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The Devil And John Randolph
How a statesman’s strange letter settled a court fight over a will
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
One day during the winter of 1831-32, an excited John Randolph of Roanoke sat at his desk inside the lonely plantation house in Charlotte County, Virginia, and began to write a letter. With his quill, he set down five jerky sentences, folded and sealed the paper, and on the Iront scrawled this address:
To the Honorable Waller Holladay, Esquire, of the county of Spotsylvania, of the State of Virginia, of the United States of America, of the Western Hemisphere, of the Globe.
To Americans of the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, John Randolph was a fascinating figure. A brilliant speaker, he had first matched oratory with the aged Patrick Henry in the campaign of 1799. As a member of Congress, he was noted for his biting invective. It was Randolph who labeled Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun the “War Hawks,” Randolph who called northern supporters of the Missouri Compromise “Doughfaces,” and Randolph who, as a senator, provoked a duel with Henry Clay by describing the Adams Administration as a coalition of the “puritan with the black-leg.” He suffered from insomnia, rheumatism, stomach disorders, and probably died of tuberculosis. And sometime alter 1810 when he moved to Roanoke Plantation (and adopted the appendage “of Roanoke” to distinguish himself from a kinsman known as “Possum John”) people who knew this cadaverous, testy Virginian began to wonder if perhaps he wasn’t perilously close to the border of insanity.
The marked eccentricities in speech and manner which they noted were even more pronounced upon his return from an abortive mission as minister to Russia in 1830. He insulted his friends. He struck oil three wills and four codicils that set the stage for a lawsuit impressive even in Virginia annals. And he wrote letters that were remarkably strange, to say the least.
Such a message was the one addressed to Waller Holladay, Esquire. One of those anonymous old Virginia gentlemen about whom Thomas Nelson Page wrote so nostalgically, Holladay was a healthy, handsome squire who preferred to live placidly at Prospect Hill, his Spotsylvania County homestead. Most of the time he succeeded in doing so, enjoying the good life and begetting thirteen children; but occasionally, as it must to all such substantial persons, public demands intruded. One of these was the necessity of attending, as delegate, the celebrity-studded constitutional convention of Virginia in 1829-30. Jt was there that he first met John Randolph.
In line with his retiring ways Waller Holladay was, quite unlike Randolph, a most inconspicuous member of the convention. But inconspicuous or not, he had made a hit with John Randolph. Some time alter the convention had passed into history that gentleman, whose plantation of Roanoke was less than 150 miles from Prospect Hill, sent Squire Holladay the letter bearing the hemispheric address shown above.
The date was January, 1832, when Randolph had just executed a third will revoking various earlier testamentary dispositions. Waller Holladay did not know this, of course. He did know that the letter he was reading was written by an insane man. So, “hoping the aberration was but temporary, he did not answer the letter, but locked it up in his desk and told no one that he had received such a letter.” So the matter stood for more than a year.
In May of 1833 Randolph died in Philadelphia, and in keeping with his request, he was buried at Roanoke with his lace to the west—so he could keep an eye on Henry day. Several years later there arrived at Prospect Hill one John Randolph Bryan. He had discovered from Judge William Leigh, Randolph’s executor, that on the very day Randolph had made his third will, he had also dashed oit a note to Mr. Holladay and given it to fudge Leigh to mail. Since Mr. Kryan was striving to break this will, and since he was convinced that the said letter would reveal its author as demented, would Mr. Holladay let him see it?
What Mr. Holladay did was to remove the letter Irom its place of security, hand it to his son Alexander Richmond Holladay, and have that youth take it straight to Petersburg, where the lawyers were almost erupting into a barn dance over the impressive Randolph estate. In later years Alexander Holladay recounted the incident to his own son, who writes: “He said the whole scene was fresh in his memory, that, though lasting but a minute or two, it was very im pressive. The letter was read; and alter a second’s pause the venerable judge … said in effect, ‘This evidence leaves no room for contest, and I presume no one can think it necessary to carry these proceedings further’. And so the great court battle over the Randolph will of 1832 came to its end in a moment.”