August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
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
The story of Anne Gary Randolph, called Nancy, is strangely interwoven with that of her spectacular cousin, John Randolph of Roanoke, and touches other famous names in unfamiliar moments; it gives us a glimpse into the intimate history of the times. Her career opened with tragedy before she had come of age, pursued a course of wretchedness and poverty while she was still a young woman, and ended, as she was touching middle age, in serene happiness and contentment.
At seventeen she was tried, with her sister Judith’s husband, for the murder of their child—and acquitted. For the next fifteen years, with the mark of adultery and—by the laws of the time—incest on her sleeve, she lived with Judith at Bizarre plantation, and with her sister’s two children, St. George, a deaf-mute, and Tudor, who became a consumptive. These years of poverty and repugnance, the shadow of her sister’s hatred poisoning the air, suggest the pattern of The Sound and the Fury , for Faulkner might as easily have written about these Randolphs of Virginia as he did of their brothers under the skin in Mississippi.
Nancy’s story was dramatic enough to have been long remembered, yet history seems almost to have forgotten it. Her lawyers in the trial that shook the state of Virginia from end to end were Patrick Henry and John Marshall; but Beveridge in his life of the Chief Justice makes no mention of the case. He may have thought it too nasty for comment. Jefferson’s daughter Patsy was a witness, yet Jefferson never referred to it in his vast correspondence except indirectly, when he wrote Patsy that he “saw guilt in but one person,” but not in Nancy. He urged his daughter never to fear to extend her hand to save another “lest you should sink yourself.” He hoped Patsy would preserve her cousin “in the peace and love of her friends.”
There was a saying in Virginia that only a Randolph was good enough for a Randolph. Certainly the Randolphs were constantly marrying their cousins, and almost every actor in Nancy’s drama was related to her and to the other characters. The relationships tend to confusion. Two families are particularly involved—John Randolph of Roanoke, and his two elder brothers, Richard and Theodorick; and Nancy Randolph and her sister Judith. Nancy and Judith and their brothers, “Possum” John and Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (who had married Martha—called Patsy—Jefferson), were second cousins of the three Randolph boys. Nancy was full of the delight of living, hot-blooded, careless, haphazard. She carried her gaiety and affection through the most trying and tragic passages of her strange career. Judith was plain, pious, serious, and terribly frustrated by life. She married her cousin Richard, the eldest brother, when she was sixteen. After her mother died, and her father had remarried, having lost a substantial fortune by acting as surety for a friend, Nancy went to live with Richard and her sister Judith at Richard’s plantation, Bizarre.
The three Randolph boys at one time or another were all in love with Nancy, who seems to have had an irresistible charm for men. John she turned down, taxing him with his impotence—this at least he came to believe. To Theodorick she became engaged—and he died in eight months. Richard—handsome, intelligent, and his brother John’s idol—not long afterward became Nancy’s lover.
The first act of this incredible melodrama began at a house party at Glenlyvar, the country place of the Randolph Harrisons. Richard and his wife; Nancy; John; and a young cousin, Archibald Randolph (Mrs. Harrison’s brother), who was also attracted by Nancy, drove over to Glenlyvar from Bizarre on October 1, 1792. Nancy, wrapped in a thick cape, was so weak she could hardly get to the second door, where her room was next to that of Richard and Judith. The Harrisons slept on the floor below. In the middle of the night Nancy woke screaming, and was given laudanum —so Harrison was told—to quiet one of the recurring hysterical fits from which she suffered. Later that night the Harrisons heard someone descend the stairs and return. The next morning Nancy was still in bed, wrapped in blankets. There was blood on the pillowcase and along the stairs.
The house party broke up. Old Esau, a slave, whispered to Harrison that a foetus of a white child had been carried out into the yard and placed on a woodpile. He had seen bloodstains on the shingles where a hound sniffed.
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!”
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.
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.
SIDEBAR: UNFORGIVING COUSIN: JOHN RANDOLPH OF ROANOKE 
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.”
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.
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.