Southern Chivalry and the Case of the Century
Southern Chivalry and the Case of the Century
Colonial Elite. The Randolphs were Virginia’s largest and most prominent family. The founders of the Randolph family, William Randolph and Mary Isham Randolph, arrived in North America around 1673 and are known as the “Adam and Eve” of Virginia. They had nine children and thirty-seven grandchildren. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall could trace their roots to this “first couple.”
Two Sisters. Judith and Ann Cary were daughters of Thomas Mann Randolph. Their brother, Thomas Mann Jr., married Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha. Ann Cary Randolph, known as Nancy, had a reputation as an independent and headstrong young woman. As one symbol of her rebelliousness, she moved out of her father’s house to live with her sister and brother-in-law. Here she was courted by her brother-in-law’s younger brother, Theodoric Randolph. This brought on a series of events that cast the Randolph family into a spiral of accusation and scandal.
The Tale. Nancy and Theodoric planned to marry before Theodoric’s untimely death in February 1792. Nancy turned for comfort to her brother-in-law Richard, and he was solicitous of her needs. Many people considered their closeness inappropriate, and there were raised eyebrows and whispers when people observed a discernible change in Nancy’s appearance, marked by an increase in weight. On 1 October 1792 Nancy joined Judith and Richard for dinner at the Glenlyvar plantation home of Richard’s cousin Randolph Harrison. Nancy became ill during dinner and retired to an upstairs bedroom. That evening, screams were heard coming from her room. When the hostess sought to look in, she found Richard Randolph in Nancy’s bedroom. She later found traces of blood on Nancy’s bed and on the stairs leading to the room. Rumor quickly followed. Slaves on the Glenlyvar plantation opined that Nancy had delivered a child and claimed that the infant had been left for dead by Richard in a woodpile near the plantation house. Gossip followed rumor, and soon it was the talk of the county that Nancy had conceived a child by Richard Randolph, her brother-in-law, and that Richard abandoned the child in the Glenlyvar woodpile.
The Inquest. The infamous talk of adultery and infanticide was so widespread that Richard turned to John Marshall for help. Marshall noted the lack of hard evidence against Richard, most significantly the lack of an infant’s body. Circumstantial evidence and rumor were all that the accusers had at their disposal. Marshall advised Richard to appear in court and demand that he be tried for murder and adultery, or that he be exonerated. At Marshall’s suggestion Richard asked the semiretired Patrick Henry, still considered Virginia’s premier trial lawyer, to take up his defense. Richard Randolph followed Marshall’s advice and appeared in Cumberland County Court on 22 April 1793. Proceedings began one week later before a panel of county magistrates. Patrick Henry examined the witnesses against Richard. Nancy did not testify; more important, under Virginia law the Glenlyvar slaves could not give testimony about what they saw that night. Henry’s examination of the witnesses proved he had lost none of his courtroom skills. Nancy’s aunt, Mary Cary Page, testified that she had peered into her niece’s bedroom while Nancy was undressing to see if she was carrying a child. Patrick Henry cut her to the quick, turning to the assembled magistrates and exclaiming: “Great God, deliver us from eavesdroppers.” John Marshall delivered a powerful closing argument, describing Richard’s relationship with Nancy as normal and affectionate for cousins-in-law. The lack of hard evidence meant that there were only rumors against Richard rather than facts, and Richard must therefore be given the benefit of the doubt. Marshall said of Nancy: “Every circumstance may be accounted for without imparting guilt to her … a person who may only be unfortunate.” The magistrates exonerated Richard; there would be no murder trial; and all charges were dismissed.
Fallout. Virginia society did not easily accept the decision of the magistrates. Richard, Judith, and Nancy found themselves outcasts in a social order that meant everything to them. Richard died within three years, a broken and dispirited man. Nancy moved to New York, attempting to earn a living as a teacher, but she soon fell into a state of destitution. In 1808 she was befriended by Gouverneur Morris, a prominent Federalist and former senator from New York. Morris had known her father and was moved by Nancy’s impoverished condition. A bachelor, Morris invited her to live with him, and the two fell in love. Morris wanted to marry Nancy but first sought out the advice of his longtime friend, John Marshall. The chief justice wrote to Morris that while the adultery charges of 1792–1793 were “very public and excited much attention,” the circumstances surrounding the affair were “ambiguous, and rumor, with her usual industry, spread a thousand others which were probably invented by malignant” individuals.
The Truth Comes Out. Morris and Nancy Randolph were married on Christmas Day 1809. Nine years later, in letters she wrote to relatives, Nancy told for the first time her version of what really happened. Yes, she wrote, she did deliver a child that evening at Glenlyvar, but it was not Richard’s child. She had conceived a child with her doomed lover, Richard’s brother Theodoric. There would have been no scandal had Theodoric lived and married Nancy. Theodoric’s untimely death left Nancy in an enormous predicament. According to Nancy, she carried the child to term, and that night after dinner at Glenlyvar, her child was stillborn. Her brother-in-law Richard knew all of this and helped her through her adversity. But he never revealed his knowledge and went to his grave the subject of suspicion and gossip because, Nancy wrote, “He was a man of honor.”
Assessment. Nancy’s account remains a plausible and understandable explanation of what had taken place. In 1818, when she wrote the explanation, there could be no reason for her to manufacture falsehoods. The whole truth no doubt vanished with the silence of the slaves, who knew much but could not testify, and the silence of the grave, which claimed Richard Randolph, a Virginia gentleman and man of honor.
Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948);
Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York: Holt, 1996).