Brown.

And Wythe's dissolute teenage grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney.

At first, Sweeney stole from his granduncle to pay his gambling debts. Then apparently he came up with a plan to get his hands on Wythe's money sooner rather than later. On May 25, Wythe, Broadnax, and Brown all became violently ill after their breakfast (which Sweeney didn't share). Broadnax eventually recovered, but both Brown and Wythe died.

Wythe lived long enough, however, to declare "I am murdered!" and sign a codicil to his will, cutting Sweeney off from any inheritance.

The worst irony of all? Sweeney was not convicted of the murders, and one of the main reasons for this was the Virginia law forbidding black people from testifying in court. Broadnax, therefore, could not offer evidence against Sweeney, even though she had seen him the morning of the poisoning acting very suspiciously around the food and drink (adding some arsenic?) before hastily departing.

Wythe's funeral was the largest in Virginia history until that time, with thousands lining the route of the funeral procession. "No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe," Thomas Jefferson wrote. "His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country."

Here a couple of articles on the murder:
* Murder by Namesake: The Poisoning of the Eminent George Wythe
* The Murder of Founding Father George Wythe

Here is the video of a talk by Bruce Chadwick, author of I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation: see the video from Library of Virginia.


"Wythe, George" by Longacre, James Barton (1794-1869) - Newy York Public Library. Public Domain.

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Abbie Culbertson
Oct. 13th, 2015 01:05 pm (UTC)
I was just thinking about Colonial Williamsburg the other day... I've visited numerous times with my family from Virginia, but I've never had the pleasure of being there around this time of year or hearing any of the haunted tales, so thank you! I learned something new this morning. :) It's a special place for me for sure -- I'm glad you enjoyed your visit!
eldritchhobbit
Oct. 14th, 2015 11:06 am (UTC)
I was just thinking about Colonial Williamsburg the other day

Cool! We were on the same wavelength. :)

I had such a great time there. It's also close to two of my favorite places in the world, The Poe Museum and the Historic Jamestowne archaeological site (both of which I managed to revisit on this trip), so it was a win-win-win scenario for me.

I'm tickled that I could share something that was new to you. I can imagine that Williamsburg made for fantastic family trips. That's brilliant.

Now I need to go back!
gilda_elise
Oct. 14th, 2015 11:02 am (UTC)
At least Sweeney never saw a nickel, and it seems he ended up in prison, anyway. I guess what goes around, comes around.
eldritchhobbit
Oct. 14th, 2015 11:12 am (UTC)
At least Sweeney never saw a nickel

Yes!

and it seems he ended up in prison, anyway. I guess what goes around, comes around.

You're so right.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )