In late May 1806, three of Richmond’s best doctors rushed to the home of George Wythe—a prominent judge, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Jefferson’s long-time mentor and dear friend.
The physicians discovered Wythe bedridden, in agonizing pain. The cause? Poison. The likely culprit? Wythe’s own nephew.
In this latest episode of our “In the Course of Human Events” podcast, Monticello Guide David Thorson—with help from colleagues Melanie Bowyer and Carrie Soubra—shares this harrowing tale of debt, greed, racism, and death.
The Murder of George Wythe
David Thorson: Imagine the trial of the century in the 1800s, a trial like the OJ Simpson trial. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, the man who taught Thomas Jefferson the law, poisoned. And the public follows every move of the trial about this lurid poisoning.
Melanie Bowyer: Hi, my name is Melanie Bowyer. I'm the Manager of Digital Media and Strategy here at Monticello.
Carrie Soubra: I'm Carrie Soubra. I am the Digital Learning Coordinator.
Melanie Bowyer: And we're bringing you another episode of "In the Course of Human Events."
Carrie Soubra: I promise I'll be mature.
Melanie Bowyer: No, we can't. It's impossible. Okay.
Here's our colleague David Thorson. And he's going to be telling us a story today about the infamous murder of George Wythe.
"I am Murdered"
David Thorson: On Sunday, May 25th, 1806, three of Richmond's best known doctors rushed to the home of Judge George Wythe, where three of the four members of his household were deathly ill. Their agonizing pain, nausea, diarrhea, all symptoms consistent with cholera, caused, the doctors suspected, by eating tainted strawberries in milk consumed the night before.
George Wythe, father of American jurisprudence, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the beloved mentor to his best known pupil, Thomas Jefferson. Standing at his bedside, the doctors were stunned by their patient's self-diagnosis: "I am murdered."
Melanie Bowyer: Carrie and I joke that it's our dream to do a true crime podcast, but this is almost like the beginning of a Dateline episode, where you'd see the person come in and be like "I'm murdered!" And you want to know what's going to happen next. So, we're living our Dateline dream right now, I think.
Carrie Soubra: We are living our true crime podcast dream, Melanie, it's not a joke.
Melanie Bowyer: It was curious to me when I read a little bit more about cholera that they said that this would be the cause of death. The first outbreak of cholera in the United States was around the 1830s or 1840s. And this happened back in 1806.
Carrie Soubra: I could see where they might think that it was something like cholera because more than one person got sick after consuming this fruit. I will say, so the strawberries might be like a red herring but of course with any criminal investigation, right, everything seems like a clue, even, even the strawberries.
David Thorson: The Wythe household consisted of four people. Eighty-year-old George Wythe, Chief Judge of the Virginia Chancery Court; 66-year-old Lydia Broadnax, his free black housekeeper of 20 years; 16-year-old Michael Brown, a free black man being given a classical education by Wythe to prove blacks were the intellectual equals of whites; and 17-year-old George Wythe Sweeney, Wythe's grandnephew and the only member of his household who had not eaten strawberries and milk.
Melanie Bowyer: In 1806, obviously, many African-American people were still enslaved, so it was a little bit unusual, at the time, for this kind of household situation. Lydia Broadnax had been enslaved by George Wythe previously. She was given her manumission papers and she remained with George Wythe but was a paid servant.
Carrie Soubra: I think it's interesting that Wythe is providing Brown with an education to prove that blacks were the intellectual equals of whites, which is definitely not a view that would be shared by his prodigy, Jefferson. He is doing something kind of revolutionary, showing that these racist ideas that our country based slavery in are not real. I think that's noteworthy.
David Thorson: George Sweeney was a frequent guest of his grand uncle and Wythe, widowed and childless, treated him as a prodigal son. Sweeney was well-known in low society in Richmond, deeply indebted as a gambler, who raised funds selling books stolen from his grand uncle's library, cashing checks forged in George Wythe's name. Wythe had named both George Sweeney and Michael Brown as heirs in his will.
Lydia Broadnax recalled coming upon George Sweeney secretly reading the will the night of the 24th of May. And then his strange behavior the following morning: he demanded she make him toast and then she noticed Sweeney poured himself a cup of coffee, fiddled with the coffee pot, and then toss a packet into the fire before bolting down his toast and leaving, while Broadnax took breakfast and coffee to George Wythe. Back in the kitchen, Michael Brown joined Broadnax for a cup of coffee, but within minutes, Broadnax was writhing in pain, Michael Brown had collapsed at the table, and George Wythe stumbled downstairs, vomiting, violently ill.
