Q&A with Bruce Chadwick
BRIAN LAMB, C-SPAN: Bruce Chadwick, author of ”I Am Murdered;” one, where did you get the title and, two, why have we not heard that much about George Wythe in our lifetime?
BRUCE CHADWICK, AUTHOR: The idea for this book fell out of the sky, tumbled through the air and hit me in the head. I was in a library at Rutgers University, researching another book about the Revolution and I lost my balance and fell against a shelf. And as I did, from a higher shelf was a hardbound copy of a small journal, fell down, hit me in the head, landed on the floor, the cover opened up and it said ”The Murder of George Wythe.”
Now I knew who George Wythe was. He was one of the unknown Founding Fathers. But I did not know he had been murdered. And one of the chapter titles in the book is a quote from George Wythe, where he tells doctors who arrive to see him when he fell ill that he had been murdered. They had come to see him. He had been poisoned and he was feeling very badly and he propped himself up on his pillows, stared at his doctor and in a very gravelly whisper said, ”I am murdered.” And that’s where I got the title from.
LAMB: You got to go over this one again. Do you mean to tell me that if you hadn’t have lost your balance we’d never have this book?
CHADWICK: That’s exactly right. Or something else had hit me on the head.
LAMB: But George the name, first of all, before I got into this, I thought it was Wythe.
CHADWICK: Everybody does.
LAMB: There’s a street down in Alexandria, Virginia. Wythe.
LAMB: Wythe. But back to my original question, why did we not hear more about him over the years, cause and I’m going to get you to tell us about him, but he’s a fascinating character?
CHADWICK: He is and the reason that people don’t know a lot about him is that, unlike most people who were among the Founding Fathers, the only book he wrote was a legal book on his decisions, when he was a judge. He never kept a diary or a journal or saved his letters to or from people. So there’s very little information about him.
He served in the Continental Congress, but during the War. He could have been on the Supreme Court, but turned down an appointment to it, so almost all of his life was spent in his native Virginia. Now, Virginians know a lot about him. There’s a county named after him, at least one town, streets in Alexandria. There are some statues of him. Schools are named after him. But if you cross the Virginia line, he’s just an unknown Founding Father. And when I got into this as a homicide investigation, I became unbelievably impressed by what a great American he was.
LAMB: Well, just for starters, who did he mentor?
CHADWICK: Thomas Jefferson. That’s not bad.
LAMB: Who else?
CHADWICK: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, James Monroe, dozens of senators, congressmen and governors of Virginia, and, in addition to all of that, when he later moved to Richmond, Henry Clay. And Henry Clay used to tell people all of his life how much he appreciated being mentored by George Wythe. One of the things Clay would do; Wythe spoke all the time in Latin and Greek. He spoke five languages and he would continually try to get Clay to learn how to read Latin and Greek, but he had no interest in it. But he memorized a lot of the lines that Wythe had told him. So later, in politics, in the U.S. or when Clay was abroad, he would just drop into conversations these long passages in Latin and in Greek that he had memorized from George Wythe and just blew people away.
LAMB: Wythe was born where, lived where and what year did he die?
CHADWICK: He died in 1806. He was 80 years old. Now, in that era, three-quarters of the people in this country died before the age of 50, so if you were in your 60s, you were very old. And if you were 80, you were ancient. He grew up in Virginia. His parents owned a plantation with about 30 slaves. He flew through school, graduated from college; he was about 18, became a lawyer, married, his wife died and he remarried the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Williamsburg, who gave him a very large house there. It still stands and people can take tours of it.
And then in Williamsburg he got involved in politics. He was a professor at the University of William and Mary, and that’s where he met Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was 16 and his dad had died two years earlier. So he comes to Williamsburg and he’s looking for instructional guidance, academically, and then personally looking for some adult men to sort of serve as a second father.
Wythe at the same time had had all these protιgιs, whom he taught, and some lived in his house or lived nearby, and he lamented to people that even though these people were very smart, he had never met anybody his equal till he met Thomas Jefferson. And the two of them were they were like that, all the same interests. And then after college, Jefferson became his law clerk for five years. They were with each other all day. Then Jefferson got elected to the state legislature in Virginia, the House of Burgesses, where Wythe was a member. And then their friendship became extremely close.
LAMB: How did he get to know James Monroe, another President, and Henry Clay and John Marshall, who was the longest serving Chief Justice?
CHADWICK: They were enrolled at William and Mary as students, and they sought him out. He had really strict academic tutorials that he conducted at his house for hours a day, to teach you different languages, arithmetic, geography, politics, everything you can think of, and they sought him out for that reason.
Monroe was his student for a year when the Revolution broke out. And he came back after the war and was a student for about a semester, became very close to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was elected the Governor of Virginia and asked Monroe to come with him to the State House. And Monroe was reluctant to leave Wythe and the college, but Wythe encouraged him to go. And Jefferson then mentored Monroe.
Now John Marshall, at that time, his students would keep notebooks and most of the notebooks were about 30 or 35 pages. John Marshall’s notebook was 240 pages of notes on things that he listened to from Wythe. And in the margins of many of these pages, he would write the name of his girlfriend, Polly Ambler. And it would have all these notes about philosophy and world politics, then in big letters, ”I love Polly Ambler.” It was funny to look at.
LAMB: So this is like, what, number 27 or eight of all the books you’re written up ’til now?
CHADWICK: Yes. Yes, a lot of writing.
LAMB: But you didn’t start out writing history.
CHADWICK: No, I started out writing baseball.
CHADWICK: Which is just as much fun as history; yes.
LAMB: Why did you start with baseball?
