Wythe, in other words, was one of the most distinguished men of his day. He had tutored a young Thomas Jefferson in the law, and on September 16, 1787, Jefferson wrote Wythe of "my debt to you for whatever I am myself." In his funeral oration, William Munford described Wythe as "one of the oldest and best of those venerable fathers of their country," a shy man of simple tastes who was given to "inflexible republicanism" as a politician and, as a judge, to a "rigid attachment to what appeared to him to be equitable." He was, Munford concluded, a man of "stern and rigid cast" who nevertheless boasted "undeviating integrity," even to a fault.
In 1789, Wythe retired from teaching and in 1791 moved from Williamsburg to Richmond. In a house at the southeast corner of Fifth and Grace streets, he lived with his maid Lydia Broadnax, an African American woman Wythe had manumitted in 1787 after inheriting her from his recently deceased wife. Broadnax had purchased her own home by 1797. A free African American man named Michael Brown, born around 1790, lived in the Wythe household, and Wythe tutored him in Greek and Latin. Also in 1797, Wythe manumitted an adult enslaved man named Benjamin, who continued to live with him.
By 1805 George Wythe Sweeney Jr., the grandson of Wythe's sister, Ann Wythe Sweeney, also lived with Wythe. (In contemporary documents, Sweeney's name is sometimes rendered Sweeny or Swinney.) It was to Wythe's generosity in taking in Sweeney that Munford probably referred in his eulogy: "It may be said, indeed, that in one deplorable instance, (which it strikes me with horror to even mention,) [Wythe's] benevolence was placed on an unworthy subject, and repaid with black ingratitude."
Facts of the Case
On the evening of May 24, 1806, George Wythe ate a meal of milk and strawberries. The next morning he consumed what Munford's son, George Wythe Munford, later called a typically "frugal breakfast," although what it consisted of remains unclear. Wythe's neighbor, the lawyer William DuVal, visited later that day and found Wythe, Broadnax, and Brown all to be violently ill. Wythe told his friend that he had been well when he woke up but felt sick after eating.
Two days later, George Wythe Sweeney Jr., known to have had gambling debts, attempted to cash a check for $100 at the Bank of Virginia. Noticing the check to have been signed by George Wythe, the teller confronted Sweeney, who immediately produced money to cover the check. The teller, who contacted the police, later recalled at least six checks bearing Wythe's forged signature. An officer arrested Sweeney at Wythe's home either on May 28 or 29, confiscating his knife and patting him down. The officer later testified that he felt two paper-wrapped parcels in Sweeney's pockets but did not take them. A day or two later, the jailer's enslaved servant discovered a paper-wrapped package of arsenic in a garden adjacent to the jail, perhaps having been thrown over the jail wall. Two men later testified that several weeks earlier Sweeney had asked them about poisons, and another reported secondhand that, prior to Wythe's illness, some African Americans had witnessed Sweeney chopping something in Wythe's workshop, staining an ax yellow in the process. (One of the most common types of arsenic is yellow.)
The next day Sweeney appeared before the Richmond Hustings Court on forgery charges. Composed of about half the members of the Richmond City Council, including the mayor and a recorder, the Hustings Court had the power and jurisdiction of a county court. It found sufficient evidence against Sweeney to report his case to the District Court and to hold him on $1,000 bond. Sweeney wrote a letter to Wythe asking for bail money, but Wythe refused.
The Richmond Enquirer, edited by Thomas Ritchie, reported on Wythe's death on June 10, declining to speculate on the causes: "Every situation in life has its rights and duties. Let us therefore respect the rights of the accused." A week later, a paper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reprinted an undated notice from Petersburg: "It is generally believed, that this patriot [i.e., Wythe], has been brought to the grave, by means, 'the most foul, base and unnatural,' and that the accused is to undergo an examination."
Sweeney appeared before the Richmond Hustings Court on June 23, charged with murdering Michael Brown and George Wythe. Fourteen white men testified against him, including the jailer, the arresting officer, three doctors, two friends with whom Sweeney had allegedly talked about poison, Edmund Randolph, and William DuVal. (Lydia Broadnax, who survived her illness, was legally barred from testifying against a white man.) The court found Sweeney guilty, ordered him to stand trial before the District Court, and remanded him to jail. Later that summer a grand jury indicted Sweeney on two counts of murder and four counts of forgery.
