Nancy Randolph and Richard Randolph Trial: 1793

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Nancy Randolph and Richard Randolph
Trial: 1793

Defendants: Richard Randolph, Anne Cary (Nancy) Randolph
Crimes Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: John Marshall, Patrick Henry
Chief Prosecutors: No record
Judge: A Panel of 16 justices; there are no surviving records of their names
Place: Cumberland County, Virginia
Date of Trial: April 1793
Verdict: Acquittal

SIGNIFICANCE: When two young members of one of colonial Virginia's oldest aristocratic families were engulfed in scandalous allegations of criminal behavior, they called upon two of the nascent nation's most famous leaders and lawyers, John Marshall and Patrick Henry, to defend them.

On Christmas Day 1789 Richard Randolph married his distant cousin, Judith Randolph. He was 19, she 17; both were descended from William Randolph of Turkey Island, who, in the middle of the seventeenth century, had founded what was to become one of the great extended dynastic families of late colonial Virginia, holders of great estates, wealth, and many slaves. In the fall of 1790 the young couple set up house on a family plantation called Bizarre. Soon after that Judith's younger sister, named Anne Cary after her mother, but known as Nancy, joined their household, apparently because of differences with her new stepmother, Gabriela, who was a woman not much older than she. By all accounts Nancy was an attractive and lively young woman, who at the age of 16 already had several socially eligible suitors, among them Richard's younger brother, Theodorick. Many years later Nancy would claim that she had been engaged to marry Theodorick, but no announcement was ever made, and in February 1792 Theodorick died after a long and wasting illness.

On Monday, October 1, 1792, Richard Randolph, his wife, and Nancy arrived at the home of a cousin, Randolph Harrison, and his wife, Mary, on their estate at Glenlyvar in southern Virginia. The Harrisons would later testify to what they saw and heard during the night that followed. They were awakened by screams coming from Nancy's bedroom, which was above theirs, and then a servant came to say that Nancy was sick, and to ask Mrs. Harrison to take up some laudanum. When Mary Harrison went upstairs she had to go through Richard and Judith's bedroom to get to the room occupied by Nancy. Judith Randolph was sitting up in bed, but Richard was in Nancy's room, and had to open the door, which was bolted from the inside. Mary Harrison was not allowed to take a candle into the room, but stayed a few minutes with Nancy, before returning to her own room. Later that night the Harrisons heard footsteps, which they believed to be Richard's, going down the stairs and then returning. The next day Nancy remained in her room. Mary Harrison observed bloodstains on the stairs, and on Nancy's pillowcase. She also noticed that the bed had neither sheets nor quilt, though it had had both the day before. At the end of the week the three Randolphs left Glenlyvar.

Rumors Began Circulating

Within a short time rumors, apparently originating among the slaves of the Harrison household, began to circulate around southern Virginia. Nancy Randolph, it was said, had given birth during the night of October 1, the baby being the result of an adulterous affair with her sister's husband, Richard Randolph. The baby had been killed and its body disposed of. One of the Harrison slaves took Randolph Harrison to a pile of old shingles and there Harrison saw bloodstains; the slave claimed that this was where the body had been left. But no body was ever found. As the stories spread and were embellished, the honor and reputation of the Randolph family became an issue. Richard Randolph sought the advice of his stepfather, Henry St. George Tucker, a prominent lawyer. His initial advice was to do nothing; these were scurrilous tales spread among the lower classes and should not be dignified with a response. They would soon fade away. However, this did not happen, and it soon became apparent to Richard Randolph that he was suspected by members of his own social class. He, therefore, took the unusual step of issuing a challenge in the form of an open letter, dated March 29, 1793, and subsequently published in the Virginia Gazette. It referred to the circulation of calumnies against him, and declaring that he would present himself at the next session of the Cumberland Court, ready to answer any charges that might be brought against him. True to his word, Richard Randolph came to the Cumberland Court in the third week of April, apparently expecting that this bold defiance would put an end to the rumor mongering. Instead he was arrested by the high sheriff and put in jail, charged with "feloniously murdering a child said to be born of Nancy Randolph."

A Skillful Defense

Richard Randolph retained John Marshall, then 37 years old, and destined less than a decade later to begin his tenure as the most celebrated of all chief justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, as his counsel. Marshall was distant kin of the Randolphs and a close friend of St. George Tucker. It was also decided to enlist the help of the legendary leader of the revolution and former diplomat, Patrick Henry. As the well known story goes, when initially offered a fee of 250 guineas, Henry declined the case on the grounds of ill health, but when the offer was doubled, he decided he was well enough to travel. As an attorney, Henry was known for his skill in cross-examining witnesses. Marshall already had a reputation for his ability to analyze evidence and to present forceful logical arguments for whatever position he was defending.

