George Wythe was an American patriot. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served as one of Virginia’s representatives at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He was a well-known judge and a law professor at William and Mary (America’s first law professor, they say). Friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson and a well-respected pillar of the community, George Wythe was admired by all who knew him, so it was quite a shock to the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, when he was murdered by his grand-nephew.
Wythe was 80 years old when he, along with two members of his household, fell suddenly and violently ill. His servant Lydia Broadnax, a freed slave, and his protégé Michael Brown were also stricken, with Broadnax eventually recovering and Brown dying within a week. Wythe hung on for two weeks, all the time insisting that he had been poisoned by his sister’s grandson—and ironically, his own namesake—George Wythe Sweeney.
It wasn’t hard to believe, of course. Everyone knew Sweeney as a gambler and a wastrel who had taken advantage of his uncle’s generosity time and again. While living with his uncle in Richmond, Sweeney forged checks and sold some of Wythe’s valuable books to pay gambling debts. Wythe never pressed charges in those cases, hoping against hope that Sweeney would mature and settle down, but even his generous spirit had to draw the line at his own murder. Wythe lived long enough to not only accuse Sweeney but to cut him out of his will.
The court of public opinion was roundly against Sweeney and the case against him seemed air tight. All signs pointed to arsenic poisoning, a star prosecutor was on the case, and there was even a reliable eye witness in Lydia Broadnax, who claimed to have seen Sweeney put something in the coffee that morning. Yet as with many a famous trial, mistakes were made. During the autopsy, the doctors failed to perform basic tests for arsenic that would have proven the cause of death. Two well-known attorneys eager to make names for themselves by winning an unwinnable case came to Sweeney’s defense. And Broadnax was prevented from testifying because Virginia law did not allow blacks, free or slave, to testify in court.
I Am Murdered provides an interesting account of law and politics in the United States’ early years. Chadwick delves into the relationship between Wythe and Jefferson and recounts their impact on Virginia law. He also paints a colorful picture of Richmond, which was apparently the Sodom and Gomorrah of colonial America with all its gambling houses and brothels. The botched autopsy and the doctors’ initial misdiagnosis of cholera illuminates how even the very best doctors of the day were prone to dreadful screw ups. Finally, the simple detail of Broadnax not being permitted to testify puts the period’s race relations front and center in the narrative.
I’d have to say that I Am Murdered is more about the history of Virginia than it is a historical crime story, which is fine, just not what I was expecting from a book with, you know, murder in the title. So even though I enjoyed the book and found the history interesting, I felt strangely dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s because it held so much potential to be a sensational true-life crime drama: the villain in the story is so shameless he tries to get his victim to bail him out of jail! Edmund Randolph, one of the attorneys who defended Sweeney, was the same attorney who drafted the new will that cut Sweeney out of his inheritance. My God, can’t you just see this as an episode of Law and Order: Colonial America?
As a slice of early American history, I Am Murdered is well worth the read. Just know that’s what you are getting, with a little murder on the side.