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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
Richard died in 1796, three years after the trial, and Judith was later to accuse her sister to John Randolph of poisoning her husband. The accusation was without foundation. There has been a suggestion that Judith herself caused his death, changing a recipe which called for a half-grain of tartar emetic, to be mixed with calomel, jalap, opium, and oil of aniseed, to read ten grains, and telling Nancy to mix it and give it to Richard to relieve his pain. Ten grains were enough to kill. Judith—this story runs —put the original recipe in the pocket of Nancy’s apron. Richard vomited, writhing in agony. He lived for a few days longer, without Judith’s sending for a doctor—it was not necessary, she told an English traveler who had stopped with a letter of introduction from Colonel Beverley Randolph. There was a terrible thunderstorm, and she said that Dr. Smith might not come; she herself would nurse her husband through the night. The next day the doctor came, and all the next night until he died Judith nursed Richard, and dosed him constantly—but not as Dr. Smith had directed. Nancy was too terrified to interfere. She was afraid of Judith, who had got hold of the prescription. Early in the morning Richard died. Of the three brothers only John was left.
John inherited Bizarre from his brother, but was seldom there, and the sisters lived alone with the two children. It was a strange atmosphere for the two boys to grow up in. Nancy loved them both and helped to bring them up. St. John, who was nicknamed “the Saint,” was sweet and affectionate, and devoted to his aunt. He had a fine, sensitive, friendly face and gentle manners. He could not understand very much. Tudor liked his aunt, too—it was hard not to love her—until he was told as he grew older by his mother and his Uncle John that she was a murderess. Tudor was always in wretched health, slowly decaying. Like his Uncle John, it was not hard for him to hate.
Now that Richard was dead, Judith lost all self-restraint. She ordered Nancy’s meals served to her in her room or in the kitchen. Nancy must work out of sight, and not go to her room until Mrs. Randolph had retired for the night. Judith was seeing strange visions, losing her self-control in fits of anger, on the edge of convulsions … Finally, a note written to one of the slaves by Nancy, beginning “Dear Billy Ellis,” telling him to polish the andirons, fell into Judith’s hands. She accused Nancy of sexual intercourse with a black, screaming at her, ordered Billy whipped, and locked Nancy in her room. When John Randolph arrived he directed Nancy to leave the house at once …
In a few years Bizarre burned down. Tudor, who was at Harvard, developed consumption. John wrote a friend:
Affliction has assailed me in a new shape. My younger nephew, whom you saw in Georgetown a few years ago, has fallen, I fear, into a confirmed pulmonary consumption. He was the sole hope of our family. He is now traveling by slow stages home. What a scene awaits him! His birthplace is in ashes; his mother worn to a skeleton with grief; his brother cut off from all that distinguishes man from the brute beast. My own reason has staggered under this last cruel blow. All is chaos and misery.
But not for Nancy. Toward her the gods at last turned a smiling face. It was in 1808 that she met Gouverneur Morris at “old Mrs. Pollacks’ ” boardinghouse in Greenwich Village. He expressed a wish, as Nancy years later wrote a friend, “that some reduced gentlewoman would undertake to keep his house, as the lower class of housekeepers often provoked the servants to riot in his dwelling.” He was a friend of her father’s and remembered her as a child at Tuckahoe, bursting with vitality, galloping her pony over the plantation, following her father about, curtsying in her funny, long dress to Mr. Jefferson when he came to stay with them. He had brought back a French chef and French coachman from Paris, and they were always quarreling with his black house-servants. He wanted only peace.
He began to correspond with Nancy. He offered to help her, and when she thanked him, said he did not want her gratitude. He vaguely remembered the events that brought distress into her family, but she should not dwell on them. If they were ever alone she could tell him “her tale of sorrow.” He asked her to come to Morrisania to manage his house. She did not accept at once, but teased him about other “housekeepers.” There had been only two, he said, one of them “a tall, well-made good-looking woman of low birth and education: assuming to have so much of vulgar dignity as to offend my servants … Certainly I have never approached either of them with anything like desire.”