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.