The Murder of George Wythe

Posted on August 15, 2017

The George Wythe Murder


George Wythe

Who was George Wythe? We know him as the first Virginia signer of The Declaration of Independence, the first law professor in the US at the College of William and Mary, friend of George Washington, anti-slavery advocate, and close friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson. His house is located in Colonial Williamsburg on the Palace Green in front of the Governor’s Palace. It’s known as one of the most haunted houses in Colonial Williamsburg and is prominently featured on the ghost tour.

While the Wythe House is most famously known for the haunting of Lady Ann Skipwith, some claim that George’s ghost also haunts the home. While Colonial Ghost Tours does not claim that George Wythe’s ghost haunts his former Williamsburg home, other ghost tours in Williamsburg do. George Wythe had moved from Williamsburg to his Richmond home in 1791, where he continued his service as Judge for Virginia after the death of his wife Elizabeth. George died at the age of 80, on June 8, 1806, in his Richmond home. The cause of death? Murder.

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Reported Hauntings on the Williamsburg Ghost Tours

Some attribute moving shutters seen from the outside, the sounds of moving furniture, and the apparition of a colonial man to the ghost of George Wythe, as well as the sensation of being touched. Some believe that George Wythe, although murdered in Richmond, made his way back to his home in Williamsburg to reunite with his wife Elizabeth at the place of her death in their Williamsburg home.

The killer? George’s 18-year old grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney. Sweeney was one of the two beneficiaries to the elderly Wythe’s fortune along with 16-year old servant and son of Lydia Broadnax, Wythe’s longtime cook and freedwoman, Michael Brown.  George Wythe had no living sons or daughters. Although George Wythe treated Sweeney very well by allowing him to live in his Richmond home for years and instructed his servants to give him anything he wanted, Sweeney had committed several capital crimes, punishable by death. These crimes included forging George Wythe’s name on checks, had stolen George Wythe’s possessions from his home, and had amassed a large gambling debt. If only George Wythe would die, Sweeney would amass a small fortune, pay off his gambling debts, and become rich.

George Wythe's will, stating that his books will be given to Thomas Jefferson

One morning, it is believed that Sweeney poured a substance, believed to be arsenic, into Wythe’s coffee, as witnessed by George’s servant Lydia. All three members of the household but Sweeney became violently ill. Wythe immediately suspected that they were poisoned. Michael Brown was the first to die, making Sweeney the sole heir to the Wythe fortune. George Wythe’s death was long and painful over the course of two weeks. During this time, Wythe removed Sweeney from his will and urged an investigation. During a search of Sweeney’s room, they uncovered arsenic. and Broadnax had seen Sweeney reading Wythe’s will before the poisoning.

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After Wythe’s death, the trial of George Sweeney quickly became a sensation, or a modern-day “trial of the century”. Even Thomas Jefferson, Wythe’s former student, had taken peculiar interest in the case. Sweeney was acquitted of all charges against him, including forgery charges and the murders of Michael Brown and George Wythe. The autopsies of Wythe and Brown were botched, and Broadnax, the only credible witness, was barred from testifying because she was not white.

George Wythe is buried in Richmond in the cemetery of St. John’s Church. The memorial placed in his honor in 1922 reads:

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THIS TABLET IS DEDICATED TO MARK THE SITE WHERE LIE THE MORTAL REMAINDS OF GEORGE WYTHE BORN 1726—DIED 1806 JURIST AND STATESMAN TEACHER OF RANDOLPH JEFFERSON AND MARSHALL FIRST PROFESSOR OF LAW IN THE UNITED STATES FIRST VIRGINIA SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

 George Wythe Grave