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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 spread and before long was all over the South: the dead child was Nancy’s and Richard’s, and they had murdered it. Were the Randolphs stronger than the Commonwealth of Virginia? Would the state dare indict them? The taverns buzzed with allusions to Richard and his trull. Finally the gossip reached home to Richard. After consulting John Marshall—through his grandmother he was one of the Randolph tribe, with eight years still to go before he would be appointed to the Supreme Court—Richard sent an open letter to his stepfather, Judge Tucker, for publication. That, it was thought, would force the authorities to take action, and seemed to him the only way he could obtain public vindication. “My character has lately been blackened,” he wrote, “with the imputation of crimes at which humanity revolts, and which the laws of society have pronounced worthy of condign punishment.” The charge against him had spread far and wide, and had daily acquired strength in the minds of his fellow citizens. It would take too long to refute these calumnies by private suits against their authors; and he had therefore resolved on this method to present himself before the bar of public opinion. “Calumny to be obviated must be confronted.” If the crimes imputed to him were true, his life was the just forfeit to the laws of his country. He was giving notice that on the first of April, 1793, he would appear before the Cumberland County Court, and render himself prisoner to the court or any magistrate of the county there present to answer any charge whatsoever that any person might think proper to allege against him. The only favor he could ask of his accusers was “to step forth and exert themselves for conviction.” His supposed accomplice would “meet the accusation with the fortitude of innocence.” The letter was printed in the Virginia Gazette and Chronicle.
It was a courageous challenge. Richard must have known what it would mean if the Commonwealth prosecuted, and the case were tried. They would all be dragged into the witness box—Judith and Nancy, John and Archibald, the Harrisons; and Nancy’s aunt, that peering, vindictive old busybody, Mrs. Carter Page, who had been sniffing around her niece ever since she had begun to show her changed condition. Under the Virginia law a slave could not testify against a white person, so that old Esau would not be allowed to swear to what he had found. Richard’s lawyers must have told their client that there was no evidence of murder —of adultery, yes—but not of murder.
On April 29, 1793, Richard and Nancy were held without bail by sixteen gentlemen justices for feloniously murdering a child, said to be Nancy Randolph’s.
Richard also retained Patrick Henry for five hundred guineas to try the case with Marshall, a very large fee for those days. Henry was past his prime at fifty-six. He was infirm and less active in his practice, and would be dead in half a dozen years; but he was still the darling of the plain people, one of them; and, unlike his younger associate Marshall, was a tough old lion, brutal in cross-examination, and a spellbinder who could convince you against your will. Everyone flocked into Cumberland to hear old Patrick Henry defend young Richard Randolph. They were all so young— Richard, twenty-five; John, nineteen; Judith, twenty; and Nancy, seventeen.
The family divided sharply, some testifying to Richard’s intimacy with his sister-in-law, others not willing to admit any impropriety. Richard’s uncle, Major Carter Page, who had been an aide to Lafayette, opened the case for the Commonwealth by swearing that Richard and Nancy were very fond of each other, they “were very good company for themselves,” and the witness had seen them kissing and embracing. He had noticed Nancy s increase in size. His wife, who could never forget that she was a daughter of Archibald Cary, the speaker of the Virginia Senate, testified to Nancv’s pregnancy. She had heard Judith complain of the intimacy between her husband and sister and begun to watch them. She had noticed a change in the girl’s figure, and a moodiness which Mrs. Page did not ascribe to colic. She had asked her niece if she could examine her to determine whether she was a virgin, but was flatly and impolitely refused. Mrs. Page’s worst fears were soon confirmed. One evening on her way to her chamber, she passed Nancy’s door, which was closed, and heard her niece talking to her colored maid. The door was locked, but Mrs. Page could see inside through the keyhole. Nancy stood absolutely naked before her mirror, combing her hair, and her aunt saw that she was pregnant. She also heard Nancy ask her maid if she did not think that her mistress was smaller, and heard the girl say: “Ain’t so. Truth is, you belly gettin’ bigger.”
Patrick Henry rose to cross-examine. Was she on terms of intimacy with the Bizarre family, and was it her custom to inspect her niece on every visit? “I am not accustomed to pry,” answered Mrs. Page, trying to look haughty—it was her duty as an aunt to determine Nancy’s condition. “Duty alone compelled you to look through a crack in the door as she prepared to retire?” he asked her gravely. She acquiesced. Whereupon Patrick Henry, with his “inimitable power of exciting ridicule,” asked the witness which eye she peeped with; and when laughter drowned her answer, “Great God,” he cried, “deliver us from eavesdroppers!”