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Nancy Randolph and Richard Randolph Trial: 1793

Rumors Began Circulating, A Skillful Defense, Suggestions For Further Reading

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.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832