A tale of murder in the final chapter in a great man’s noble life. Chris Hull tells George Wythe’s story.
Podcast (audio): Download (8.4MB)
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Fifty-six great men signed the Declaration of Independence, but the names of only a handful are widely known.
Most Americans could list John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin, but the other 52 names might be harder to recall. Among those less-remembered names is George Wythe.
His is the story of a noble life, and one that ends with a surprising murder mystery. Our guest today is Chris Hull, and he portrays George Wythe here in Colonial Williamsburg. Chris, thank you for being here.
Chris Hull: It's my pleasure, thank you for the invitation.
Harmony: George Wythe, and we should say "Wythe" is spelled like Wythe but pronounced "with." It's a name we hear almost every day here at Colonial Williamsburg and in Virginia, but he's not as well-known nationally. Who is George Wythe, what did he do?
Chris: We revere the likes of Thomas Jefferson, we revere the likes of John Marshall, Henry Clay, St. George Tucker. These are all brilliant legal minds that have one thing in common: they were mentored by George Wythe. So if we revere these men, it's a wonderful opportunity to understand those that helped them become what we revere.
George Wythe has often been referred to as the teacher of liberty. He is also the development of the method by which we still educate lawyers to this day. He himself, however, never had any formal education. He was schooled in the classics by his mother - Roman and Greek in the original languages, I should state.
From the beginning, he understood there had to be a better way to educate any practice, and particularly the practice of the law. So he developed what we now refer to as the moot court. His students would study theory throughout the week, they would then all gather collectively at the Capitol Building here in Williamsburg on Saturdays, and they would hold moot court sessions, where the lawyers in training could actually argue their cases all the way through verdict or settlement, even through the appeals process if necessary.
He also knew that there was a substantial difference between the practice of law and the creation defining and refining of the law. So those very same students that met with him weekly as lawyers in a moot court met monthly as members of a moot legislature. So that this new generation of lawyers -- who have a tendency, in case you haven't noticed, to become politicians Ã¢â‚¬“ would be gathered together to build upon the foundation that we hoped to create for this new nation through the learning of skills of moderation, of civil discourse and debate, and most importantly, of compromise. Coming together for the best interest of the very individuals that they all represented.
Harmony: He is the namesake of one of the country's best law schools today, the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, right here in Williamsburg.
Chris: And I will tell you, I have some exception to the manner in which that is listed. It should be the Wythe-Marshall School of Law! I'm not going to hold anything against the College of William and Mary, a very renowned institution, but I would like to point out that George Wythe provided John Marshall with the entirety of his legal education. All six weeks of it.
Harmony: As if it wasn't enough to have re-invented the teaching of law and to have mentored some of the country's greatest minds, Wythe had a career beyond law. He was a public servant in many areas. What were his roles in Williamsburg?
Chris: Well he spent over 20 years here in Williamsburg, either as a clerk to the various committees within the House of Burgesses, or actually as a member of the House of Burgesses. It's a relationship that lasted for well over 20 years. He then of course focused primarily on education, but he was still of political mind and was actively involved in the drafting of the Constitution.
Although he ultimately never did sign the Constitution, because he had some difficulties with the way it was approached. He felt you have to define the rights first, and then form the government, because the government's only purpose is to protect the rights of the people. Why would you form a government without clearly defining what the rights are that that government is trying to protect? So he worked on the Constitution, he never actually affixed his name to it.
Harmony: But he is one of the signers of the Declaration.
Chris: Of Independence, absolutely. And that's an interesting story. Wythe would never have been a member of the Virginia delegation had His Excellency General Washington not been named Commander in Chief. He was a member of the original delegation. That left a vacancy. George Wythe then joined the Second Continental Congress to complete the Virginia contingency.
In June of '76, his second wife, Elizabeth, took quite ill. He returned here to Williamsburg to tend to her, to see that she was fully recovered. He missed all the excitement around July 2nd of '76. Well he returned at the end of July, anxious to affix his name to that incredible document.
So he found the parchment, inked his quill, and looked to the bottom of the Virginia delegation in order to affix his name, and there was no room. However, a space was left at the top at the top of the delegation for his signature. I'm certain that Mr. Jefferson had something to do with that. It was at that point that George Wythe, graciously and with a great deal of honor, signed at the top of the Virginia delegation, that most august document.
