Ornamental Separator

Unheard Witness: The Hidden Testimony of Lydia Broadnax



There was arsenic in the coffee. George Wythe was dead. So was a young free man of color named Michael Brown. And Wythe’s Black servant Lydia Broadnax knew who had killed them.

George Wythe Sweeney almost certainly poisoned Brown, Broadnax, and his great-uncle and namesake George Wythe in 1806. But a jury acquitted him of murder. The local newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, explained this surprising verdict by commenting that some of the “strongest testimony” was kept from the jury, because it was the “evidence of negroes.” 1

Though difficult to read, this report about the George Wythe Sweeney murder trial from the Richmond Enquirer concludes: “The pen yet lingers to add, that some of the strongest testimony exhibited . . . was kept back from the petit jury. The reason is, that it was gleaned from the evidence of negroes, which is not permitted by our laws to go against a white man.” Richmond Enquirer, Sept. 9, 1808.


Virginia law did not allow Black people to testify against white people. What would Lydia Broadnax have said at the trial if she had been allowed to speak? According to a later account by the son of one of Wythe’s law students, her testimony would have sunk Sweeney. 2

Unlike many eighteenth-century Black Virginians, much of Lydia Broadnax’s life is documented in letters, wills, and tax records. That is in part because she lived an extraordinary life. She was born into slavery, won her freedom, bought property, ran a boardinghouse, and came to know some of the nation’s most powerful men.

Slavery and Freedom

The George Wythe house.


We know almost nothing about the first half of Broadnax’s life. She was born into slavery, probably in Virginia around the early 1740s. We can only guess at the details of her early years, including when and where she was born.3 We also don’t know how she came to live in George Wythe’s household. She was there by 1783. 4

By this time, Wythe was a law professor at William & Mary and one of the foremost lawyers in the nation. He had enslaved many people throughout his life, but often expressed an opposition to slavery. Around the time that Broadnax arrived in Wythe’s household, Virginia’s emancipation laws were relaxed. For the first time since 1723, enslavers could emancipate enslaved people without government approval.5 In 1787, Wythe’s wife Elizabeth became ill while he was in Philadelphia serving as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He returned home, but she died on August 18.

Actor-interpreter Valarie Gray-Holmes portrays Lydia Broadnax at door of the Wythe Kitchen.


His wife’s death seems to have been a turning point for Wythe. He returned some enslaved people to Elizabeth’s family and set about emancipating the others. On September 17, Wythe freed Broadnax. Her deed of emancipation indicates that she was at least forty-five years old that year, which meant that Wythe would be legally obliged to financially support her in the future. 6

Relationship with George Wythe

George Wythe. Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Once emancipated, Broadnax continued to work in Wythe’s household for pay. By all accounts, she admired Wythe. After his death, she kept a portrait of Wythe in her home, which she allowed President Thomas Jefferson to borrow to make a copy.7 Writing to Jefferson about the portrait, Wythe’s neighbor warmly described Broadnax’s relationship with Wythe: “never had a Man a more faithful Servant. her Attention to Mr Wythe was incessant & always studied to please him.”8

Archival image of the Wythe Kitchen after reconstruction, taken in September 1941.


Most emancipated Black Virginians had little capital and faced discrimination in a competitive labor market. They lacked the legal protections and social advantages afforded to white workers.9 Wythe helped Broadnax navigate some of these challenges. In 1801, he enlisted Jefferson, newly elected as president, to help Broadnax collect a white military officer’s unpaid debt to her.10 He also provided an income for Broadnax in his will.11 While some historians claim that Broadnax had a sexual relationship with Wythe, this is not supported by contemporary evidence. 12

When Wythe moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1791, Broadnax followed him. By 1797, she purchased and moved into a home for herself. She also seems to have owned and operated a boardinghouse on this property. In this regard, she was unusual. When she died, she was one of only fifty Black Americans in Richmond, out of almost six thousand, who owned property. 13

Murder

George Wythe Munford. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Broadnax was the closest witness to the murder of George Wythe and Michael Brown. 14 Unable to testify in court, she shared her account at some point with George Wythe Munford, who was the son of one of Wythe’s law students. Broadnax and Munford seem to have known each other well. 15 He eventually would serve as a witness for her will. Almost eighty years after the fact, Munford published a detailed account of Broadnax’s version of events. Imperfect as it is, his account is the closest thing we have to Broadnax’s testimony about the murder of George Wythe. 16

Wythe House Kitchen.


