Crime and justice in Colonial America

By Bill Williams
February 23, 2009
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George Wythe was a beloved law professor, signer of the Declaration of Independence and judge who died in 1806 under mysterious circumstances. On his Virginia deathbed the 80-year-old Wythe had whispered to a doctor and a lawyer, "I am murdered."

Historian Bruce Chadwick builds a compelling case in this legal/medical thriller that the killer was Wythe's 17-year-old grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, who allegedly poisoned the judge with arsenic, believing he would inherit Wythe's estate. The teenager was charged with murder, as well as forgery for cashing checks in the judge's name to pay off gambling debts.

Twice widowed and with no children, Wythe had invited his grandnephew to stay with him, believing he could exert a positive influence on the dissolute youth. One night Wythe's maid saw Sweeney reading the judge's will. The next morning she observed him putting powder into a pot of coffee. As soon as the judge, the maid, and a black servant boy drank the coffee, they became violently ill. The maid survived, but Wythe and the servant boy died. The crime sparked an outpouring of public grief, and thousands of mourners lined the streets of Richmond for Wythe's funeral.

People assumed that the despised Sweeney would be quickly convicted and hanged for committing the "most heinous murder in the nation's young history."

A meticulous researcher, Chadwick weaves together relevant details about law, medicine, slavery, and urban life in early 19th century Virginia -- as context for the crime and trial.

Three prominent doctors who autopsied the judge's body said they could not confirm poisoning and instead cited old age and excessive bile as the likely causes of death. Incredibly, they neglected to test for arsenic, which had a long history as a popular murder weapon. Arsenic-based rat poison was discovered in Sweeney's bedroom. Chadwick convincingly argues that the doctors "completely botched" the autopsy.

Despite that setback, there still were eyewitness accounts. The maid had seen the grandnephew dump powder into the pot. Other witnesses also reported suspicious activity. But the witnesses were black and, under Virginia law, no black person could testify against a white person in a criminal case. The jury took little time to return a not-guilty verdict. The other charge was dismissed because anti-forgery laws at the time did not apply to banks. Sweeney was set free and soon moved out of state.

The much-admired Wythe had taught and befriended Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and a number of future governors and senators. Wythe and Jefferson each owned slaves, although they both advocated abolition of slavery. But unlike Wythe, Jefferson never freed any of his slaves. Wythe also taught slaves to read and write before Virginia outlawed the practice.

Although Chadwick is an academic, his prose sparkles as he takes us into the lives of the main characters and shows how history, culture, and belief influence law, medicine, and politics. His description of the abysmal state of medical knowledge two centuries ago is sobering. Doctors, few of whom had ever attended medical school, believed they could cure any illness simply by draining quarts of "bad" blood from a patient.

The author cannot resist hyperbole. In portraying Richmond as a crime capital, he finds "thieves . . . lurking around every corner" and describes the city as a "cesspool of crime, sin, gambling, drinking, and sex." That aside, "I Am Murdered" excels as a suspense-filled account of the long forgotten likely killing of one of the nation's esteemed founders.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

I AM MURDERED: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation
By Bruce Chadwick
Wiley, 280 pp., $24.95

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