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CW Journal : Winter 2013 : Murder by Namesake

Direct records of the case lost to fire, the Hustings Court records, left, are the only official documents left of Swinney's trial for murder.

Dave Doody

Direct records of the case lost to fire, the Hustings Court records, left, are the only official documents left of Swinney’s trial for murder.

George Wythe's generosity toward his grand-nephew, George Wythe Swinney, was repaid by theft, fraud, and, in the end, murder by poison.

Barbara Lombardi

George Wythe’s generosity toward his grand-nephew, George Wythe Swinney, was repaid by theft, fraud, and, in the end, murder by poison.

After long residence at Williamsburg in his house on Palace Green, above, Wythe spent his last years in Richmond, where he died of arsenic poisoning.

Dave Doody

After long residence at Williamsburg in his house on Palace Green, above, Wythe spent his last years in Richmond, where he died of arsenic poisoning.

The Capitol in Richmond, where Swinney's trial was.

Beinecke Library/Yale

The Capitol in Richmond, where Swinney’s trial was.

A plaque marking the site of Wythe's home in Richmond.

Dave Doody

A plaque marking the site of Wythe’s home in Richmond.

St. John's Church, Wythe's burial place

Beinecke Library/Yale

St. John’s Church, Wythe’s burial place

The author reading the Hustings Court records.

Dave Doody

The author reading the Hustings Court records.

Wythe's will.

Library of Congress

Wythe's will.

Marker near Wythe's grave at Richmond's St. John's Church.

Dave Doody

Marker near Wythe’s grave at Richmond’s St. John’s Church.

Murder by Namesake:

The Poisoning of the Eminent George Wythe

by Mary Miley Theobald

George Wythe was murdered in 1806, not in his fine brick house on Williamsburg’s Palace Green, but in Virginia’s new capital, Richmond, in the house he had moved to seventeen years before. He died at seventy-nine, poisoned by George Wythe Swinney, the greatnephew he had loved as a son. Despite overwhelming evidence that Swinney had committed two murders and several counts of forgery, he got off scot-free. By the way, Swinney’s name is spelled at least three ways—Swinney, Sweeny, and Sweeney—in the documents of his day. Wythe, who knew him best, spelled it two ways in his will. Here is used the spelling of the Hustings Court version. In quotations, the spelling remains as it was.

Chancellor George Wythe ate strawberries and milk for supper May 24, 1806. The next morning, an hour after his usual light breakfast with coffee, he doubled up with stomach pain and vomiting. The following day and the day after, Wythe’s cook, the freedwoman Lydia Broadnax, and the freed lad Michael Brown fell violently ill. Within days, suspicion fell on the fourth member of the household, teenager George Wythe Swinney.

Swinney was named for his grandmother’s brother, George Wythe, the patriot, judge, teacher, public servant, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and first professor of law and police in America. No doubt the boy’s parents hoped some of Wythe’s qualities, such as honesty, modesty, and probity, would transfer to their son, and to that end, they sent him to be educated at his great-uncle’s Richmond home. One had only to consider the list of Wythe protégés—Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Henry Clay, James Monroe, and St. George Tucker, to name a few—to appreciate what the future could hold for a lad who studied under the direction of this statesman.

Not only did Wythe take Swinney as a pupil, but the childless widower became so fond of the boy that he included him in his 1803 will. The young man would start his adult life with a respectable inheritance, a fine education, and a name that would open doors in all seventeen states.

No records tell us about Swinney’s early years, whether he had been a bad seed from childhood or was corrupted during his teens. The first indication of his character surfaces in 1805, when he was about fifteen. He “had been in the habit of robbing his uncle with a false-key, and had sold three trunks of his most valuable books” to fund his gambling habit, wrote William Wirt, the lawyer who would later defend Swinney.

Wythe revised his will early in 1806. He forgave Swinney the thefts but specified that the boy’s debts were to be paid before he got his hands on the remainder of his inheritance. A month later, Wythe added a second codicil in which he improved Swinney’s inheritance by providing that he should have his portion “immediatelie,” perhaps in recognition of the lad’s financial problems. He also made a modification concerning another beneficiary, a fifteen-year-old former slave named Michael Brown, whom he was also educating: “If Michael die before his full age, I give what is devised to him to George Wythe Sweeny.” He had just signed Michael Brown’s death warrant.

The lure of dice, cards, and the racetrack proved stronger than the judge’s encouragements to reform. Swinney, who was familiar with the provisions of his uncle’s will, continued to frequent the gambling dens and taverns concentrated around the docks at Rockett’s Landing and in the areas today called Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom. Desperate for funds, he forged his uncle’s name on a series of checks for as much as $100 each, a large sum at the time, presenting them to the trusting teller at the Bank of Virginia. Still, he needed more.