Carrie Soubra: Moving on to the villains. Sweeney is such a nefarious character. As his uncle is providing a pretty nice life for him, he's stealing from him. So, George Sweeney, as David shared with us, demanded that Lydia Broadnax make him toast because you can't murder on an empty stomach. What do you think he's doing when he demands that she make him toast?
Melanie Bowyer: He's creating a diversion.
Carrie Soubra: He's creating a diversion.
Melanie Bowyer: We know that.
Carrie Soubra: So he can mess with the coffee pot.
Melanie Bowyer: And throwing a packet into the fire, right? That's very suspicious.
Carrie Soubra: Yes.
David Thorson: George Wythe's neighbor, Richmond Mayor William Du Val came upon the gruesome scene and called on three doctors: Dr. James McClurg, Dr. William Foushee, and Dr. James McCaw. They dismissed George Wythe's claim he'd been poisoned. They started a 48-hour vigil, the standard of the day in which a cholera patient would either die or recover from the disease. Two days later, Lydia Broadnax began to recover but George Wythe and Michael Brown remained deathly ill.
Carrie Soubra: I think it's so interesting that Wythe announced, "I have been murdered," right? Like he's telling people he has been poisoned and yet they just ignore that and say, all right, we're going to just keep an eye on you because you have cholera
Melanie Bowyer: You know, the first 48 hours, as we know from all the crime shows, this is the most important time to be investigating the crime. Even though they may be the best doctors in Richmond, they could have done a little bit better in listening to their patient.
David Thorson: Meanwhile, Sweeney cashed a hundred dollar check with his uncle's signature at the Bank of Richmond. The suspicious bank president called for a constable. With Sweeney now suspected of forgery, Wythe's doctors searched the young man's room. They found a glass vial containing a suspicious white powder, probably arsenic.
Carrie Soubra: I mean, seriously, who forges the check of the man that they just attempted to murder, while he's dying, forges his signature to get more money.
Melanie Bowyer: Yeah. And David says he was trying to cash a $100 check, which I looked it up, it's worth about like a $1,000 dollars today.
Carrie Soubra: And then he gets caught because it's a small town. Richmond is a large city today, but then, everybody knows everybody. And they're aware that George Wythe is dying and why is he writing checks to his nephew?
David Thorson: On June 1st, Michael Brown died. George Wythe, violently ill, grieving the loss of Michael Brown, his protege, treated him almost like an adopted son, he called on his friend Edmund Randolph, Thomas Jefferson's cousin, the former governor of Virginia, former US Attorney General, former Secretary of State, to draft a new will that disinherited George Sweeney in favor of Sweeney's siblings. The following day when Sweeney was arrested on forgery charges, George Wythe refused Sweeney's request to post bail.
Carrie Soubra: Melanie, he has the gall to ask his uncle to pay for his bail.
Melanie Bowyer: Oh yes. And the bail was like $1,000 dollars, right? That's like $10,000 or something ridiculous in today's money.
Carrie Soubra: He's trying to take out everyone except himself that is listed in George Wythe's will.
Melanie Bowyer: Yeah. And it just seems so obvious. This is where in Dateline that you're just like, I mean, you know, the husband did it. Because the will said if Brown died before his full age, Sweeney would receive not only his inheritance but also Brown's portion. So, I mean, it's a no brainer.
Carrie Soubra: It's totally premeditated. Absolutely.
David Thorson: After two weeks of agony, George Wythe died June 8th. He was buried on June 11th at St. John's Church in Richmond following the largest funeral in Virginia state history. Businesses in the city shut down that entire day. Thousands of Virginians lined Main Street in Richmond, as the funeral procession traveled from the Capitol to the burial site. Newspaper coverage of George Wythe's mysterious death transfixed American readers throughout the summer and fall of 1806.
Although no one witnessed Sweeney in the act of poisoning his housemates, the circumstantial evidence against him was overwhelming. Sweeney's friend Taylor Williams reported Sweeney asked him for advice on procuring poison. Williams suggested ratsbane, the arsenic laced poison used to control Richmond's notorious rodent infestation. Mayor Du Val, a friend of Wythe's, told police he found arsenic powder in the judge's storage shed. The doctors found arsenic powder in Sweeney's room and their hasty autopsies of Wythe and Brown indicated evidence of arsenic poisoning.
Virginia law for forbade blacks from testifying against whites in legal proceedings. Therefore, Lydia Broadnax could not testify to catching Sweeney reading Wythe's will the evening of May 24th and his strange behavior on the morning of May 25th. Nor was the testimony of two enslaved carpenters who were working at Wythe's home and saw Sweeney grind a chunk of something with an ax into powder.
Melanie Bowyer: So, Carrie and I were looking at this and starting as early as 1705, there was a statute that prohibited "all blacks, slave or free, from giving evidence of any kind under oath." And also, a white person could not testify on information they had heard from a black person, right, Carrie wasn't there something like that?
