George Sweeney Trial: 1806
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.
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