CHADWICK: I was a baseball fan all my life and my son was a fan too. When he was about eight or nine he got very interested in baseball and he and I started well, he started collecting baseball cards and sports memorabilia. So I began writing a column on that for the New York Daily News, where I worked for a long time. Somebody read my column and said why don’t we write a book on baseball cards, the two of us? And we did. And that started a series of books on baseball history that I did. I did about 15 or 16 of them. And in 1994, when the baseball strike came, that was the end of baseball and that was the end of me.
LAMB: Did you do a book on John Madden also?
CHADWICK: I did. I did a young adult book on John Madden. I didn’t get to talk to him, though. I talked to his friends. And I was disappointed I didn’t get to talk to him. I’ve always liked him.
LAMB: So how did you get into the history?
CHADWICK: Got into the history because there was a big labor turnover at the New York Daily News. Hundreds of us were fired. I was out of work for almost a year-and-a-half, which I don’t suggest to anybody. Got a job as a journalism professor at New Jersey City University and I had a master’s. My wife and I had obtained masters years earlier. And they said you have to have a doctorate. You can get it in any field that you want and they were kind enough to cover the cost for it, but have to have a doctorate.
And I’d always been fascinated by history since I was a kid, so I got the doctorate in history at Rutgers University and I went full-time to get the doctorate at the same time I was teaching full-time, for five years. And people say, oh my God, you must have been so tired. And I tell them it was great. It was the time of my life. I had fun.
LAMB: So I’ve got ”I Am Murdered” here and I’ve got another book that just came out called ”Triumvirate.”
CHADWICK: Yes, ”Triumvirate,” just came out.
LAMB: Did they come out at the same time, these two books?
CHADWICK: No. ”I Am Murdered” came out last winter.
CHADWICK: And ”Triumvirate” just came out in June.
LAMB: But that’s very close for books. Did you write them simultaneously?
CHADWICK: No. One was done and then the other was done. I never do that, writing things simultaneously. You’d lose track of what you’re trying to say.
LAMB: Back to ”I Am Murdered,” George Wythe was murdered by?
CHADWICK: His grand-nephew.
LAMB: How do you know that?
CHADWICK: We know that. We know that.
LAMB: You know why I’m asking you.
CHADWICK: We know that. His servant, the people who lived in the house with his grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, his protιgι, Michael Brown, and his free woman servant, Lydia Broadnax, were having breakfast on a Sunday morning. The grand-nephew had a cup of coffee, deliberately sat there finishing it, as everyone watched him do that. Then he got up and he stood suspiciously next to the coffee pot and pulled out a thin piece of white paper with powdered crystals in it and when he thought Lydia was not looking, poured it into the coffee pot quickly and threw the paper into the fire underneath and walked away.
She saw him do it, but had no reason to suspect anything was wrong. There wasn’t any reason to do that. Thought nothing of it and then everybody in the house drank the coffee. The nephew said I’ve got to go and ran out the door and disappeared. Nobody was suspicious. And about 15 minutes after drinking the coffee they became violently ill from what was in the powder.
LAMB: The three.
CHADWICK: That she saw.
LAMB: Not the nephew; the three?
CHADWICK: Right, not the nephew. Wythe, his maid and Michael Brown
LAMB: Let’s go over the people that were at the table.
LAMB: Lydia Broadnax, explain more about her.
CHADWICK: Lydia Broadnax had been a slave to Wythe until about 1787, when he gave her her freedom and she stayed to work for him as a paid employee the rest of his life. She would cook.
LAMB: How old was she at the time of
CHADWICK: At the time, she was around her mid sixties, around that; very loyal to him; very gregarious, outgoing, friendly woman, and very trustworthy. If she told you something, it was true.
LAMB: And Michael Brown.
CHADWICK: Michael Brown was a 16-year-old kid, who was Wythe’s latest protιgι. He would he would look for teenagers whom he thought showed a lot of promise academically, then take them in as protιgιs. We talked before about Jefferson, and Michael Brown was the latest. Michael Brown was a mulatto; he was living with Wythe. And Wythe had got he thought so much of Michael Brown that he had a promise from the President, Thomas Jefferson, that if Wythe ever died, Jefferson would have Michael Brown live at the White House and Jefferson would tutor him.
And then Wythe lived upstairs. He was sitting in his bedroom, reading the morning newspapers, when the grand nephew poisoned the coffee. And he became violently ill and came downstairs and she got help.
LAMB: George Wythe Sweeney?
CHADWICK: That was the nephew, 17 years old, irresponsible, black sheep of the family, teenager who’s always in trouble.
LAMB: Related to George Wythe how?
CHADWICK: He was Wythe’s sister’s grandson. That’s what it was.
LAMB: And why did he want to kill him?
CHADWICK: Money. The kid had fallen prey to an epidemic of gambling in Richmond. Richmond had become a Colonial Sodom and Gomorra; gambling, drinking, prostitution. Wythe’s house was up the hill about three blocks from the street where all the casinos were. And the kid had gone down there every night and run up huge gambling debts and began to steal from Wythe. He stole a precious globe of the world that Wythe had planned to give to President Jefferson; stole valuable books, and then sold them downtown for money to pay off his gambling debts.
He forged checks under Wythe’s name at the local bank to get hundreds of more dollars to pay off the gambling debts. Then he came up with a scheme to murder Wythe to get his estate from his will. Under the terms of the will, he was entitled to half.
LAMB: Why was that?
CHADWICK: When he was a little boy, when he was two or three, George Wythe Sweeney’s dad was the manager of Wythe’s plantation. Wythe visited there from Williamsburg regularly, very friendly with his dad and very friendly with the little boy; used to buy him toys, candy, cookies, take him places. Wythe and his wife outfitted a room in their house in Williamsburg just for little George Wythe Sweeney when he came to visit; very loving guy.
