Monday, March 02, 2009

Book Review: "I Am Murdered"

Did you know that a signer of the Declaration of Independence was murdered? If not, Bruce Chadwick's I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation (Wiley, 2009) might be a book to add to your reading list. Wythe, a towering figure in the Virginia of the late colonial and early national periods, who counted among his pupils such leaders as Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Henry Clay, was poisoned by his grandnephew in the summer of 1806, and Chadwick's book seeks to bring that twisted tale to light.

There are several excellent parts of this book. Chadwick is at his best when recounting the details of Wythe's long legal and political career, as well as his unorthodox but innovative and successful educational methods (which included the use of moot courts and legislatures as a way to bring law and politics to life for his students). His depiction of Wythe's longstanding relationships with many of his former students reveals just how important his influence was to an entire generation of Virginia's leaders.

The majority of the book, however, suffers from a severe lack of organization. Chadwick's narrative bounces the reader back and forth relentlessly: in one four-page chapter, for example, we are taken from 1806 to 1783 to 1794, then suddenly back to the 1760s (from which we pick up at the start of the next chapter in 1791). I had to put the book down a few times to calm an acute case of chronological whiplash. Unfortunately Chadwick also feels the need to pad the story (utterly fascinating and macabre in its own right) with lengthy digressions on such topics as Virginia's cities, gambling in antebellum America, and slave rebellions, as well as histories of poisoning, autopsies, and medical education. During the course of all this the author makes a great many speculative leaps, or at least one has to assume they're leaps, since there are no footnotes to suggest otherwise (the footnotes that are provided are good, but many more are needed).

Better editing would have cured many of the problems with Chadwick's book, and it's a shame they didn't, because there is a great story hiding within. Wythe's murderer, his teenage miscreant grandnephew George Wythe Sweeney, escapes the gallows after a trio of Virginia's best doctors "completely botch" the autopsy (Chadwick's words) and judges refuse to allow the eyewitness testimony of Wythe's freed black cook, Lydia Broadnax, as well as several slaves who witnessed Sweeney acting suspiciously.

A fascinating and horrifying episode in the history of the early republic is brought to light with this slightly flawed book.

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