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George Wythe - America's First Law Professor

George Wythe - America's First Law Professor Awesome Radio - Narrated Stories Biographies Famous People History Social Studies American History

George Wythe (pronounced "with") was an influential lawyer, educator, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress, speaker of the House of Delegates and America's first law professor.  He (1726-1806) was also murdered - by one of his relatives.

Everyone knew who killed him.  The famous founding father from Virginia - the man who had taught Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall - was dead of arsenic poisoning. His grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, was accused of the crime. But how would the prosecutor prove it?

An eyewitness is always the best proof. The prosecutor had an eyewitness: Lydia Broadnax, who had been the professor's cook for decades. On the morning of May 25, 1806 she saw Sweeney do something suspicious with the coffee pot. Then she saw Sweeney throw a small piece of white paper into the fireplace. Soon after, Lydia became violently ill. So did George Wythe and a free black servant, Michael Brown. Everyone who was sick drank coffee that morning.

While Lydia recovered, the other two victims did not. Brown died on June 1st. George Wythe, the man for whom Thomas Jefferson reserved the place of signing honor in the Declaration of Independence, died on June 8th. Sweeney was charged with murder. Wythe must have thought Sweeney did it too. On the day Michael Brown died of arsenic poisoning, Wythe changed his Will. He completely disinherited Sweeney.

One would think Lydia's eyewitness testimony at the trial would have sealed Sweeney's fate. There was one problem, however. Lydia could not testify. Although she was a free woman, she was black. The law at the time prevented black people from testifying against a white man.

No other witness could give direct testimony against Sweeney. Everything else was hearsay and, under the law, that was insufficient for a conviction. After just a few minutes of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict: Not guilty.

The murderer of one of America's greatest founding fathers was acquitted because a free black woman could not testify against a white man. That law was not changed in Virginia until 1867 - after the Civil War.


Media Credits

Image online, courtesy the history.org website.

 

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"George Wythe - America's First Law Professor" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Dec 07, 2019.
       <http://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/George-Wythe-America-s-First-Law-Professor/1>.
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