Carrie Soubra: Yeah. I mean, this is systematic racism to keep the white men in power. And how many people literally got away with murder because of these racist laws?
I think it's so interesting that we joked about the toast earlier, it was a way to distract, you know, Sweeney distracting, so he can put the arsenic in the coffee. But also, I think he is bold about the crimes he's going to commit because he would know that Lydia would never be able to testify against him.
Melanie Bowyer: Hmm. Yeah.
Carrie Soubra: It doesn't surprise me that Sweeney may have treated Lydia Broadnax or Michael Brown as invisible. An enslaved person at Monticello who was later interviewed talks about being kind of an invisible presence.
Melanie Bowyer: Right. And thinking about it, too, even if Lydia Broadnax had been able to testify, the jury, I'm assuming, would be all white men.
Carrie Soubra: He shows his entitlement in the crimes he's committing. Like I said earlier, you know, forging checks in a town where everybody knows your uncle and knows you and is aware of your reputation of always being in debt from gambling and not making good life choices, he is aware of his power. Maybe he's not consciously thinking it, but he is going to get away with these crimes because of how society was set up then and laws were set up.
Melanie Bowyer: Right and because of place in society. I mean, it is a class issue, as well.
David Thorson: Virginia Attorney General Phillip Nicholas stepped in as chief prosecutor in what was expected to be a speedy trial that would find Sweeney guilty and sentenced to death. On the eve of the trial, set to begin September 1st, 1806, two men stepped forward to defend Sweeney: one, an ambitious young lawyer, William Wirt. Even though convinced of Sweeney's guilt, he saw the trial as a quick means to make a name for himself .
Perhaps more surprisingly, George Wythe's friend and personal attorney Edmund Randolph came to Sweeney's defense. Randolph had resigned from Washington's cabinet, following a political scandal and the loss of $50,000 in federal money that he was required to pay back instead of going to prison. A victory in the Sweeney case could provide a path to Randolph re-establishing his legal career and settling his debts.
Carrie Soubra: So, Edmund Randolph, he is Thomas Jefferson's cousin. He's been, as David tells us, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, what else, Melanie, Attorney General, right?
Melanie Bowyer: Yup.
He had little scandal back when he was Secretary of State. I dug a little bit into this because I wanted to know what his shady deals were. It was involving an intercepted message. The British Navy had intercepted this correspondence from a French minister named Joseph Fauchet to his superiors. It talked about how Randolph had exposed some debates in the cabinet to the French and had reflected contempt for the United States. So, basically, he's, I mean, maybe not spying, but, I don't know, he's side texting. He's like side texting France. And then it gets back to Washington. And Washington is like, what the heck here? And it led to Randolph resigning his position as Secretary of State in 1795. So, he was basically canned and then somehow this money got lost and he ended up having to pay it back.
So, I think that's what undergirds him being the defense lawyer in this trial is this real sense of wanting to regain his reputation.
Carrie Soubra: Jefferson allegedly said about his cousin, Edmund Randolph, "He is the purest chameleon I've ever met."
Melanie Bowyer: Mm, that's right. He really does seem like a "Better Call Saul" kind of guy, you know.
I think everybody's in it for themselves on this.
Melanie Bowyer: We just said the same thing.
Carrie Soubra: You've got the Virginia Attorney General, who's going to step in because he thinks it's going to be such an easy win. You've got Randolph that we've talked about wanting to redeem is precious reputation. And then you've got Wirt, who also saw it as a way to gain publicity for himself.
Melanie Bowyer: I am continually seeing callback to the OJ Simpson trial in the '90s.
Carrie Soubra: He created himself a dream team of defense attorneys.
David Thorson: Attorney General Nicholas centered the prosecution's case on the medical testimony of Doctors McClurg, Foushee, and McCaw, whose autopsies on Wythe and Brown revealed signs of arsenic poisoning, including ruptured blood vessels and bile in the gastrointestinal tract.
Under cross examination, the doctors quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the defense team. Wirt and Randolph peppered the doctors with questions that revealed the doctors had conducted only cursory autopsies, failed to perform standard chemical tests to detect arsenic. Under oath McClurg admitted that bile in the stomach might be the result of bowel troubles that he'd routinely treated Wythe for and bile found in young Michael Brown stomach was rare, but not unheard of in other diseases, not related to arsenic poisoning. McLurg, McCaw, and Foushee each testified arsenic might've killed Wythe and Brown, but it was also possible that the stomach bile was the culprit.
The defense also had little difficulty casting doubt on the physical evidence of the arsenic found in Sweeney's room. Wirt and Randolph pointed out that half the residents in Richmond had arsenic in their homes for the legitimate purpose of killing rats.