Early in May, Swinney began to fear his forgeries would be exposed. There was one way out, and historian W. Edwin Hemphill summarized it: “By a single desperate deed, he might forestall discovery of his forgeries, prevent any resultant reduction or cancellation of the legacy he would receive from Wythe, and claim his inheritance prematurely.” Wythe’s death would bring Swinney his inheritance at once. Brown’s death would enlarge the bequest.

Swinney, now sixteen or seventeen, began asking his friends about poisons. It seems Swinney’s pals knew as little as he did about the subject. One testified that he had told Swinney “that ratsbane was poison, and that a gentleman of his acquaintance used it for the purpose of killing rats.” Another, Tarlton Webb, said that when Swinney asked him “where he could procure any ratsbane,” Webb told him, wrongly, that it was “against the law of the United States to have it.” Two weeks later, Swinney came to the house of Webb’s mother and showed Webb something wrapped in paper, “which he said was Ratsbane.” Swinney said that “he was very unhappy and something pressed upon his mind; but although applied to, would not disclose the cause of his uneasiness.”

If Swinney had not taken another forged check to the bank May 27, he might never have been suspected of poisoning anyone. This time, teller William Dandridge sensed trouble. Everyone in Richmond knew the elderly judge was very ill, and the timing of the check seemed doubtful. Dandridge gave Swinney the $100, but later spoke to his superiors. The clerk of Wythe’s Chancery Court took seven checks to Wythe’s bedside, where the old man said he had signed none of them. Swinney was arrested for forgery and arraigned June 2. With astonishing effrontery, he sent a message to his dying uncle asking him for $1,000 to post bail. Wythe refused.

There had been no reason to suspect Swinney of any connection to the illnesses. People got sick, especially old people, and Wythe was seventy-nine. Broadnax was sixty-six. Food poisoning and cholera morbus—the term did not refer to cholera, but was what we might today call gastroenteritis—were the initial diagnoses. Only after the discovery of Swinney’s forgeries did people begin to suspect murder. Broadnax said Swinney had acted strangely that morning. After drinking his own coffee, it was said, he hung about the coffee pot and threw a bit of paper into the fire.

Incriminating evidence piled up. A search of Swinney’s room produced yellow arsenic, strawberries with what looked like arsenic sprinkled on them, and brown paper with traces of arsenic. The arresting officer confiscated Swinney’s knife and testified there was also some “heavy substance wrapped in paper” in the adolescent’s pocket. So did jailor William Rose, but neither man had examined the contents. The next morning, Rose’s slave girl, Pleasant, found a packet in the rear garden that abutted the jail yard and brought it to her master. It was arsenic wrapped in paper. Logic suggested that Swinney, who had use of the jail yard, threw the packet over the wall, not realizing who lived next door. The paper matched the pieces in Swinney’s room. Finally, in a tool shop and smokehouse on the Wythe property, Wythe’s neighbor William DuVal found traces of arsenic on an ax and a hammer: “The negroes in the shop said” prisoner Swinney “had beat something they did not know what on the side of the ax with the hammer.”

It seemed obvious the teenager had purchased arsenic in solid form, pulverized it in the tool shop, and sprinkled a little on the strawberries. When there were no immediate results, perhaps he stirred more into the coffee the next morning, taking care to be seen drinking coffee himself before adding the poison.

June 1, about five days after his first symptoms, Brown died. Wythe was devastated. Realizing he, too, had little time left, he added a codicil to his will that disinherited Swinney in favor of Swinney’s two sisters and brother.

Wythe suffered in agony for another week, much of the time unable to speak. At one point, he said, “I am murdered!” He repeatedly said something that sounded to the attending physicians like “Cut me,” which they took to be a request for an autopsy. The day of Brown’s death, four doctors autopsied the boy, finding indications of poison.

After Wythe died June 8, two weeks after he consumed the arsenic, five doctors autopsied their old friend. DuVal wrote the news to President Jefferson: “There was considerable inflammation in his Stomach. It is strongly suspected that he and Michael Brown were poisoned with Yellow Arsenic by George W. Sweeney.”

Swinney was arraigned June 18 for murder. Three magistrates examined him and witnesses for five hours. They found the case merited referral to Hustings Court, where June 23, Swinney faced six judges and sixteen witnesses at a hearing held at Henrico County’s courthouse on Main Street at 22nd, which the city shared until its own could be built in 1816. All six judges believed him guilty, an opinion that sent him to District Court for a trial by jury.

