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Scandal At Bizarre
Between its grim beginning on a Virginia plantation and its surprising end at a great New York estate, the career of Nancy Randolph involved many of the famous figures of the post-Revolutionary era. The lovers, the scorned ex-suitor, the cheated wife, all four were cousins in a great southern dynasty. This tale of hate and “honor” is recounted by a descendant of Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
The story of Anne Gary Randolph, called Nancy, is strangely interwoven with that of her spectacular cousin, John Randolph of Roanoke, and touches other famous names in unfamiliar moments; it gives us a glimpse into the intimate history of the times. Her career opened with tragedy before she had come of age, pursued a course of wretchedness and poverty while she was still a young woman, and ended, as she was touching middle age, in serene happiness and contentment.
At seventeen she was tried, with her sister Judith’s husband, for the murder of their child—and acquitted. For the next fifteen years, with the mark of adultery and—by the laws of the time—incest on her sleeve, she lived with Judith at Bizarre plantation, and with her sister’s two children, St. George, a deaf-mute, and Tudor, who became a consumptive. These years of poverty and repugnance, the shadow of her sister’s hatred poisoning the air, suggest the pattern of The Sound and the Fury , for Faulkner might as easily have written about these Randolphs of Virginia as he did of their brothers under the skin in Mississippi.
Nancy’s story was dramatic enough to have been long remembered, yet history seems almost to have forgotten it. Her lawyers in the trial that shook the state of Virginia from end to end were Patrick Henry and John Marshall; but Beveridge in his life of the Chief Justice makes no mention of the case. He may have thought it too nasty for comment. Jefferson’s daughter Patsy was a witness, yet Jefferson never referred to it in his vast correspondence except indirectly, when he wrote Patsy that he “saw guilt in but one person,” but not in Nancy. He urged his daughter never to fear to extend her hand to save another “lest you should sink yourself.” He hoped Patsy would preserve her cousin “in the peace and love of her friends.”
There was a saying in Virginia that only a Randolph was good enough for a Randolph. Certainly the Randolphs were constantly marrying their cousins, and almost every actor in Nancy’s drama was related to her and to the other characters. The relationships tend to confusion. Two families are particularly involved—John Randolph of Roanoke, and his two elder brothers, Richard and Theodorick; and Nancy Randolph and her sister Judith. Nancy and Judith and their brothers, “Possum” John and Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (who had married Martha—called Patsy—Jefferson), were second cousins of the three Randolph boys. Nancy was full of the delight of living, hot-blooded, careless, haphazard. She carried her gaiety and affection through the most trying and tragic passages of her strange career. Judith was plain, pious, serious, and terribly frustrated by life. She married her cousin Richard, the eldest brother, when she was sixteen. After her mother died, and her father had remarried, having lost a substantial fortune by acting as surety for a friend, Nancy went to live with Richard and her sister Judith at Richard’s plantation, Bizarre.
The three Randolph boys at one time or another were all in love with Nancy, who seems to have had an irresistible charm for men. John she turned down, taxing him with his impotence—this at least he came to believe. To Theodorick she became engaged—and he died in eight months. Richard—handsome, intelligent, and his brother John’s idol—not long afterward became Nancy’s lover.
The first act of this incredible melodrama began at a house party at Glenlyvar, the country place of the Randolph Harrisons. Richard and his wife; Nancy; John; and a young cousin, Archibald Randolph (Mrs. Harrison’s brother), who was also attracted by Nancy, drove over to Glenlyvar from Bizarre on October 1, 1792. Nancy, wrapped in a thick cape, was so weak she could hardly get to the second door, where her room was next to that of Richard and Judith. The Harrisons slept on the floor below. In the middle of the night Nancy woke screaming, and was given laudanum —so Harrison was told—to quiet one of the recurring hysterical fits from which she suffered. Later that night the Harrisons heard someone descend the stairs and return. The next morning Nancy was still in bed, wrapped in blankets. There was blood on the pillowcase and along the stairs.
The house party broke up. Old Esau, a slave, whispered to Harrison that a foetus of a white child had been carried out into the yard and placed on a woodpile. He had seen bloodstains on the shingles where a hound sniffed.