Monday, June 8, 2009

No Justice in the Death of George Wythe

On this date in 1806, the so-called "Father of American Jurisprudence" passed away from arsenic poisoning. Wythe earned that moniker as the first professor of law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, but he has other historical accomplishments as well. In addition to being one of the Virginia delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence, he was also one of three to draw up the rules and procedures for the Constitutional Convention.

Later in his life, Wythe became an abolitionist and followed through by freeing his slaves. Taken his new viewpoint one step further, Wythe amended his will to provide for his former slaves, Lydia Broadnax and her son, Michael Brown - today there is speculation that she was his lover and the boy was his son. The news did not set well with his grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, and other heir to his fortune, who decided to take the matter into his own hands and devised a plan to poison them with arsenic. Wythe and Brown received a fatal dosage of arsenic, while Broadnax survived. Due to bigoted laws that forbade testimony of blacks against whites, Sweeney was acquitted of the crime. However, Wythe had survived the poisoning long enough to write his grandnephew completely out of his will - administering the only justice they would receive.

Wythe is buried in the cemetery at the St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia - the historical site of Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty, or give me death!" speech. Wythe is one of many historical figures buried there, including the mother of famed horror author, Edgar Allan Poe.

Read more stories of the Richmond St. John's Episcopal Church.

-Casey H.

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