Harmony: I know that we have to respect Wythe as a great lawyer, I know he's a public servant of great integrity, but still my favorite part of the Wythe story is this murder mystery that happens at the end of his life. How does George Wythe meet his end?
Chris: That indeed is a story unto itself. George Wythe was a fourth-generation Virginian. His grandfather, Thomas I, came to these shores in the 1600s, was a lawyer and a magistrate but passed when he was in his 20s. His grandfather, George's grandfather, was Thomas II, and he passed when he was but in his 20s. And his own father, Thomas III, passed when he was in his 20s when Wythe was but three years of age. His own brother passed when he was in his 30s.So George Wythe, to live to be 80 years old by 1806, was really a remarkable story in and of itself.
He still was known to take his morning cold showers in the garden. He was still going to his office each and every day at the age of 80 as the chancellor for the state-nation of Virginia, and was still living a very active lifestyle. George Wythe still had two former slaves who were living with him who he had manumitted several years before. One was his housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax. Another was a young man by the name of Michael Brown, who Wythe was mentoring in the languages of Greek and Latin, which raised a few eyebrows around Richmond as you can well imagine.
George Wythe had a grand-nephew, a grandson of his sister, his younger sister by the name of George Wythe Sweeney. To describe him as a ne'er do well would probably be the highest compliment you could pay him. He was the blackest of black sheep of any family. He had several creditors who were hot on his tail. George Wythe Sweeney came to Richmond to stay temporarily with his uncle. During that tenure, he discovered where George Wythe kept his drafts, and also that he figured predominantly in George Wythe's Last Will and Testament.
Well, George Wythe Sweeney forged several drafts, basically stealing from his uncle to pay off some of his creditors. When he discovered that he was going to inherit a substantial estate, well obviously that was a bit of a motivation to take action.
One morning, Wythe was out taking his shower. Lydia Broadnax was preparing his breakfast and Michael Brown was sitting at the table in his Greek and Latin studies. George Wythe Sweeney comes downstairs, pours himself a cup of coffee, sits and drinks it and goes back over to the coffee pot and adds something to it. Nobody thinks anything of it. George Wythe comes in from his shower and sits down.
He, Lydia and Michael have breakfast. All three immediately become violently ill. Michael Brown passes within three days. Lydia Broadnax survives, but George Wythe survived the pains of arsenic poisoning for two weeks. During that two week time period, a few things come to George Wythe's attention. One, the forged bank drafts come to his attention. And the other, Lydia Broadnax relating to George Wythe what she had witnessed the morning they all became ill.
George Wythe immediately rewrote his last will and testament, eliminating George Wythe Sweeney from it, turned over the forged drafts for prosecution, and the evening before he passes, his last words are, "I am murdered." George Wythe Sweeney is put on trial. It was called by many to be the trial of the century. George Wythe Sweeney, however, was acquitted for two reasons, and two reasons only.
First of all, the autopsy was badly butchered. They brought in two celebrity physicians to perform the autopsy, one of which had just written a book on the dangers of lead poisoning and was firmly convinced that this death supported the propositions that he put forth in his book. The second: there was only one witness who could testify as to what happened the morning they all became ill, and that was a woman of color who was not allowed to testify against a white man in court.
Harmony: Lydia Broadnax.
Chris: Lydia Broadnax. So it was a very difficult and tragic story. George Wythe Sweeney headed somewhere to the west. Very little if anything is known about what happened to him, except that his death may have been a bit premature as he ran into some former debtors, or former creditors, but we don't know much more of that. So here is a man who lived to be 80 who was still thriving at the age of 80. Could you imagine how much longer he might have survived had he not been so treacherously murdered? Many people consider it to be the first true miscarriage of justice in this very young country.
Harmony: It's clear that George Wythe is a person who you've come to respect and admire a great deal. What do you think is the most important thing to understand about his character and his life and his legacy?
Chris: One of his students, a young man that he had mentored, once said that George Wythe was the only honest lawyer he ever met. I don't know what that says about the profession, but when asked what he meant by that, he said, "You always know where George Wythe will decide and rule, without exception. It will always be on the law as he understands it."
As a result of that, there is a sense of honesty and integrity that I admire with what he accomplished, plus his understanding of the role of government. That it is to protect predetermined rights and that it is the government who is the servant of the people, not the other way around.
Harmony: Thanks for being our guest today.
Chris: It was my pleasure.