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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
His diary notes that on April 23, 1809, he drove “to Armstrong’s tavern and after breakfast brought home Miss Randolph of Virginia who had arrived from Connecticut.” On Christmas Day he added, “I marry this day Anne Gary Randolph. No small surprise to my guests.” Two years later Nancy was pregnant, and Morris, returning from Albany, wrote in his diary, “dear, quiet, happy home.” It was not like any other entry in that witty and robust record of his love affairs, as when, for instance, he recorded in Paris that after dining with Adelaide de Flahaut and joining “in fervent adoration to the Cyprian Queen,” he left her “reclined in the sweet tranquility of nature well satisfied.”
Gouverneur Morris had a shrewd understanding of people, and of their foibles and vices and jealousies, but his resulting skepticism had not dried up a natural friendliness and generosity. And he idolized his wife. He had heard of Tudor’s illness in Cambridge, and suggested to Nancy that they get the boy to Morrisania —it would do him good. Reluctantly she acquiesced—she was still fond of her nephew, but she did not trust him. Accordingly, in July, 1814, Morris wrote John Randolph a friendly letter expressing his hope that Tudor and his mother would come to stay with them. They would find “a comfortable home, an affectionate sister, and a good friend.” John responded to this “friendly and interesting letter” in the same tone. Meanwhile Tudor wrote his aunt asking for money, and the desired sum was sent him. Almost immediately he arrived, was put to bed at once, and treated for a hemorrhage by the famous Dr. David Hosack, summoned from New York. In October Judith came, followed in two days by John Randolph.
Tudor whispered to his uncle that his Aunt Nancy was indulging in “lewd amours,” and that his earliest memories of her had been that she was an “unchaste woman.” Probably John Randolph did not at first take his nephew seriously, for (according to Nancy’s credible account) when he left in two days he thanked Morris, and kissed Nancy affectionately. He bade her remember the past, and those who once loved her. She must not think too harshly of her own kin. To Morris he expressed gratitude for what he had done for Tudor.
On his way up to Morrisania, John Randolph had fallen down a steep staircase in Philadelphia and injured his shoulder. On his way back the coach in which he was riding overturned, and his leg was painfully wrenched. By the time he reached New York, descending at Mrs. Brandish’s boardinghouse, he was in agony, and insisted on a dose of opium.
Then David Ogden, a great-nephew of Gouverneur Morris, stepped in. From the beginning Morris’s nephews and nieces were bitter about his marriage. His niece Gertrude Meredith went so far as to write him a protest, telling her uncle that he had committed a folly and had acted undutifully in not consulting her. His answer was politely, almost amusedly restrained:
I can only say to the first that I have not yet found cause to repent, and to the second that I hope you will pardon me for violating an obligation of which I was not apprized … If I had married a rich woman of seventy the world might think it wiser than to take one half that age without a farthing, and, if the world were to live with my wife, I should have certainly consulted its taste; but as that happens not to be the case, I thought I might, without offending others, endeavor to suit myself, and look rather into the head and the heart than into the pocket.
David Ogden wanted his uncle’s money; the Randolphs, Nancy’s disgrace. If Morris could be made to believe that his wife was unfaithful and even dangerous, their separation might follow, and Ogden would eventually inherit the share of his uncle’s fortune which he felt was his by right.
Ogden sought out Judith—they had both come to New York—and they compared notes. She probably told him that Nancy had killed not only her baby but the child’s father. With this accusation Ogden went to see Randolph, lying in bed with his crippled leg, and assured him that Mrs. Morris was unchaste, she was engaged at that moment in a love affair, and Mr. Morris was in danger. John was inclined to agree, to believe anything evil about Nancy. He sent for Judith. She agreed with Mr. Ogden, and talked of the fatal dose that had killed Richard. John must save Mr. Morris. Tudor, following his mother, reminded his uncle of Nancy’s “love letter” to Billy Ellis. John’s old hatred of Nancy flared up—she had rejected him as a suitor, knowing him to be impotent, in favor of a black! Inflamed, half-mad, tortured with doubt and jealousy and pain, he wrote a brief note to Morris, saying that he wished he could withhold the blow—but he must do what he would have Morris do to him, “under a change of circumstances.” With the note he enclosed a long letter to Nancy, charging her in violently intemperate language with murder and the intention to murder.
“Madam,” he wrote, “when at my departure from Morrisania I bade you ‘remember the past,’ I was not appraised of the whole extent of your guilty machinations … My object was to let you know that the eye of man as well as of that God of whom you seek not was upon you, … to rouse some dormant spark of virtue if haply any such should slumber in your bosom.” He was now convinced that she had destroyed the child of which she was delivered in October, 1792.