On September 2, the Richmond District Court, with the judges Joseph Prentis and John Tyler Sr. presiding, heard the murder case against Sweeney. If found guilty, Sweeney would likely be hanged. The state attorney general, Philip Norborne Nicholas, argued for the prosecution, Randolph and Wirt for the defense in what the Richmond Enquirer called "an able and eloquent discussion." (The official records of the proceedings have been lost.) That same day the jury found Sweeney not guilty of murdering Wythe, after which, according to the Enquirer, the indictment for murdering Michael Brown "was quashed without a trial."
In reporting on the case, the Enquirer complained that Sweeney might have been convicted but for the prohibition of testimony against him from African Americans, a claim that was reprinted in many newspapers across the nation. This does not explain, however, how Sweeney was convicted by the Hustings Court without such testimony. In the event, as the historian W. Edwin Hemphill has pointed out, no witness testified to having seen Sweeney actually poison anyone; all the evidence was circumstantial.
On September 3, the jury heard the case against Sweeney for forgery and convicted him on two of the four counts. He was sentenced to spend an hour in the public pillory and six months in prison, but Wirt asked the judges to delay or refrain from carrying out the sentence. He argued that the law's specific wording prohibited illegal acts such as those allegedly committed by Sweeney, but only against "private individuals" and not against a bank. On November 17, the General Court granted that request on one of the counts but not the other. Rather than carry out the sentence, however, the District Court apparently granted Sweeney another trial, which the state declined to prosecute. On December 31, the General Assembly passed "An ACT to punish certain thefts and forgeries," designed to close the loophole exploited by Sweeney's defense. Sweeney himself apparently left Virginia.
1791 - George Wythe moves from Williamsburg to Richmond. He is accompanied by his African American maid, Lydia Broadnax.
1787 - George Wythe manumits Lydia Broadnax, an enslaved African American woman he inherited from his recently deceased wife.
1797 - By this year, Lydia Broadnax, an African American maid working for George Wythe, owns her own home.
January 25, 1797 - George Wythe manumits Benjamin, an adult slave who will continue to live with him in Richmond. He will also be named a beneficiary in Wythe's will.
April 1803 - George Wythe signs his will.
1805 - By this year, George Wythe Sweeney Jr., the grandson of George Wythe's sister, is living with Wythe in Richmond.
May 24, 1806 - George Wythe eats an evening meal of milk and strawberries, which some people will later guess to have been poisoned.
May 25, 1806 - George Wythe, Lydia Broadnax, and Michael Brown all become ill after eating breakfast.
May 27, 1806 - George Wythe Sweeney Jr. attempts to cash a $100 check drawn on the Bank of Virginia. Noticing the check to be signed by George Wythe, the teller contacts the police.
May 28 or 29, 1806 - George Wythe Sweeney Jr. is arrested on the suspicion of forging George Wythe's signature on checks.
June 1, 1806 - Michael Brown dies of an apparent poisoning in Richmond. George Wythe is also ill and suspects his great-nephew George Wythe Sweeney Jr. of poisoning him. He signs a codicil to his will that disinherits Sweeney.
June 2, 1806 - George Wythe Sweeney Jr. is convicted by the Richmond Hustings Court of forging George Wythe's signature on checks. He is ordered to stand trial before the District Court and is held on $1,000 bond.
June 8, 1806 - George Wythe dies of an apparent poisoning in Richmond. He is buried at Saint John's Church in that city.
June 23, 1806 - George Wythe Sweeney Jr. is convicted by the Richmond Hustings Court of murdering George Wythe and Michael Brown. He is ordered to stand trial before the District Court and is remanded to jail.
Summer 1806 - A grand jury in Richmond indicts George Wythe Sweeney Jr. on two counts of murder and four counts of forgery.
September 2, 1806 - A jury in the Richmond District Court acquits George Wythe Sweeney Jr. of murdering his great-uncle George Wythe and the free African American Michael Brown.
September 3, 1806 - A jury in the Richmond District Court convicts George Wythe Sweeney Jr. on two of four counts of forgery. He is sentenced to spend an hour in the pillory and six months in prison, but his lawyers ask the court to refrain from carrying out the punishment.
November 17, 1806 - The General Court grants the request by lawyers for George Wythe Sweeney Jr. that his sentence not be carried out on one of two convictions for forgery.
December 31, 1806 - The General Assembly passes "An ACT to punish certain thefts and forgeries," which closes loopholes exploited by the defense of George Wythe Sweeney Jr., who was accused of forgery.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. The Death of George Wythe (1806). (2017, November 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Wythe_The_Death_of_George_1806.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "The Death of George Wythe (1806)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 Nov. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 29, 2016 | Last modified: November 30, 2017
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.