And then when the kid would get into all these problems as a teenager, Wythe offered to take him in for months at a time to live with him in Richmond, to sort of straighten him out, and put him into his will. Now Wythe’s estate, his place in Richmond, money from his plantation that he had sold, his house in Williamsburg, all this is worth, in today’s money, $8 or $9 million. It was a lot of money, and he put Sweeney in for half of it. The other half went to Michael Brown.
Sweeney knew this. He had read the will and he figured if Wythe died, he would get all that money to pay off the rest of his gambling debts and live the high life.
LAMB: Why would George Wythe want to give a 16-year-old kid, Michael Brown, half of his will?
CHADWICK: He had enormous confidence in Michael Brown’s future and he didn’t have a lot of other family. He and his wives never had any children. He didn’t want to really leave a lot to charity, and charities at the time are nowhere as big as they are today, so he thought it was a good split for his money, never thinking at all that this would happen to him.
LAMB: Back to George Wythe earlier and the Declaration of Independence; what did he have to do with that?
CHADWICK: He was a delegate to Continental Congress and was assigned to the committee that, with Jefferson, wrote the Declaration. And it’s an interesting story, because the different people on the committee, Jefferson would ask them, write parts of the Declaration and then I’ll read it and I’ll do the final write. And all these different, really intelligent, patriotic, well-educated men would write these paragraphs, and you read them today and they’re very ordinary. And then Jefferson would take their ideas and then come up with you know the ”inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” would just soar. And Wythe was part of that committee and he was also one of the most radical people in Congress at that time. He was 50 and far more radical than the guys in their 20s. They were amazed at that.
LAMB: Did he sign the Declaration?
CHADWICK: He signed it later. Everybody didn’t sign the Declaration on the Fourth of July, like we all believe. It was signed over a period of time, and the Virginians who were there all signed it and left a space at the top for the Virginian delegation, because they knew Wythe had gone home, and then he signed it later, when he returned.
LAMB: So he’s counted as an original signer?
LAMB: What about the Constitutional Convention?
CHADWICK: He was a delegate sent from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention. And he didn’t stay there that long because his wife became very ill. And he left Philadelphia to go home and take care of her and she died shortly afterward.
LAMB: Other things that popped in your book, that he started Phi Beta Kappa.
CHADWICK: Yes, he did.
LAMB: National Phi Beta Kappa?
CHADWICK: Was started at the College of William and Mary.
LAMB: He didn’t start the national chapter.
CHADWICK: No, but I think it grew from there.
CHADWICK: I think John Marshall was one of his first students in it.
LAMB: And what about moot court? What
CHADWICK: He invented the moot court. He invented the moot court and the moot legislature.
CHADWICK: He thought it was a good, hands-on way for people, how to learn, how to do law and how to do politics. The moot court was a setup where he was the judge and a jury would come in, and his students would argue a case, half on the prosecution and half on the defense. And then the jury and he would resolve the case as part of a classroom exercise. It was very effective. And the most effect it had, plus the moot legislature, was to get a lot of students, just like today; there are a lot of really smart people in universities today, who are shy. And the moot court and moot legislature brings their personalities out of them. It makes them shine, so to speak. And then they can see themselves being admired by other people in the moot court. It helps them change their ways.
LAMB: Did he name it moot?
CHADWICK: He did, yes. He named it the moot court. And then after he had success with it, all the other Harvard and all the other colleges in America and in Europe picked up the idea, and I think in every law school in the country today there’s some form of a moot court.
LAMB: Now this book, by the way, is published by Wiley.
CHADWICK: That’s right.
LAMB: But the new one out is not.
CHADWICK: No. That’s published by Sourcebooks.
LAMB: How do you do that?
CHADWICK: Well, I had done a number of works for Sourcebooks.
LAMB: Who are they?
CHADWICK: Sourcebooks is a large commercial publishing house in New York and Chicago. I’ve done some history books for them and this book for Wiley is a separate venture.
LAMB: Back to the beginning of this, in other words, the stumbling onto this by the book hitting you on the head or whatever
CHADWICK: Yes. It hurt, too.
LAMB: So what did you do next? And when did that happen? What year did that happen?
CHADWICK: This was almost two years yes, about two years ago. I think it was in the summertime. And then as soon as I the what hit me in the head was a couple of journal articles from the College of William and Mary, about 50 pages. I read them and at the time, at Rutgers, and I still do, I teach a course called ”Murder in America.” I’ve done that for 12 years.
So when I saw that he had been murdered, and in these articles saw that part of the case and the intrigue of it was that his three doctors I call them the Dream Team, they’re three of the best physicians in the United States and the really messed up the investigation and the autopsy. And knowing how hot forensics is today, with CSI, all those television shows, I thought that this would be really interesting to apply forensic investigation into an old murder case, and then to probe the other areas of the case that were so surprising that I hoped it would make a good tale when it was done.
LAMB: Did you decide right there on the spot to do that?
CHADWICK: I did; right on the spot. I went home and I told my wife; I said a book hit me in the head. It fell out of the sky and hit me in the head. She started laughing at me, and I said no, no, listen, this is. And she said that’s a great idea; you ought to pursue that. So I did, right then.
LAMB: So how long did it take Wiley to buy your book?
CHADWICK: I think a couple of months and then it took me about another year to write it, all together.
LAMB: How’d you go about writing it? Where did you go in order to get
CHADWICK: Very carefully.