Carrie Soubra: It does remind me very much of the trial of OJ Simpson when David's talking about how the defense really overwhelms them. And I think it would be really interesting if we could see exactly how that went down.
Melanie Bowyer: He's like patting at his brow with a napkin and just being all flustered.
Carrie Soubra: I really picture these three doctors as just being almost smug. There's no evidence of that, but that's just how I picture it. And then to have these lawyers come in and rip their testimony to shreds.
Melanie Bowyer: We're already playing out this movie in our head, right.
Carrie Soubra: But that's what a defense team tries to do is to get a jury to see that, oh, maybe it's not the husband, it's not the nephew. It's something else.
Melanie Bowyer: To poke holes in it somewhere.
Carrie Soubra: These doctors . . .
Melanie Bowyer: Yeah. Like they just seem like they're kind of bumbling.
Carrie Soubra: Wirt and Randolph, they did their job well.
Melanie Bowyer: Well, a dream team
Carrie Soubra: You know, it pains me to say that.
Melanie Bowyer: That's what you hire them for.
David Thorson: After less than an hour hour's deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Sweeney's forgery trial ended the following day. The judge dropped the charges on the grounds that Virginia law applied only to forgery against a person, not against a public institution, like a bank. Released from custody, Sweeney, disappeared from Richmond and was never heard from again.
Melanie Bowyer: I read too that because of the public anger against him, his attorneys advised him to leave the state as quickly as possible. And so he just like, he yeeted himself on out of Virginia and was never seen again. So, I'm really curious what happened to him though.
Carrie Soubra: All right, Melanie, though Sweeney was never heard from again, there were some sightings of him. Apparently, he went to Tennessee and then would find himself in jail again because he stole a horse. I guess he didn't ride the horse away.
Melanie Bowyer: This guy is just such a buffoon.
Carrie Soubra: It makes me angry that he got away with murder and forgery but maybe not with stealing a horse.
Melanie Bowyer: Good. Maybe he ended up in jail. That was where he belonged.
Carrie Soubra: Clearly.
David Thorson: The news cycle quickly moved beyond the murder of George Wythe and Michael Brown to a new scandal, the arrest and trial of Jefferson's former vice president aaron Burr on charges of treason. Burr would be acquitted in 1807. Is the result of a brilliant defense by his lawyer. Edmund Randolph against his prosecutor, William Wirt.
Carrie Soubra: I mean, just like today with our 24 hour news cycles you know, it moves on quickly past this scandal to the arrest and trial of Aaron Burr, when he was charged with treason. And while these gentlemen may have done their job well, it speaks to the sleaze. They would have their Better Call Saul billboards. And can you imagine if they had TV back then? They'd be coming out of court every day, talking to all the reporters. But it also kind of makes me mad that they got what they wanted, right? They got this attention. And now they're seen as the hot lawyers that people either want you to prosecute or want you to defend them.
I just also think it's interesting that Jefferson, while he's not a main character in this story, all of these different trials, he still has a connection to them. Like Burr, I mean, his Vice-president for a brief stint.
Melanie Bowyer: All of this, too, happened during his presidency. He was president.
Carrie Soubra: And he's aware, right? He knows what's going on.
Wythe's Gift to Jefferson
David Thorson: George Wythe, Jefferson's mentor and friend remembered his student in his will Wythe's revised will bequeathed him his treasured collection of books, along with two silver drinking cups that Jefferson had melted down in 1810, creating a set of four stemless wine cups, engraved "GW to TJ." Three of those cups have survived and are on display at Monticello.
Carrie Soubra: Well as a as a guide when I'm leading an in-person tour we do have on display the silver cups and so often guests think, well, GW is George Washington. And I get to tell them that the GW actually refers to George Wythe but also that George Wythe was super important in Jefferson's life. Jefferson attends the College of William and Mary and then decides to go on to study law. When he's in Williamsburg, he's living with George Wythe for several years. And really thinks that he is an intellectual God, and, I don't know, help me, Melanie.
Melanie Bowyer: So here's one thing that Jefferson said about Wythe, "He was my ancient master, my earliest and best friend. And to him, I am indebted for first impressions, which have been the most salutary on the course of my life."
Melanie Bowyer: Carrie, thank you for being my partner in crime on this journey
Carrie Soubra: This true crime investigation.
Melanie Bowyer: And we solved the case.
Carrie Soubra: Even though justice did not prevail.
Melanie Bowyer: That's true. But that happens a lot on Dateline too, so it's okay.
Carrie Soubra: That's true. And thank you so much to David Thorson for telling this story in the amazing way that he does.
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Narrated by David Thorson
Hosted by Melanie Bowyer and Carrie Soubra
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn