Coffee and arsenic

Handler and Gable’s mentions of George Wythe struck me as vaguely curious, but my hindbrain didn’t make itself clearly heard until after Lydia Broadnax’s name came up.

A couple years ago I read I Am Murdered, which is constructed as a somewhat bloated procedural, with a healthy dash of City Confidential. Chadwick examines the death of George Wythe (and Michael Brown), a bungled medical examination, an impoverished nephew with a motive for murder, the legal system that disallowed key testimony from a black woman (Broadnax), and an acquittal deemed scandalous.

Very sexy. But the Wythe-related controversies of Colonial Williamsburg* didn’t deal with his death or the trial. They were issues of racial representation (the “good” slaveholder, whose slaves were more like complaining employees than chattle) and sex-sexiness (the suggestion that Wythe and Broadnax were lovers, and Brown possibly their son). Granted, Colonial Williamsburg is Colonial Williamsburg, not the George Wythe Experience, and he died in Richmond.

But…part of the appeal of history is that we know how (some of it) turns out. We have the luxury of looking back, seeing connections and repercussions perhaps unknown to participants. We can describe the arc of a life (a man’s, a social movement’s, a nation’s). To eschew interpretations not based upon a certain type of documentary evidence is one thing, placing problematic limitations upon the histories which are presented. To ignore documented facts that do not have a direct bearing upon a small geographic area during a narrow window of time…seems like a pointlessly wasted opportunity, a prioritization of “things” over “people” that would make more sense if Colonial Williamsburg were not populated by costumed artisans and guides presenting Christmastime reenactments.


* At least insofar as they made it into this book. I’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, so I can’t speak to their actual, current handling of Wythe—or any other topic, for that matter.

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