CHADWICK: Went down to Williamsburg, to the College of William and Mary and the Rockefeller Library. I went to the State Library of Virginia in Richmond and the Richmond Historical Association, and then the Rutgers Library, the Firestone Library at Princeton and a couple of other places to get material. I did a lot of medical research on this one, cause of the forensics in the autopsies. I was really surprised. I think everybody realizes that medicine in the Colonial era was quite primitive, let on autopsies and the detection of arson arsenic, it was pretty advances and that surprised me.
LAMB: But you’re back there looking around for the information on this; did you find other books that had been written about this and didn’t tell the whole story?
CHADWICK: No, no. There were maybe two or three biographies of Wythe that had been written in I guess in the beginning of the 1970s that were fine biographies, but each of them had maybe a page about the murder. They just didn’t investigate it at all. They just said ”and he was killed, people said, by his nephew” and that was the end of it. And I thought that was kind of unusual until I started the investigation and realized how complicated the whole case was.
LAMB: So what was your best find in research that told you a lot of what you’ve learned here in this for this book?
CHADWICK: Two things, really. The first thing was that when Wythe was George Wythe Sweeney was arrested, Lydia Broadnax told everybody in Richmond; lawyers, doctors, his friends, everybody, that she saw George Wythe Sweeney put the poison in the coffee. She was an eyewitness to that. And everybody knew that this guy was guilty and that he was going to hang. And lawyers wouldn’t touch him to defend him. And they all wondered then, who would be the pro bono lawyers that the court would appoint, some inexperienced rookie guy would get stuck with the case.
And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he gets not one lawyer, but two, and not just pro bono lawyers. One lawyer was the former Attorney General of the United States, Edmund Randolph. And the other lawyer, George Wirt, eight years later, he himself would become the Attorney General of the United States. And they took on the kid’s defense. And that’s where the whole case turns around.
LAMB: And how did those two come together, cause you say in your book they didn’t like each other?
CHADWICK: They hated each other. They did. They were like the conservative Republicans and the liberal Democrats today. That’s how well they got along.
LAMB: How did they get together to defend George Wythe Sweeney?
CHADWICK: Randolph had had problems. He had been forced to resign as the Secretary of State in a scandal and ethics scandal and then a year after that was involved in another scandal on misappropriation of funds when he was in government, so his career was ruined. So he was looking for a high profile case to make a lot of money to repay this huge debt he had incurred.
LAMB: How old was he?
CHADWICK: He must have been in his late 50s, early 60s, a man with a lot of experience and a good lawyer. Now Wirt was the opposite. Wirt was a young guy. He was in his early 30s. And Wirt was somebody who, until he was in his 20s, had suffered from a very bad stutter. Now in those days, anybody that had a stutter, you were just kept in the house by your parents. They were embarrassed by you. And there was no school to go to or method to cure your stutter. And Wirt cured himself. He came up with a way to continually talk and chatter to overcome his stutter.
LAMB: I get the impression that when you go into something like a stutter or you would did we get a little a couple pages of this. You’d go off and study that part.
LAMB: Like the autopsies, which I want to ask you about later. But how often did you want to divert and spend and did you find other books to write out of doing this book?
CHADWICK: No. I didn’t find any other books to write from this one, but every time I would turn the corner in this trail, it would lead me into some other area that I wanted to find out a lot about, like the speech problem or the autopsy problem. It was, for me as a writer, like all books are for writers, especially historians; it’s the journey that’s the fun. And this journey was a lot of fun.
LAMB: Go back to also the original situation, where you had Michael Brown, Lydia is it Lydia or
CHADWICK: Lydia; that’s right.
LAMB: Lydia Broadnax.
LAMB: And George Wythe. What happened to the three of them then, right after the arsenic was consumed by them in the coffee?
CHADWICK: They all got violently ill right away. A week later, Michael Brown died. Wythe lingered for about two weeks then he died. And Lydia Broadnax survived it. She lost most of her sight from it, but she survived it. And the crux of the investigation on the medical side was that most people, when they’re poisoned by arsenic, die within three or four days, and Wythe lingered for two weeks. So was he really poisoned by arsenic, or had he had medical problems that just cascaded and killed him or did he just die of old age? But if that was the case with the 80-year-old Wythe, how did Michael Brown die? He was 16.
LAMB: So George Wythe dies in 1806.
LAMB: What’s the country like then and who’s running the country? And I mean we’re past the Constitutional Convention and the Revolutionary War and the original Congress and all that. What who’s still alive that he mentored?
CHADWICK: A lot of the people that he mentored are still alive. John Marshall at that time was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Jefferson had been reelected, easily, as President in 1804 and had just concluded the Lewis and Clark expeditions, a very popular President. Monroe is going to go on to be the fifth President of the United States later and in 1806, a number of the guys that Wythe had as protιgιs had become governors, senators and congressmen. Clay, at that time, I think was in his early 20s and thinking about running for Congress in Kentucky.
LAMB: So once George Wythe died, what kind of reaction was there from all these people that he had mentored?
CHADWICK: Shock. Absolute shock. And all of them had had letters from Wythe’s friends indicating directly that he had been poisoned and people were very angry about that. The City of Richmond, people were aghast that the poisoning had took place and they had revered George Wythe all the years he had lived there. He had lived there for the last 16 years and on and off a few years before that.
His funeral was the largest funeral in the United States up to that time. George Washington had been buried privately. Thousands of people, schools were closed, businesses were closed, thousands of people lined Main Street in Richmond for his funeral.
LAMB: In today’s age, with the law, you can have a two or three-year wait before you have a trial.
LAMB: How long was it back then?
CHADWICK: Two-and-a-half months. It was the early part of September that they had the trial. And everybody thought the trial would be a few hours and then a few weeks later they’d have the hanging. And things took a different turn.
LAMB: George Wythe Sweeney is where during this period, this?
CHADWICK: He’s in jail. He’d been jailed for forging the checks against the bank. And then when Wythe died he was charged with murder.
LAMB: Edmund Randolph had done what in history?
CHADWICK: He had been a
LAMB: Edmund Randolph and William Wirt, the two lawyers for the young Sweeney.
CHADWICK: Right. Edmund Randolph had served as the Mayor of Williamsburg. He went to the Constitutional Convention. He was an aide to General Washington during the War. He was one of the youngest governors in the country. He was Governor of Virginia; I think when he was 33. And then he had become the Attorney General of the United States. And then when Jefferson when resigned, the Secretary of State; storied career.
LAMB: Was Randolph one of the three that didn’t sign the Constitutional Convention document?
CHADWICK: He did not. There were a lot of guys that didn’t sign it. There were 19 out of the 55 delegates did not sign it.
LAMB: But there were three, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and wasn’t in Randolph; the three
CHADWICK: Yes, from Virginia.
that were they were prominently ones that were there and didn’t sign it. I mean a bunch of them weren’t even there.
LAMB: Like George Wythe, didn’t go.
LAMB: So who was the lawyer on the other side? Who were who was prosecuting, anybody we should know?
CHADWICK: A fellow named Philip Norborne Nicholas. He was one of the most aggressive prosecutors in the country. And in addition to that, Nicholas was a close friend to Thomas Jefferson. He was from a wealthy family and he had married into the Carter family, which was even wealthier. He was on the committees to elect Jefferson to President, with George Wythe. He was very friendly with George Wythe, so if anybody wanted to have the kid executed, it was Nicholas. And that was one of the things that people counted on to bring about a guilty verdict and were so astonished when that didn’t happen.
LAMB: So what role did these three prominent physicians, and name them, that testified in the trial?
CHADWICK: They, on and off, were his doctors. It was Dr. James McClurg, Dr. Samuel McCaw, and Dr. William Foushee. They’d all gone to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which was the number one medical school in the world at that time. They were acclaimed as doctors. They had fought off the smallpox and yellow fever epidemics in Virginia, been declared heroes for doing that. Towns issued proclamations thanking them for doing that.
They also all were two of the three, Foushee and McClurg, had gotten into politics. McClurg had been the Mayor of Richmond for three years and a city councilman for 12. Foushee had been Richmond’s first official mayor and served in the city council for many years and state legislative posts and were really connected politicians at that time. And they were assigned to do the autopsy.
LAMB: You pointed out that at the time we only had six medical schools in the United States.
CHADWICK: Right. Yes, that was it.
LAMB: And so they all had to go and what how were they? How was the medicine in our American schools compared to what they were learning in placed like Edinburgh.
CHADWICK: All the schools in the United States like Penn and Harvard, all the medical schools that were open at that time just carbon copied the curriculum at the University of Edinburgh. They were exactly the same. And those schools in the U.S. were pretty good, but there was only six of them. If you wanted to be a doctor, you could go to a second tier of schools where you’d study for just 14 weeks and become a doctor. Or you could be an apprentice to a doctor, hope that he knew what he was doing and then you could become a doctor.
In 1806, I think less than ten percent of America’s doctors had been trained at all. There were people who took it upon themselves to be doctors. The Governor of Rhode Island said that he was a doctor and made house calls. There was a shoemaker in New York City who declared himself a doctor and treated people. Medicine was primitive. In the Revolutionary War, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was the country’s Chief Surgeon would tell soldiers that if you get really, really sick, don’t go to the hospital. It’s the worst thing that could happen to you.
LAMB: As you’re writing this book and going through it, how are you checking to make sure you don’t make a historical mistake?
CHADWICK: Checked a lot of different references to make sure that I didn’t do that. On the medical side, I read through a lot of like 1880s reference series of reference text books to double-check on the sources of medical books that were printed and articles that were written. Did a lot of research on autopsies and how were they conducted; the history of poison, going back to the Greek and Latin times and I have some of that in the book, and how prominent poison was in the 16, 17 and 18 century.
And the other part of this was at that time, all the American cities were infested with rats. And there was a rat poison called ratsbane that everybody bought. You just went to a store. You needed a little slip of paper from a friend saying you needed it to kill rats and you got the poison. And then people would use the rat poison to kill human beings. And Sweeney’s defense was well, all right; you found ratsbane in my room. So what?
LAMB: Before we go on with the trial, you mentioned earlier, you’ve taught for 15 years, ”Murder in America.”
LAMB: Where did you get that idea and why does somebody want to take a course like that?
CHADWICK: Course is always packed.
LAMB: Is it, really?
CHADWICK: It is, very popular. I got the
LAMB: And where do you teach it?
CHADWICK: I teach it at Rutgers University in the summertime and I teach it at night when it’s scary.
LAMB: Where did you get this idea and what do you teach them?
CHADWICK: When I started the course, I was amazed that the murder rate in the United States, from the 1970s, 80s to the mid 1990s had dropped dramatically. Today, the murder rate in this country is 40 percent less than it was 40 years ago. Forty years ago, murder-wise in New York City, which is you know notorious, is the safest city in America. Despite the drop in the murder rate and the attendant drop in crime too crime in the U.S. is down about a third from what it was 20 years ago. But you see on TV and read in the newspapers more and more stories than ever about murder, plus all the news shows about murder. There’s far more attention to it.
How is that possible? It doesn’t make sense. Why are Americans so intrigued by homicide? And that’s what I set out to do through the course; to prove out why, through inordinate amount of attention from media and movies and TV, this murder has become part of the landscape in the United States. It isn’t anywhere else in the world; just in the U.S. And that’s the source of the course you know why we’re so fascinated by murder.
LAMB: Why are we so fascinated by it?
CHADWICK: Because the media hits us over the head with it all the time. Steve McNair, the quarterback for the Tennessee Titans was just murdered. The mysterious death of Michael Jackson, possibly from prescription drugs, while they’re still investigating that. People are fascinated by homicide cause the media has instructed them to do so.
Whenever they turn on television or go to the movies, there are stories about murder. This weekend, a story about John Dillinger, the bank robber and killer from the 30s is a big movie with Johnny Depp. We can’t get away from it. Any night in the United States, on primetime, if you include cable and commercial TV, there’s over 90 hours of television in some way devoted to homicide.
LAMB: And how many people show up in your class every summer?
CHADWICK: Oh, we get 50 and over for most of the classes. Yes, it’s a good turnout. And they’re very good students; they do a good job.
LAMB: At what time in the class and the coursework do you find them to be the most interested?
CHADWICK: Right away. Right away, coming in.
LAMB: And the other book, ”Triumvirate;” when did you decide to write this book and did you learn I mean did you find any of this any of the ideas for this book from when you were doing research on this one?
CHADWICK: The only connection between the two is that George Wythe played a prominent role in the ratification of the Constitution at the Virginia Convention. That’s the only connection between them. I got interested in ”Triumvirate” because all my life, since I was a little boy, grade school, I had always read that the Constitution of the United States had barely passed and that was it. I would read a few lines about it and that was it. And I always said to myself, how could the Constitution have barely passed?
So I went to study that to see if there was some sort of a story in that and there was. It was the triumvirate is the idea of the three guys, James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, together, lobbied through all the 13 states to get the Constitution passed and also wrote the Federalist Papers. And it turned out to be quite a dramatic story.
LAMB: One of the things I noticed, just to divert for a second, in this book was this discussion about the Bill of Rights. I mean we all think that James Madison was the champion of the Bill of Rights.
LAMB: And you say here, about midway in your book that ”Madison worried about everything. He fretted about Richard Henry Lee. It was Lee who was one of the first to insist on a bill of rights and Lee who had written letters to the many influential Virginians, outlining the need for rights involving press, assembly, religion, legal fairness, and unreasonable search and seizure.” And you go on to say that Madison didn’t even want the Bill of Rights.
CHADWICK: He didn’t. He assumed, and he told them, all these rights for the people are in the Constitution, indirectly, in some form now. You don’t have to spell them out in a Bill of Rights. And everybody said you do. The people have to know what their rights are and the government has to know that they can’t intrude on the people’s rights. And then this triumvirate of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would say there’s nothing to worry about. George Washington will probably be the first President. We all know that. We all admire and trust him; he’ll do the right thing.
And then the opponents to the Constitution said well, that’s fine. He’s the first President, but what about the tenth President and the 40th President, way down the road. It needs to be spelled out. And the more they would insist that it needed to be written down, the more the triumvirate would get their back up and defend themselves and say no; we don’t have to do that. And it wasn’t until the very end, the last two states, where Madison and Hamilton finally said OK; when the new government takes place, our first order of business will be to write the Bill of Rights. And it was, and it was passed a year later. Madison wrote it.
LAMB: When you did that book, of those three men, who which one did you like the best after it was all over?
CHADWICK: Madison. Yes, I really admired Madison. The thing that intrigued me about Madison is that he was a guy who was a erudite scholar and intellectual all of his life. And when they started to try and ratify the Bill of Rights, George Washington called him to Mt. Vernon on a secret trip. And he said to Madison, he said all these things that you’ve written and all these nice speeches that you gave at Philadelphia, they’re wonderful. But that’s not what you have to do. You have to get down in the dirt and be a bare knuckle politician and cut deals to get this passed or you’re not going to do it.
And Madison realized he needed to do that and over the next few months turned into a really good politician. And that gave Madison the background he really needed later to be the Secretary of State and the President.
LAMB: One more note on the Madison then I’ll go back to George Wythe, but you also talk about him wanting to run for the Senate and that didn’t happen and then the I’d never heard that James Monroe had run against him, or he had run against James Monroe for the House and beat him.
LAMB: But what about the Senate side? Why didn’t he become a senator right out of the box?
CHADWICK: The legislature appointed the Senate and he had made a lot of enemies in the Ratification Convention and they did him in and make sure he didn’t get to the Senate.
LAMB: And well, how was it that Monroe ran against him for the House of Representatives, and he won that?
CHADWICK: Yes. He defeated Monroe on that one.
LAMB: But, well it’s just interesting. All these characters in history were at each other’s throats and you point that out in your latest book.
CHADWICK: They were at each other’s throats and the thing that I think amazes most Americans is that, at the time of the American Revolution and the forming of the government, we had some really talented people doing this.
LAMB: Did George Wythe ever mentor James Madison? You didn’t mention
CHADWICK: No. No, he never did. They met when Madison was elected to the state legislature, but he was never Madison’s mentor, no. It would have been nice if he was.
LAMB: So George Wythe is dead and he’s buried where?
CHADWICK: He’s buried in a church; St. John’s Church in Richmond.
LAMB: The trial starts. You’ve got Edmund Randolph, William Wirt on one side, defending George Wythe Sweeney. He’s in jail.
LAMB: And what happens?
CHADWICK: Everybody assumes he’s going to be convicted, despite these two great attorneys. And the first order of business is the results of the autopsy that this dream team of doctors had done. And everybody was certain that they would have found arsenic, cause Lydia Broadnax told everybody, I saw him put the arsenic in the coffee.
But they botched the autopsy. They didn’t do any of the things that they were supposed to do in an autopsy. They didn’t cut out the organs and examine them. They only got as far as examining the stomach and the liver and they ended the examination because, in the stomach, they found a big build up of bile. Dr. McClurg had written a book about bile, had written articles for medical journals, was considered one of the best doctors in America. If anybody knew bile, it was him. Dr. McCaw was McClurg’s nephew, and Foushee, one of his best friends.
So McClurg stood there and either said there’s bile in the stomach. That’s what killed him; not arsenic. Or the three of them, who should have known better, just completely botched an autopsy that could have been conducted a lot better by college students taking Anatomy 101. They completely messed up. And they told the jury then, it might have been arsenic, but it was probably bile on each on Michael Brown and George Wythe. That was the summary that they gave.
The jurors knew these three guys were top doctors. If they said it was bile, it was bile. Now part of the backdrop to this, though, is that Wirt, the defense attorney, he’s asking all these carefully calculated questions of the doctors to slowly, step by step, chapter by chapter, come about this verdict that it’s bile, like almost he knew the result of the autopsy. He did. McClurg, always trying to ingratiate himself with important people, had blurted the results of the autopsy to Virginia’s Governor. Virginia’s Governor was Wirt’s brother-in-law and he told him and that’s how Wirt was able to get all that testimony in in such a progression.
But that didn’t matter. They had the eyewitness, Lydia. She saw the guy put the poison into the coffee. Lydia can’t testify; she’s black. There’s a guy a girl slave girl that saw a package of arsenic, that when it hit the ground, was arsenic, fell over a jail wall where George Wythe Sweeney was exercising. They were going to call her. She can’t testify. She’s an African-American. African-American carpenters who were slaves had seen him grinding up what appeared to be arsenic in a woodshed. They couldn’t testify; they were African-Americans.
What they said to white people in Richmond was hearsay and not admissible, so none of this evidence ever got into the trial. So all you had, Randolph and Wirt told the jury, there was no evidence and there’s no eyewitness testimony against him. And everybody in Richmond uses ratsbane poison. You don’t have a case against him. In an hour, they acquitted him.
But then they figured, like all juries do, all right, we couldn’t get him on this big charge; we’ll get him on the forgery charge and at least put him jail for a couple years. The forgery trial starts the next day, and Wirt looks at the judge and said you can’t have a trial. He didn’t break any laws. There’s no law that you can’t forge a check on a bank. The law is that you can’t forge something against another person. Because banks didn’t come in till after the Revolution. In the middle of the Revolution, a trio of Edmund Pendleton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Wythe rewrote the laws of Virginia. They missed the forgery law, cause there were no banks. They kept in the laws that prevented African-Americans from testifying against white people.
George Wythe, in effect, let his own killer go free.
LAMB: You also talk about George Wythe’s attitude about the law itself and you suggested he was lenient towards you know the some of these rough crimes and the sentences that people would get.
CHADWICK: They were. In England at that time, there were 200 offenses for which you could be executed. In America, in Virginia, they narrowed that down to about 12. Some states in the United States in the Colonial era, if you stole $5, you could be hanged for that. But they made the laws extremely lenient in Virginia, and in making the laws lenient, admonished jurors to be lenient. So when they considered whether or not they should hang the guy that poisoned George Wythe, they were lenient, because George Wythe told them to be.
LAMB: Where did Wythe get this idea?
CHADWICK: His own idea. It was his own idea to do that. He thought that the laws in the United States and England, at that time, were just too harsh. And in England, and particularly at that time, this is the era, 1805 and ’06, when well you from Charles Dickens, from Oliver Twist in London; and era, a criminal class has erupted in London and in America’s cities, too. By 1800, there was a lot of crime in America’s cities. So the government and judicial’s view is well, we have to have harsh punishments at a deterrent to people committing these crimes.
LAMB: George Wythe and his attitude about slaves?
CHADWICK: George Wythe had been against slavery all of his life. He had argued with Thomas Jefferson that they needed to do something to eliminate slavery. He had given Lydia Broadnax, his servant, her freedom 20 years before he died. He freed a handful of other slaves from his home in Williamsburg when he moved to Richmond. He sold his plantation and all the slaves in it to get rid of slavery from his life and by his early 60s, had eliminated slavery.
LAMB: Why didn’t he free those slaves before he sold that plantation?
CHADWICK: It’s a tricky answer. It has something to do with the plantation was part of a legacy to him and he had to sell the whole plantation together.
LAMB: And what proof is there that Thomas Jefferson really was against slavery?
CHADWICK: Well he had he had written in a lot of places how much he was against slavery. We pay, I think, too much to a book that he wrote where he denounces African-Americans. The thing
LAMB: Yes, you say you quote in the book that he said a lot of
CHADWICK: Yes. A lot of very negative things.
negative things, yes.
CHADWICK: Yes. But in other speeches he gave and letters he wrote, he’s very much in favor of getting rid of slaves. But he never did and he would continually tell Wythe you know we need to do this, but all of his life he had these slaves and I think Jefferson lived into his 80s and he never freed his slaves, so he was a little bit hypocritical about that.
LAMB: By the way, George Wythe Sweeney was found not guilty.
CHADWICK: That’s right.
LAMB: What happened to him?
CHADWICK: He disappeared. His lawyers and his family said all of Richmond, all the United States is aghast that you got off the hook. Somebody’s going to kill you. So they gave him a horse and some money and he disappeared. Now he went to Tennessee and people lost track of him. And then a few years later, he did several years in prison for horse thievery in Tennessee. And people back in Richmond had sort of a sense that he had at least been punished for something somewhere.
