Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: I Am Murdered by Bruce Chadwick

I Am Murdered is Bruce Chadwick's account of the poisoning of George Wythe, close friend of Thomas Jefferson and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His great-nephew George Sweeney was the prime suspect, and the subsequent trial is now referred to, at least by the publishers, as America's first 'Trial of the Century'.

Chadwick begins with a recounting of Wythe's poisoning, showing us the normal pattern of Wythe's morning and when and how things went drastically wrong. We learn of the shockwave his death sent through the Richmond of the early nineteenth century, and his close-knit group of friends, also known as 'America's Founding Fathers'. 

We learn who George Wythe is and why he is an important part of America's history, Virginia's in particular. He was America's first law professor, a member of the Continental Congress, the judge for the high Chancery Court of Virginia, and a co-reviser of Virginia's laws. This last will become pertinent later. Wythe was titled 'the American Aristides' and seemed to be universally loved - with one clear exception.

George Sweeney, a teenager, has been living the high life in a Richmond far less stodgy than the one that exists today. Sweeney is up to his eyeballs in gambling debts. As a result, the youth is always broke and begging money from the great-uncle he was named for. When Uncle George refuses, Sweeney forges checks in his name. There's a more permanent solution, of course, and young George doesn't have to be an Agatha Christie reader to come up with it: Uncle George is childless. Half of Uncle George's estate goes to Sweeney when he dies, and the other half goes to a mulatto protege that Uncle George has been teaching.

On May 25th, 1806, Sweeney visits the kitchen in Wythe's elegant home. The cook is convinced that Sweeney dumped something from a paper packet into the coffee. I would have dumped the contents personally; instead, everyone in the house, including the cook, drink the adulterated beverage and fall ill. The mulatto protege dies, opening up that half of the estate for Sweeney, but there's a problem: Wythe has a damned good idea that he's been poisoned, and who did it. He declares "I am murdered" (hence the title of the book), and insists that he be autopsied when he dies. He also lives long enough to change his will, disinheriting George entirely. Impressive for an eighty-year-old man, but this will also be pertinent later. 

Chadwick makes a strong case for Sweeney's guilt. Unfortunately, justice could not be served for a number of reasons, which Chadwick explains in detail in the rest of the book. It is rich in irony.

First: Wythe lived too long after ingesting the poison. The three prominent physicians, including Wythe's personal physician, were not absolutely certain that poison was the cause. They also refused to believe that someone could live two weeks after ingesting a fatal dose of arsenic, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Cholera could have been the cause, or Wythe could have died from an excess of bile in his system. This wavering on the cause of death bolstered the defense. Chadwick makes sure that we know what a piss-poor job these men did with determining Wythe's cause of death, but to citizens of the nineteenth century, they were experts who knew what they were doing.

Second: as a lawgiver, Wythe was too much Solon with serious punishments and too much Draco where blacks and slaves were concerned. The revised laws forbade blacks from giving evidence against whites. This meant that his cook, the only living witness, could not testify against Sweeney. Another person, a man who found some concealed arsenic Sweeney had tried to ditch following his arrest, was barred from testimony for the same reason. This was especially ironic because Wythe was a staunch abolitionist who had accepted the harsher laws regarding slaves to get the whole body of law accepted.

Third: the economy of the nineteenth century had gotten ahead of the law where banking was concerned. Forging checks today is a criminal offense today. When the revised law of Virginia was completed in 1779, however, it did not include forgery against a public institution like a bank. The first bank in Virginia wasn't chartered until 1792. The prosecution couldn't even charge him with stealing from his uncle.

As a result, Sweeney was freed and swiftly left town.

There is a large amount of history and detail in this book, perhaps more than some readers will want to take on. It is a nonfiction work regarding a real crime, but it is in no way a lurid 'true crime' book. If you like in-depth history, though, or are an author, it's good reading. For the historical mystery writer, the book is a gold mine, covering several aspects of both Virginian and medical history. The notes and bibliography section provide plenty of avenues to locate more specific knowledge of events, education, and law. If you're setting a novel, especially a mystery, in the period following the Revolutionary War, this book could be a great help.