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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
Patsy Jefferson Randolph, twenty-two, was called by the prosecution, but turned out to be a cool and unflustered witness for her sister-in-law. Yes, Mrs. Judith Randolph had asked her if she knew a remedy for Nancy’s “colic,” and she told Mrs. Randolph that she could get some gum guaiacum, an excellent remedy for that ailment. It was dangerous if taken in too great quantities by a pregnant woman, she had added, for then it might produce abortion. She sent Miss Nancy a portion a few days later. On cross-examination Patrick Henry asked if she wished to give the impression that she had sent the medicine to Miss Nancy with any belief that she desired to produce such a result. On the contrary, Patsy answered, it was the best remedy for the colic from which Nancy was suffering miserably. She had known of cases where more gum guaiacum was given to a pregnant woman without producing any ill effect.
But Judith’s testimony was the most impressive of all. She knew that her younger sister and her husband had been lovers, and that their child was born on that first terrible night of the house party. For the rest of her life she would show in every act and word how much she detested Nancy. But at the trial Judith perjured herself on the stand for the family name, to keep the family “honor” out of the gutter. Patrick Henry thrust at once to the heart of the charge. “Mrs. Randolph,” he said, “common gossip has brought charges to this Court that your husband committed murder that night. A new-born child, his child, delivered of your sister in that inner room, was carried by Mr. Randolph, scandalmongers say, out into the hoary night and cast cruelly on a pile of shingles. I ask you, Mrs. Randolph, if you saw anything to indicate so heinous a crime was perpetrated.”
“I saw nothing,” she answered firmly.
Judith swore that her husband did not go downstairs for any purpose all that night; he was sleeping by her side, although she could not sleep at all. Could Richard, Henry pressed her, have carried the body of a child from her sister’s room, and downstairs, as the prosecution claimed, without Judith’s knowledge? “It could not have happened,” she said—he would have had to pass through her room, where she lay awake all night, and she must have known. And, under cross-examination by the Commonwealth’s attorney, repeating every detail of that horrible night, hour after hour, unflustered and cool, she stuck to her story.
After hearing the evidence the sixteen justices dismissed the case, and John Marshall noted, in the careful account he made of the trial: “The friends of Miss Randolph cannot deny that there is some foundation on which suspicion may build; nor can it be denied by her enemies that every circumstance may be accounted for without imputing guilt to her. In this situation, candor will not condemn, or exclude from society a person who may be only unfortunate.” It now seems to be accepted that Nancy had a miscarriage, but that she and her lover were not guilty of murder.
But if candor did not condemn, the world did.
The four cousins went back to Bizarre—Judith, Nancy, Richard, and John. Judith was desperate —family honor was cold comfort when she knew that her husband and sister had been lovers. Shortly after the trial, she wrote to Mary Harrison: “My health is very bad, indeed so much have I suffered lately, both in body and mind that I much fear that a few months will put an end to my troubles in this world, neglected and thrown off by all whom I once fondly relied on.” She watched the lovers constantly with a bleak and morbid jealousy gnawing at her heart. Were they still paramours?
For the next fifteen years Nancy lived in a degradation that constantly grew more humiliating in the squalid intimacy of Bizarre. Her life, she wrote twenty years later, differed “from any servant’s only in this. I received no wages but was permitted to sit at table where I did not presume to enter into any conversation or taste of wine and very seldom tea or coffee.” She was deprived of the use of her harpsichord. She loved riding, but was not allowed a horse, or any leisure for reading. “Months in succession,” she recalled, “have been devoted to the needle (for Judy cherishes not a latent spark of affection for me) when my intellect absolutely languished for a little indulgence.” She must be taught to expiate her sin. She must earn her living and keep her place. Each day, after Richard’s death, she must clean out the chamber pots—that would relieve a slave for other duty.