George Sweeney Trial: 1806
George Sweeney Trial: 1806
Defendant: George Wythe Sweeney
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Edmund Randolph and William Wirt
Chief Prosecutor: Philip Norborne Nicholas
Judges: Joseph Prentes and John Tyler, Sr.
Place: Richmond, Virginia
Dates of Trial: September 2-8, 1806
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: Because the law forbade blacks from testifying in the criminal trial of a white man, George Wythe Sweeney was acquitted of the murder of his distinguished granduncle, George Wythe.
George Wythe was born in 1726 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. He had a long and distinguished career as one of America's founding fathers. Wythe was admitted to practice law before the bar of Virginia's General Court at the early age of 20. In addition to becoming one of Virginia's preeminent lawyers, Wythe was a successful politician. He was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses several times before the American Revolution and was a member of the 1775 Continental Congress. In 1776, he signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
After the Revolution, Wythe served as a judge on Virginia's High Court of Chancery and as the first professor of law at the College of William and Mary. In 1789 he moved to Richmond to live out his final years. Wythe continued to serve on the High Court of Chancery after the turn of the 19th century and was strong and healthy until the age of 80, well past the average life expectancy of the times.
Unfortunately for Wythe, his young grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, came to live with him in Richmond. Sweeney had inherited none of Wythe's character. Sweeney lived off Wythe's fortune, and he lost considerable sums of money drinking and gambling. In 1805, Sweeney stole some books from Wythe's personal library and tried to sell them at a public auction. In April 1806, Sweeney forged Wythe's name on six bank checks. The next month, Sweeney became afraid that the forgeries would be discovered. Further, Sweeney knew that he was a beneficiary in Wythe's will, and he was too greedy for his inheritance to let Wythe die naturally. Therefore, Sweeney decided to murder Wythe.
Sweeney Poisons Wythe and is Tried for Murder
In late May 1806, Sweeney bought a large quantity of yellow arsenic. Early in the morning of Sunday, May 25, Sweeney laced the household's kitchen coffee pot with some of the poison. Wythe and a servant, a free black servant boy named Michael Brown, drank some of the coffee. After days of slow, agonizing illness, Brown died on June 1 and Wythe on June 8. Wythe's last words were typical of the way he had lived his life: "Let me die righteous."
Suspicion immediately fell on Sweeney, and on June 18 he was arrested. Prosecutor Philip Norborne Nicholas charged Sweeney with murdering Wythe and Brown. The judges were Joseph Prentes and John Tyler, Sr. Sweeney was represented by Edmund Randolph and William Wirt. The trial began September 2, 1806 in the District Court of Richmond.
Lydia Broadnax, a free black woman who had been Wythe's cook for several decades, testified that suspicious circumstances indicated Sweeney put something into the coffee on the morning of May 25. Broadnax had drunk some of the coffee, but not enough to die:
He went to the fire, and took the coffee-pot to the table, while I was toasting the bread. He poured out a cupful for himself and then set the pot down. I saw him throw a little white paper in the fire.… I didn't think there was anything wrong then.
Broadnax's suspicions became aroused, however, when she, Wythe, and Michael Brown fell ill after drinking the coffee:
I gave Michael as much coffee as he wanted, and then I drank a cup myself. After that, with the hot water in the kettle I washed the plates, emptied the coffee-grounds out and scrubbed the coffee-pot bright, and by that time I became so sick I could hardly see, and had a violent cramp. Michael was sick, too; and old master [Wythel was as sick as he could be. He told me to send for the doctor. All these things makes [sic] me think Mass [sic] George must have put something in the coffee-pot.
Judges Prentes and Tyler, however, refused to allow Broadnax's testimony, and that of other black servants who had seen suspicious behavior by Sweeney, into evidence. The judges were bound by a principle of law that prevented blacks from testifying against whites in criminal trials: "It was gleaned from negroes, which is not permitted by our laws to go against a white man."
Therefore, prosecutor Nicholas was forced to rely on such white witnesses as he could produce. Nicholas did his best under the circumstances and was able to come up with some evidence. William Rose, the Richmond city jail warden, testified that Sweeney was not searched after he was arrested and soon thereafter a packet of arsenic was found in the prison yard, as if thrown from Sweeney's cell window. Samuel McCraw, a friend of Wythe's, testified that when he visited Wythe on his deathbed, Wythe asked McCraw to search Sweeney's room. McCraw stated that he found arsenic in a glass container in Sweeney's room.
In addition to these witnesses, there was the fact that Wythe amended his will before he died to exclude Sweeney from any inheritance. On June 1, 1806 Wythe executed a codicil to his will which revoked:
The said will and codicils in all the devises and legacies in them or either of them, contained, relating to, or in any manner concerning George Wythe Sweeney, the grandson of my sister: but I confirm the said will and codicils in all other parts except as to the devise and bequest to Michael Brown, … who, I am told, died this morning.
Nicholas' witnesses, however, could give only hearsay testimony. Under the law, this wasn't enough to convict Sweeney. On September 8, 1806, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty after deliberating for only a few minutes.
Sweeney was acquitted because traditional legal principles prevented blacks from testifying against whites in criminal trials. This rule of law was not changed in Virginia until 1867. As for Sweeney, there are only rumors about what happened to him after his acquittal. According to the most reliable accounts, however, he went to Tennessee, where he was eventually arrested and convicted for stealing horses.
—Stephen G. Christianson
Suggestions for Further Reading
Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of WVilliamsburg. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Boyd, Julian P. The Murder of Geotge Wythe. Philadelphia: Philobiblon Club, 1949.
Brown, Imogene E. American Aristides: a Biography of George Wythe. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.
Clarkin, William. Serene Patriot: a Life of George Wythe. Albany N.Yd.: Alan Publications, 1970.
Kirtland, Robert B. George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge. New York: Garland, 1986.