KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #3: I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation by Bruce Chadwick

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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.

lyndamk #cbr5 review #4: Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton

Vietnam: Rising Dragon is not just for the Vietnam bound or Southeast Asian fans. Considering Vietnam is the 13th most populous country in the world. Considering President Obama has proclaimed a Pacific Pivot. And considering the rising dragon is nestled in the armpit of China, this is a country to watch. Read more at my blog …

Rochelle’s #CBR5 Review 2: Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski

To us a carpet, for example, is a vital necessity. You spread a carpet on a wretched, parched desert, lie down on it, and feel you are lying in a green meadow. … And then you feel whole, you feel eminent, you are near paradise, you are a poet.   –  Mr. Ferdousi

The Iranian Hostage Crisis started when I was 11.  I was not a sheltered child.  My hippie parents watched the news, went to protests, and discussed world events at the dinner table.  I remember the fall of Saigon, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the mass suicide at Jonestown.  But it was the nightly coverage of the hostage crisis for 1 year, 2 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days that changed the way I saw the world.  The world became a much larger  more complicated place.   In that year, the news changed from background noise, to information I deliberately sought.  A couple of kids with funny names and funny accents began going to my school and suddenly I knew people directly affected by the Iranian Revolution.  The news was no longer by, for, and about adults.

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Malin’s #CBR5 Review #5: Firelight by Kristen Callihan

Miranda Ellis has the power to start fires, but when she was ten years old, she wasn’t very good at controlling it, and accidentally set her father’s warehouse on fire, causing him to lose most of his money. He’s never really forgiven her, and forces her to pick pockets and steal to supplement the family income. It also means that he has no scruples about promising her hand in marriage to an enraged nobleman whose cargo he stole while he was a thriving businessman.

Lord Benjamin Archer is an unbelievably wealthy, but cursed man, forever changed in a botched supernatural accident. Formerly a member of an elite gentleman’s club, he’s been travelling the world for decades looking for a cure for his malady. He never appears outside without gloves and a mask, and there are any number of terrifying rumours about him. Having first set eyes on Miranda after rescuing her from an attack in an alley, he becomes instantly drawn to her, and spares her father’s life and forgives his debt if he agrees to the match. When his spies reveal that Miranda is forced to steal to survive, he returns to London to claim her as his bride, assuring himself that she is better off with him than with her careless father.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #1: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone is a sweeping epic of a novel centered on two twins, born of the union between an Indian nun and an English doctor in a mission hospital on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. The novel takes on love, loss, betrayal, revolution and ultimately forgiveness as it spans many decades in the lives of the twins, Marion and Shiva, and those closest to them.

I went in to this book with no knowledge of the subject matter, though I had heard many praise the novel. Immediately, I was caught up in theses character’s lives, first in India for several, then Ethiopia for the bulk of the novel. Even the smallest characters are fleshed out and fully realized, in a way that is both accessible and educational. In addition, the medcutting for stoneical and historical stories that set the stage for much of the action are well-written and fascinating.

The biggest flaw of this book is the pacing. At about 650 pages, this book is a long read. While not a complaint, per se, but the culmination of interwoven stories comes to a head only in the last 75 pages, making it feel rushed after the leisurely pace of much of the novel. However, the wonderful prose that Verghese uses to bring this story to life more than makes up for the hasty ending.

AnaStar13’s #CBR5 review #2: Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly

ImageNellie Bly was a remarkable journalist, industrialist, and charity worker.  She was the first person to travel around the world in less than 80 days, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel, and in 1887, she pretended to be insane so that she could investigate an insane asylum from the inside.  This book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, is her exposé.   It was originally published in the New York World and soon after, was made into a book in response to the overwhelming demand for the story.

The book is less than a hundred pages and it is riveting.  The first half describes what she had to do to get herself committed and it’s surprisingly funny.  That’s why I was totally unprepared for the brutality and abuse described in the second half of the book, when she is locked up in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.  It’s an absolutely terrifying account of how people who were judged insane were treated.  There were several women in the asylum whom Bly believed to be completely sane but their protests were dismissed as lunatic raving.  There were at least two others whose ‘insanity’ was that they didn’t speak English and could not plead their own cases.  For that crime, they were locked away for the rest of their lives. The women were tortured, beaten, starved or given spoiled food.  One woman that arrived with Bly and seemed to be fine was literally driven mad by the nurses in the asylum. 

Ten days after her arrival, the newspaper Bly was writing for pulled her out of the asylum, her story was published, the world was shocked, and she was a star.   An investigation was launched by a grand jury and the Department of Public Charities and Corrections received an increase of $100,000 to its budget.

Ten Days in a Mad-House was a fascinating read and I don’t know why this isn’t a movie yet.