According to Munford, the day before the poisoning, Broadnax witnessed Sweeney rummaging through Wythe’s desk. She saw Sweeney inspecting Wythe’s will, which named him as its major beneficiary, along with Broadnax and Brown. Sweeney left early the next morning, but not before she saw him handling the fatal coffee pot and throwing a “little white paper” in the kitchen fire. She thought nothing of his behavior at the time and served the coffee. But in retrospect, she thought “it looks monstrous strange.” 17

The poison killed Brown. Wythe lingered long enough to disinherit Sweeney and died after two weeks. Broadnax was also poisoned, but not as severely as Wythe and Brown. She survived but lost much of her eyesight.

Letters to Thomas Jefferson

Courtesy of the White House Historical Association.


Wythe’s will had left his houses in Richmond and his stocks to his neighbor William DuVal. But the will directed that during their lifetimes, the profits from these investments should be directed to Broadnax and a formerly enslaved man named Benjamin. But this wasn’t enough for Broadnax to survive. In 1807, having recently loaned President Jefferson her portrait of Wythe, she asked for his financial assistance.

She told him that “my eyesight has almost failed me,” because of the poison that killed Wythe. Though she had a home, her “old age and infirmness of health” made it “extremely difficult in procuring merely the daily necessaries of life.” Without his “charitable aid,” she said, “I am fearful I shall sink under the burden.”18 Jefferson sent her fifty dollars. 19

The census record for Lydia Broadnax for 1810. Courtesy of Ancestry.


Broadnax was continuing to maintain a boardinghouse on her property. In a census record for 1810, she appears at the head of a household of eight people. But at the end of the decade, she lost the boarding house. Wythe’s executor DuVal sold the home.

Again, Broadnax asked Jefferson for assistance. She reminded him that Wythe had left her “a house and lot to support me & gave me money to build a house to reside in.” DuVal’s sale of the house left her “entirely destitute and dependant on the charity of others.” She had consulted several lawyers, who agreed that DuVal’s actions were illegal. But she knew from experience that she could do little to affect Virginia’s legal proceedings. She asked Jefferson to “again assist with something if not for my sake for the sake of my deceased master.” 20

Yet Jefferson apparently felt his obligation to Broadnax and his old teacher had been fulfilled. There is no evidence that he answered her request. A year later, he found the cover sheet that Broadnax had attached to her letter and, perhaps reminded of his obligations, flipped it over, and used the blank side to settle some of his own accounts.21 Broadnax did not recover the boardinghouse. 22

Final Years

Nearly blind, “old and infirm,” Broadnax signed her 1820 will with an “x.” Courtesy of Ancestry.


The next year, with no reply from Jefferson, Broadnax made a will. Though “old and infirm,” the will indicated that Broadnax was “in my perfect senses at present, and in tolerably good health.” She left her possessions, including a “house and a half acre of ground,” furniture, and cash, to her sister’s grandsons. After DuVal had sold the boardinghouse that she relied on for income, the will asserted her ownership over what remained, her lot and her residence. Her final wish was to be buried on the lot. 23

While we don’t know exactly when she died, her will was executed in 1827. She would have likely been in her mid-eighties at the time of her death. 24

Much of what we know about Lydia Broadnax’s life has survived because of her interactions with George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson. Yet Broadnax did not spend her life witnessing murders and corresponding with presidents. Most of her life happened both before and between the moments of drama and crisis when she entered the historical record. During those periods, she endured slavery, worked as a cook and domestic servant, participated in community life, ran a boardinghouse, and struggled with old age and disability. Our knowledge of Lydia Broadnax’s life story will never be as complete as for Wythe and Jefferson. But what we do know about her demonstrates how racial discrimination frustrated the pursuit of justice in post-revolutionary America.

