The Strange Death Of Founding Father George Wythe

The groundbreaking early American judge and jurist George Wythe lived a long and triumphant life. Born in Virginia in 1726, he was admitted to the bar around the age of just 20, and over the course of numerous accomplishments during the next six decades of his life, went on to have a singular influence on American law and education. As the country's first law professor, he was also considered an essential mentor to several key figures in early American politics, including the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson himself, who in his autobiography described Wythe as "my faithful and beloved mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life." In 1776, Wythe was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.

But like politics itself, life in the early years of the United States could be a dirty business. And though Wythe was well respected as a public figure, his death in 1806 was deeply sinister: A suspected poisoning at the hands of a relative, his grand-nephew and namesake George Wythe Sweeney.

A household poisoned

George Wythe took great pleasure in education and helping young minds to reach their full potential. Through his mentorship of Thomas Jefferson and over 30 other frontline political figures, Wythe had come to exert a subtle but widespread influence on the political landscape of the United States during its earliest years as a young country in search of an identity.

Wythe continued his teaching into old age, and, at the time of his death, had numerous people living in his home whom he had taken on as students. According to the Tennessee Bar Association, these included Michael Brown, a former enslaved of the Wythe family whom the law professor — who was an abolitionist though not a particularly vocal one — had "freed" following the death of his second wife in 1787. As well as Brown, another of Wythe's former enslaved, Lydia Broadnax, lived and worked in the house on a paid basis.

Also living in the house was George Wythe Sweeney, who at the time was a teenager and something of a waster. Wythe was convinced, however, that he could mentor the wayward Sweeney and persevered with him. But it is believed that on May 25, 1806, Sweeney poisoned the household's morning coffee, possibly with arsenic. Broadnax fell seriously ill, Brown died within a week, and Wythe two weeks later.

The arrest of Sweeney — and the reason his trial failed

Though the fatal illnesses were originally believed to have been due to an outbreak of cholera, George Wythe Sweeney was finally implicated in the deaths of George Wythe and Michael Brown after being caught trying to pass forged checks in Wythe's name. According to the Tennessee Bar Association, a search of his room led to the discovery of several samples of the fatal poison — in a nearby smokehouse that Sweeney used as a workshop.

The teenager was arrested and put on trial for murder and forgery. It is assumed that his motive was chiefly financial: Sweeney was a gambler who had accrued debts in the space of a few years. He was due to receive an inheritance from his great-uncle upon his death, though as Wythe was still healthy and active Sweeney possibly grew impatient. There was also the fact that Wythe had made provisions in his will for Brown and Broadnax, too. By poisoning the whole household, Sweeney could have received a greater proportion of the inheritance. But as it turned out, Wythe disinherited his assumed murderer during the agonizing two weeks he remained alive following the poisoning.

But Sweeney was acquitted, for one simple reason. The prosecution's case against Sweeney relied on testimony from Broadnax, but at the time, evidence from Black witnesses was not admissible in Virginia courtrooms. So Sweeney got off with killing one of the Founding Fathers, and though he was convicted of two counts of forgery, he never served any prison time and later left the state.