Born in 1726 in Chesterville, Virginia, Wythe (pronounced like Smith), became one of our most significant, if often forgotten, founding fathers. Before resting in the shadow of St. John’s, Wythe rose to prominence as a lawyer, teacher and thinker. He was the country’s first professor of law at Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary, teaching the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and Henry Clay. “No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe,” said Thomas Jefferson. “His virtue was of the purest tint, his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country.”
Respected by his peers for his virtue and integrity, Wythe is the first signature from the Virginia delegation on the Declaration of Independence. So revered was Wythe, that despite being absent when the final engrossed copy of the Declaration was signed, his fellow Virginians left a space so that he could sign above them. Wythe was known as Virginia’s foremost classical scholar, the dean of its lawyers, a Williamsburg alderman and mayor, member of the House of Burgesses, framer of our federal constitution, and one of two men who designed the Virginia Seal.
Wythe’s home has been preserved as a museum in Colonial Williamsburg and is open to visitors for tours. After his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1787, George moved to Richmond, where he later died amongst scandal in 1806 at the age of eighty. His grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, was accused of poisoning the old man with arsenic in an attempt to expedite his inheritance. Wythe is believed to have uttered to his doctor at his bedside, “I am murdered…” Although Sweeney was acquitted at trial, he escaped largely on a technicality since the only witness to the poisoning was a black cook who at the time was not allowed to testify in the courts. Sweeney moved to Tennessee, but little is known of his whereabouts afterwards. George Wythe left his large library to his friend and student, Thomas Jefferson, who was President of the young nation at the time of Wythe’s death. Tragically, word of Wythe’s illness did not reach President Jefferson until four days after Wythe’s death. Wythe’s funeral was the largest in Virginia history at the time.
In my middle-grade children’s book, Mystery on Church Hill, brothers Sam and Derek learn all about Mr. Wythe, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson when they discover a fictional lost letter beneath the floorboards at St. John’s Church. Soon they’re entangled in a mystery started by the “ne’er-do-well” Mr. Sweeney, and are racing a Patrick Henry reenactment actor named Jerry all the way to the Wythe House in Williamsburg to find a hidden early copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Wythe appealed to me as a central figure through the amazing events and personalities that surrounded him in real life. Mentor to some of our greatest leaders, founder of our country and murdered in scandal, it doesn’t take much imagination to fill in some fun details. By combining key elements of historical facts and personalities with some made-up excitement and intrigue, the book melds fun into learning for young readers. I hope that the story will inspire kids to learn more about these important people and events, visit St. John’s Church and the Wythe House in Williamsburg, and make our history come alive a bit more that it did before.
Mystery on Church Hill is available in the St. John’s Church Gift Shop, the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center bookstore, online in print and Kindle at Amazon and B&N, or many Richmond locations.