Sources

COVER IMAGE: Actor-interpreter Brigitte Jackson in the quarters of the George Wythe kitchen.

  1. Richmond Enquirer, Sept. 9, 1806.
  2. George Wythe Munford’s account is discussed at greater length below. George Wythe Munford, The Two Parsons; Cupid’s Sports; the Dream; and the Jewels of Virginia (Richmond: J. D. K. Sleight, 1884), 422–23. On Broadnax’s account, see also Andrew Nunn McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax, Slave, and Free Woman of Color," Southern Studies 5, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 1994): 22, 24; Imogene E. Brown, American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981), 289–90; Julian P. Boyd, “The Murder of George Wythe,” William and Mary Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Oct. 1955), 524–25; W. Edwin Hemphill, “Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder: A Documentary Essay,” William and Mary Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Oct. 1955): 567.
  3. McKnight claims that Broadnax began came to the Wythe household either through the Wythe family plantation Chesterville or as property of George Wythe’s second wife Elizabeth Talliaferro’s father Richard. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 18. One other interesting clue to her birth is that Robert Munford, father of Wythe’s future law student William Munford (and grandfather of George Wythe Munford) married Ann Brodnax in 1755. Given their shared surname and close connection to Wythe, Lydia Broadnax could have been previously owned by this family. See “Virginia, County Marriage Records, 1771–1989,” Family Search.
  4. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 18.
  5. Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1986), 432.
  6. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 19–20.
  7. “From Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, 17 July 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-4046.
  8. “To Thomas Jefferson from William DuVal, 29 June 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-3926.
  9. Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves, 432–34; James Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ch. 6.
  10. “To Thomas Jefferson from George Wythe, 31 July 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives.
  11. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 21.
  12. Some historians have concluded that Broadnax was the mother of Michael Brown, a young man of European and Black ancestry in the Wythe household. This is highly unlikely, for several reasons. One is that she was at least fifty years old when Brown was born. Brown, American Aristides, 298–304; McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 26–27. Moreover, after being freed, Broadnax eventually left the Wythe household and lived independently, which would be unlikely if Broadnax had a sexual relationship with Wythe. Philip D. Morgan, “Interracial Sex in the Chesapeake and British Atlantic World, c. 1700–1820,” in Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, ed. Jan Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 56–57.
  13. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 19–20.
  14. However, Edmund Randolph did testify that he had been “informed by old Lydia that more marks of poison had been discovered.” Hemphill, “Examinations of George Wythe Swinney,” 559.
  15. As noted above (see note 3), George Wythe Munford’s grandmother had the surname Brodnax. It is possible that Lydia Broadnax took her surname from this family. Formerly enslaved people sometimes took the last names of their former enslavers.
  16. George Wythe Munford, The Two Parsons; Cupid’s Sports; the Dream; and the Jewels of Virginia (Richmond: J. D. K. Sleight, 1884), 422–23. See also Andrew Nunn McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax, Slave, and Free Woman of Color," Southern Studies 5, nos. 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 1994): 22, 24; Imogene E. Brown, American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981), 289–90; Boyd, “Murder of George Wythe,” 524–25.
  17. Munford, Two Parsons, 422–23.
  18. “To Thomas Jefferson from Lydia Broadnax, 9 April 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-5430.
  19. “From Thomas Jefferson to George Jefferson, 18 April 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-5474.
  20. “Lydia Broadnax to Thomas Jefferson, 2 June 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-14-02-0348.
  21. See note in “Thomas Jefferson to Bernard Peyton, 23 October 1820,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-16-02-0296.
  22. This is substantiated in the census and tax lists of 1820. The census of 1820 records Broadnax in a household of only three people, down from eight ten years earlier. Tax records indicate that her income was only thirty dollars in 1820, compared to sixty dollars in 1815. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 20.
  23. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 23. McKnight notes that Broadnax’s property was located on the northwest lot at intersection of Fifth and Leigh Streets in Richmond. Previously a parking lot, this land is now occupied by the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
  24. McKnight, “Lydia Broadnax,” 24.

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