Ten weeks later, Swinney was tried in District Court in the Capitol for two counts of murder and four counts of forgery. The proceedings took one day. The editor of Wythe’s favorite newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer, reported, “The jury retired, and in a few minutes, brought in the verdict of not guilty. A similar indictment against him for the poisoning of Michael, a mulatto boy (who lived with Mr. Wythe) was quashed without trial.”

Historians cannot know precisely what occurred at the District Court because its records were destroyed in the Richmond evacuation fire at the end of the Civil War. What is known comes from the Hustings Court records, discovered in 1955, which summarized the testimony of the witnesses who would, presumably, have repeated their testimonies before the District Court jury.

There were two major flaws in the case. Every time Swinney could be linked directly to arsenic and murder, the witnesses were African Americans, who, enslaved or free, were barred by law from testifying against a white person. Testimony from Lydia Broadnax, who had recovered, would have added little. At worst, all she saw was Swinney loitering about the coffee pot and throwing some paper into the fire—an account that only entered the historical record seventy-eight years later. Rose’s slave girl, Pleasant, and unnamed laborers working around the tool shed offered more important eyewitness evidence that was related by others in the Hustings Court proceedings, where such hearsay was allowed. Neither the direct testimony of African Americans nor hearsay would have been permitted at a jury trial.

What was left was circumstantial. Swinney had ratsbane in his room? Many households struggled to control rats. DuVal found arsenic on tools in the outbuildings? No white person could link that to Swinney. As Wirt wrote to James Monroe before agreeing to defend the ne’er-do-well, “The chain of circumstances in a court of law, depend, it seems, on black persons, & so he will escape for the poison.” Reporting the trial results, the Enquirer said, “Some of the strongest testimony exhibited before the called court and before the grand jury was kept back from the petit jury. The reason is, that it was gleaned from the evidence of negroes, which is not permitted by our laws to go against a white man.”

With his best evidence barred, the prosecutor might still have prevailed on the strength of the autopsy results. The doctors—James McClurg, James McCaw, William Foushee, and two others—could not, however, bring themselves to testify with certainty that the deaths had been caused by arsenic. McClurg, the eldest and most eminent, testified, “The whole of his stomach and intestines had an uncommonly bloody appearance, that if produced by arsenic, in his opinion, death would have ensued much sooner. Mr. Wythe had been frequently attacked with disordered bowels within three years last past.” The two bodies had a “great accumulation of bile.” McClurg was the author of a book on bile, so perhaps the other, younger physicians hesitated to disagree. Foushee said only that the inflamed tissues “might have been produced by arsenic, or any other acrid matter.” The doctors believed, erroneously, that arsenic poisoning brought death within one to three days. Brown had lingered five days and Wythe two weeks.

These faulty conclusions could be excused if they were due to the poor understanding of arsenic poisoning in that era. But the doctors’ postmortem should not have ended after a quick look at stomach tissues. A few simple laboratory tests, standard at that time, would have shown beyond doubt the presence of arsenic. These procedures were not new and had been published in medical journals and textbooks, yet the Richmond doctors seemed unaware of them. The prominent Dr. McClurg scorned chemistry, writing that chemists “corrupted the theory of medicine.” The conclusion must be that, although these men were considered the finest doctors in Richmond, they were not on par with their European counterparts.

Thanks to a botched autopsy and a law prohibiting blacks from testifying against whites, Swinney escaped the hangman for two murders. Virginians consoled themselves that he would, at least, be imprisoned for the forgeries. They would be disappointed again.

Swinney was found guilty of two counts of forgery. Wirt appealed the decision to the General Court. The law, he said, made illegal any forgery that resulted in the robbery of any “private individual.” Wirt argued that the Bank of Virginia had been defrauded, and an institution was not a person. Though Swinney had committed forgery, it was not unlawful forgery. He had taken the bank’s money, not Wythe’s. The law, written in 1789 before Virginia banks existed, had never been updated. The legislature quickly closed this loophole, but it was too late to use against Swinney.

The complicated appeals process resulted in a sentence of one hour in the pillory plus six months in prison for one of the forgery counts that was deemed slightly different from the others, but Swinney beat that too. For reasons today unclear, Swinney was granted a second trial on the remaining forgery charge, but the commonwealth’s attorney declined to prosecute. The absence of court records makes this impossible to explain.

Swinney left Richmond immediately upon his release from jail in November. History does not hear from him again.

Extra Images

Portrait of George Wythe

Portrait of George Wythe copied by William H. Crossman of New York. Colonial Williamsburg

Bust of George Wythe

Bust of George Wythe in the Old Senate Chamber in the Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg