This Day in History: The mysterious death of George Wythe, Signer of the Declaration
On this day in 1806, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. The circumstances surrounding George Wythe’s death were a bit mysterious. He may even have been poisoned. (Yikes.)
Another point of interest about Wythe? He once had a law clerk who would go on to be a United States President. That clerk was none other than Thomas Jefferson.
How must Wythe have felt on the day that he signed the Declaration, drafted by his former pupil and his good friend?
Wythe worked his way up from poor beginnings in Virginia, learning law under the tutelage of his uncle. As a lawyer, he took students in and helped them to learn the law. One of these students was Jefferson. It was the beginning of a long relationship between the two men.
Jefferson would later write of Wythe: “he was my antient master, my earliest & best friend; and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life.”
During his lifetime, Wythe served his community and his country in many ways. He served in the House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress. He helped Jefferson’s efforts to influence the writing of a constitution for his home state of Virginia, and he helped in an effort to revise the state’s statutes. He was a law professor at the College of William and Mary. In that position, he taught men such as future Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall and future President James Monroe. He was a judge of Virginia’s High Court of Chancery.
Despite these accomplishments, Wythe is often better remembered for the sensational manner in which he died.
Perhaps it all started when he freed some slaves that had been bequeathed to him. One of these slaves, Lydia Broadnax, decided to stay in his employ anyway. Wythe also had the care of a young mulatto boy, Michael Brown, and he later accepted his grandnephew, George Wythe Sweney, into the household. By 1806, all three of these individuals were to receive a portion of his estate in his will.
Unfortunately, Wythe’s grandnephew was probably a gambler, then in debt. He’d been caught in acts of petty theft, and it was later discovered that he’d been forging checks on Wythe’s accounts.
One morning, Wythe, Broadnax, and Brown fell very ill after breakfast. At first, they were diagnosed with cholera morbus. But that diagnosis came into doubt when it was discovered that Broadnax had seen Sweney reading Wythe’s will. She’d also seen him near the coffee and suspected that he’d put something in it. Remnants of suspected arsenic were found. Wythe believed that he’d been poisoned. As he lay sick in bed, he changed his will to disinherit Sweney.
Brown passed away after about a week of suffering. Wythe followed a week later, on June 8. Only Broadnax survived.
Sweeney was brought to trial, but that trial was plagued with problems. Some of the participants had conflicts of interest. The doctors who performed the autopsies would not give firm opinions on the cause of death. Broadnax could not testify against a white person. Ultimately, Sweeney was acquitted.
Wythe had been buried quickly, and Jefferson did not learn of his death until after the funeral. But Wythe had left Jefferson a great gift. He bequeathed his entire library to Jefferson, the book lover.
For his part, Jefferson had nothing but kind words for his friend. “His virtue,” Jefferson once said, “was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country.”