LAMB: By the way, is it true that Lewis Powell would always ask his
clerks to be whether or not if they knew George Wythe?
CHADWICK: Yes. He would he would ask them if they knew about George Wythe and if they said they did not, he would not let them be his clerks.
LAMB: How did you find, by the way, where George Wythe Sweeney ended up?
CHADWICK: Different documents that I read. The problem with that, I really tried to track him through law enforcement archives in Tennessee. But the prison system wasn’t formed in Tennessee with archives until, I think, 1826, so there was no sign of him.
LAMB: You said it was you know you talked about autopsies, but you have a whole section here on the highest profile the first high profile person to be autopsied. Who was it?
CHADWICK: Julius Caesar. It was a wild story because the men that killed him in the in the Roman Senate; they’re the ones that pushed for the autopsy, so that they could prove to the roman public that they had murdered Caesar, that it was them, thinking the public would think this was a great idea. The public did not. The public was appalled by this after Antony’s famous speech. And all the people that murdered Caesar, every single one of them, was himself killed in prison or had to flee the country. The whole assassination backfired.
LAMB: Has there been a lot written about autopsy?
CHADWICK: There has been a lot written about autopsies. And I was very surprised to find that in the 1780s and 90s, there had been dozens of really thick volumes written about autopsies around the world and translated into English and sold in American bookstores. There was one text that covered the 3000 autopsy results in Europe over a 20-year period of time.
LAMB: Now, we haven’t got a lot of time, but I wanted you to tell the story of Bathsheba Spooner.
CHADWICK: Oh yes.
LAMB: And why did you include that in your book?
CHADWICK: Because it was such a crazy story. I was trying to drive home the point that on physical examinations you really don’t know what somebody’s condition is, but the autopsy proves that. And Bathsheba Spooner was a woman who had been in an arranged marriage with a much older man. She was in her mid 20s. Her husband was, I guess late 60s, which at the time was considered older. She tried to hire a teenager in her town to kill her husband, so she could benefit from his money. He wouldn’t do it.
Then she spotted two British soldiers who had fled from a prison and talked them into doing it. They killed him, dumped him down a well and then you know smart; wore his clothes all over town, got picked up immediately at a local tavern, were tried. They were all found guilty; the soldiers and her, as the person that hired them. And they all pointed the finger at her in the courtroom.
Now at that time in the United States, in most states there was a law that if a woman was pregnant, she could not be executed. And Bathsheba Spooner said to the judge, I’m pregnant. He said, we’ll see, and he appointed a midwife to give her a physical examination. And the midwife says she’s not pregnant; she’s making it up as a story so she doesn’t get hanged. She said I am pregnant. Judge appointed a second midwife. Midwife comes in and says yes, she’s pregnant.
So now you have two different midwives; one she is and one she’s not. And the judge you know with the Wisdom of Solomon says well, OK. I go along with the first midwife; you’re not pregnant. She said I am. You’re not. They hung her. After she’s hanged they did an autopsy. Bathsheba Spooner was four months pregnant.
LAMB: How’d this book do?
CHADWICK: It’s doing well. Yes, it’s doing well. I walk around it’s doing so well that I walk around libraries hoping other things fall and hit me in head.
LAMB: So where did you start will all this? Where were you born?
CHADWICK: I was born in the Bronx. I moved to New Jersey when I was two and I’ve lived in that same county in New Jersey since, all my life. And my wife’s from that county, too, Morris County in New Jersey.
LAMB: Where did you get your education?
CHADWICK: When to Syracuse University and got my BA in journalism there. Then I got a master’s at Montclair State University in New Jersey. And then, as I mentioned before, I got my doctorate at Rutgers in New Jersey.
LAMB: How many years were you with the New York Daily News?
CHADWICK: Twenty-three. Twenty-three great years. I had a good time.
LAMB: Now, when you look back on your career, was it more fun and more interesting being a New York Daily News reporter or writing books?
CHADWICK: The satisfaction and fun and enjoyment to me is the same with both for different reasons. I’d had a lot of fun in the newspaper business, but the fun I had in the newspaper business writing stories is just the same as the enjoyment I get out of writing books. And the more books that I write, the more enjoyment I get out of it, because I learn more about the American story and it makes me a better professor, because everything I learn I can tell my students, right. Oh my goodness, I learned this last night. And that’s a lot of fun for me.
LAMB: So you’re teaching both at Rutgers at New Jersey City University?
CHADWICK: Yes. I teach full-time at New Jersey City University. I teach journalism there. And I teach American History and American Studies part-time at Rutgers.
LAMB: What do you tell students today about journalism that you wouldn’t have told them 25 years ago?
CHADWICK: I tell them to explore all the different areas of journalism in marketing and advertising and public relations, because journalism is having a lot of problems today, a lot of newspapers going out of business or shrinking their staffs because of the Internet. Students have to be a lot more diverse in their writing skills if they want to stay in journalism.
LAMB: So what’s your next book?
CHADWICK: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’m going to tackle next.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write the one the brand new one that’s out, ”Triumvirate?”
CHADWICK: It took me a year. All my books take about a year to do; to research and to write.
LAMB: But you have not an inkling as to what your next book will be.
CHADWICK: No. I’m still studying, just to find better ideas.
LAMB: And what sells better, a book like ”I Am Murdered” or a book about the deep history; I mean people versus the history? Are they
CHADWICK: They both sell well. I can’t understand that. I really don’t know why people buy what they do. I’d done a book about George Washington, called ”George Washington’s War” about five years ago that sold well too. I really can’t analyze and say this why people bought it.
LAMB: Bruce Chadwick, author of ”I Am Murdered;” thank you very much.
CHADWICK: Thank you very much. This has been a lot of fun.