Scandal At Bizarre

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Tudor had told him, John continued, that his Aunt Nancy had been responsible for Richard’s death in 1796. When he found her mind running upon poisonings and murders, his suspicions were strengthened. After her intimacy with one of the slaves—“ your dear Billy Ellis, thus you commenced your epistles to this Othello!”—she could no longer stay at Bizarre. Subsequently, he was informed by a friend in Richmond, she had declined “into a very drab.” Tudor had said to him that as far back as he could remember she had been an unchaste woman. And now at Morrisania he saw “a vampire that, after sucking the best blood of my race, has flitted off to the North, and struck her harpy fangs into an infirm old man”—Morris was then sixty-two—whom she had made a prisoner in his own house “that there may be no witness of your lewd amours”—had she driven away his friends so that there would be no witness to his death? Before this letter reached her ear, he concluded, it would have been perused by Mr. Morris, who sooner or later must unmask her “unless he too die of cramps in his stomach .” He hoped never to see her again.

Apparently Morris was not greatly disturbed by the letter. To Randolph Harrison he wrote: “Mr. Randolph’s communication gave me no concern, for Mrs. Morris had apprised me of the only fact in his possession, before she came to my house, so that her candor has blunted the point of his arrow.” Yet, although he had received the letter on November 1, he did not show it to his wife until January. We do not know what passed between her and her husband. He confided nothing of their talk to his diary. He may have been frightened, his confidence at times shaken, wondering if cramps in the stomach would follow when she mixed his medicine, or cooked something delicate for him with her own hands. But he did not give her up. We can imagine him sending for her and saying, very simply: “My dear, this is a letter which your cousin of Roanoke sent me to give to you”—and then watching her as she read it, turning crimson, turning pale, trembling, looking up at him when she had finished. “Let me tear it up,” he may have suggested, “the poor fellow is obviously mad.” But instead of destroying it the extraordinary woman, proud and disdainful and very frank about almost everything, wrote John a long answer, and sent half a dozen copies not so much to her friends as to his political enemies in Virginia, so that both letters remain for posterity to brood over.

Richard’s life, Nancy told Richard’s brother, knowing what would most deeply wound him, is now beyond the reach of your malice, but his fame, which should be dear to a brother’s heart, is stabbed by the hand of his brother.… Our unwarranted trial took place, Sir, in a remote County of Virginia more than twenty years ago. You have revived the slanderous tale in the most populous city in the United States. For what? To repay my kindness to your nephew by tearing me from the arms of my husband and blasting the prospects of my child!

He had alluded to one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies. He must be convinced by now that he had but clumsily performed the part of “honest Iago.” Happily he had not found in her husband a headlong, rash Othello. For a true description of what on this occasion he had written and spoken she referred him to the same admirable author: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” She must have felt proud of her rejoinder as she signed her name—“Anne C. Morris.” She would admit to her bastard; but never defame Richard’s memory by acknowledging that the child was his.

Two years later Morris was dead. His will gave his wife Morrisania, and a comfortable income; and, “in case my wife should marry, I give her six hundred dollars per annum, to defray the increased expenditure, which may attend that connexion.” He left all the residue of his estate to his son, providing in case of his son’s death that his estate should go to his nieces and nephews and their descendants “in such proportions as my wife shall designate.” He was a just and generous man, not without a sense of irony.

UNFORGIVING COUSIN: JOHN RANDOLPH OF ROANOKE