There are no extant official records of the trial; the proceedings have been reconstructed from notes taken, particularly the "Notes of Evidence" in the papers of John Marshall. The trial was held before a panel of 16 "gentlemen justices," but not all necessarily sympathetic to the Randolphsamong them were members of other prominent Virginia families with whom the Randolphs had long-standing feuds. Under Virginia law Richard and Nancy Randolph could not be required to testify, nor could slaves appear as witnesses, although Mary Harrison had seen two young female slaves in Nancy's bedroom when she had taken in the laudanum. Randolph and Mary Harrison testified to their involvement on the night of October 1-2 and the events they were aware of. But under cross-examination by Patrick Henry, Randolph Harrison asserted that he had not entertained "any suspicion of criminal correspondence" between his guests. Mary Harrison told the court that she had no suspicions of Nancy until after she heard the rumors, and even then she considered the probability of a birth or miscarriage having occurred to be low.

An incident in Patrick Henry's cross-examination of an aunt, Mary Page, has been frequently retold as an example of his skill in undermining what might have been strong evidence. Mary Page had apparently suspected that Nancy was pregnant for some time before the night in question. Henry asked her to describe the circumstances which had caused this suspicion, eventually bringing her to the point of describing how she had found the opportunity to observe Nancy, undressed, through a crack in a locked door, and had concluded that she looked pregnant. Henry is then said to have leaned toward the witness and asked, "Madam, which eye did you peep with?" As laughter erupted in the crowded courtroom Henry turned to the panel of justices and boomed, "Great God, deliver us from eavesdroppers!"

John Marshall delivered the closing statement for the defense. He did not attempt to dispute any of the facts presented by the witnesses. He pointed out that there had been no proof that a baby had been born that night, much less that it had been killed. All of the other circumstances were open to an innocent interpretation. If relatives had observed expressions of fondness between Richard and Nancy, was this not quite natural? She was his wife's sister, she had been obliged to leave her own home, and her suitor, Theodorick, had died. If the two had been engaged in an adulterous relationship, would they not have been careful not to appear fond of each other before other family members? If Mary Page had observed a change in Nancy's size that was due to pregnancy as early as May, would it not have been obvious to all that she was pregnant by the end of September? Nancy had procured a medication believed to have the possible side effect of inducing an abortion, but if the other testimony is correct, this was at a time when she was near delivery, so there would have been no point to using it for that purpose. Marshall concluded that although "the friends of Miss Randolph cannot deny that there is some foundation on which suspicion may build," at the same time her enemies could not deny that "every circumstance may be accounted for, without imputing guilt to her. In this situation candor will not condemn or exclude from society a person who may be only unfortunate." The justices accepted this argument. There was insufficient evidence for a conviction and the pair were freed, apparently to the jubilation of the community which had been so ready to condemn them.

Only three years, later Richard Randolph was suddenly taken ill with a high fever, became delirious, and died. Nancy continued to live with her sister for some years, but in 1809 she married one of America's Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris. Among his many distinctions, he had been personally responsible for the drafting of large parts of the American Constitution, as a member of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787. It was a happy marriage and they had a son in 1813. The following year John Randolph of Roanoke, known as Jack, the younger brother of Richard and Theodorick, who after a distinguished political career had become embittered and rancorous, chose to revive the old accusations against Nancy, along with others, in a letter addressed to her, but intended for her husband. Nancy chose to reply, and in a letter that she was careful to circulate to Jack Randolph's political enemies, she said that she had indeed given birth that October night in 1792 at Glenlyvar, but the baby had not been killed; it was born dead. The father, she said, was not Richard, but Theodorick, whom she had intended to marry, and whom she considered as her husband "in the presence of God" The baby had been conceived, she indicated delicately, just a few days before Theodorick's death. Her claim, however, has not been universally accepted as true, and there are still those who believe it is more likely that the original allegations were wellfounded.

David l. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Baker, Leonard. John Marshall: A Life in the Law. New York: Macmillan Publishing. 1974.

Biddle, Francis. "Scandal at Bizarre," American Heritage, Aug.1961, 10.

Crawford, Alan Pell. Unwise Passions. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

"Notes on Evidence." In The Papers of John Marshall, Correspondence and Papers. Vol. 2, July 1788

December 1795. Edited by Charles T. Cullen and Herbert A. Johnson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.