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The Ghosts of the Wythe House
(Part 1)
By Nancy E. Sheppard

GWHouse imageThe two-story Flemish bond brick Colonial era building known as the Wythe House in Williamsburg sits just north of the cemetery for Bruton Parish Church. Dating back to the 1750’s, the house has paid witness to the constant evolution of this "ancient” corner of the United States and is the scene of legends and alleged ghostly encounters. For this and next week’s edition of the Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post, we will discuss the two most notable figures whom some claim haunt the centuries old residence. The focus of this week will be the home’s namesake, George Wythe.

George Wythe’s contribution to Virginia history is quite remarkable. He was the first person from the colony to sign the Declaration of Independence and was noted as being close friends with President George Washington and a mentor to our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

The house that bears his name was built by his father-in-law, Richard Taliaferro, who was a surveyor, builder, and planter. When Taliaferro died, he left the house to his son-in-law and daughter (and George Wythe’s wife), Elizabeth. A dedicated anti-slavery advocate, George Wythe was the first law professor for the College of William & Mary. When the Virginia capital moved to Richmond, the abandoned former Capitol building in Williamsburg became a schoolhouse for George Wythe to teach in.

Wythe left the property behind when his wife died in 1791 and moved to Richmond, where he served as a judge for the infantile Commonwealth. He took his servant, a freed woman named Lydia Broadnax, her son, Michael Brown, and his grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, to live with him in Richmond. Without any living direct heirs, Wythe listed Brown and Sweeney as receiving his inheritance, while also providing for Lydia.

On June 1, 1806, Wythe and Brown fell gravely ill after drinking their morning coffee. Brown died later that day, but Wythe languished for another week. Lydia claimed to witness Sweeney putting arsenic in the coffee before it was given to Wythe and Brown. Sweeney was drowning in gambling debt and already committed a series of crimes against his great uncle to settle it. Wythe suffered the debilitating side effects of arsenic poisoning, including blindness, and had his will redrafted to remove Sweeney from it while demanding an investigation. Wythe passed away on June 8, 1806. The autopsies of both Michael Brown and George Wythe were botched and Lydia Broadnax could not testify at trial because she was a freed woman. Sweeney was acquitted of all charges.

Although George Wythe is buried in Richmond, many say that he still haunts the house where he lived with his beloved wife. Witnesses claim that shutters will open and close without warning, sensations of being touched, and seeing the ghostly apparition of a Colonial era man. Could it be George Wythe’s otherworldly presence calling from the afterlife; a beloved law professor and judge whose death never received justice?

…or could it be the ghost of Lady Anne Skipwith? To learn about her story, check out next week’s edition of the Yorktown Crier | Poquoson Post!


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