In the year 1806, in a stately mansion on a hill in Richmond, Va., in the heart of the fledgling nation, an old man struggles to lift himself off his bed to face his attending physician and pronounces with what little strength remains in his ailing body, "I am murdered." Two weeks later, to the day, he is dead.
The old man is one of the Founding Fathers, friend to George Washington, mentor to Thomas Jefferson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and respected Virginia legislator George Wythe. (If you're asking yourself, "Who?" don't worry, you're not alone. But stay with the story for a moment.)
It isn't just Wythe that is ill, it seems that everyone in his house is affected; his maid and his protégé are doubled over on the floor and struggling for life. Everyone is murdered it appears. Everyone, that is, except the teenage nephew of Wythe, George Wythe Sweeney. He, suspiciously, escapes whatever it is that made the others sick.
When George Wythe dies, a trial begins with young Sweeney on the stand for murder by poisoning. So, too, begins I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation, the excellent new book by New Jersey City University professor Bruce Chadwick, and the trial that unfolds comprises the majority of its nearly 300 pages.
"Wythe is an unknown guy," Chadwick acknowledges, from behind his desk in his modest NJCU office. "Because he never ran for office, he never wrote a book, he never kept any journal or any letters. There's nothing there." And yet the trial that Chadwick meticulously describes in his book was easily the first major murder trial that the young United States had ever seen.
Further, Chadwick's narrative style is far from the dry, saltine-fact-cracker model that we've come to expect from so many history books. No surprise, really, from the man who teaches courses such as "Murder in America" and "From the Silence to the Sopranos" at NJCU and Rutgers University.
But the idea for I Am Murdered did not grow immediately out of Chadwick's interests in forensics or his PhD in American history. Rather, as he tells it: “It fell out of the sky and hit me on the head."
As the story goes, Chadwick lost his footing while reaching for a book on a high shelf at the Rutgers library. His body fell against the shelf and shook the stacks and from the topmost shelf a tall, thin hardcover came tumbling down, connecting with his head before falling open on the library floor. The book, an edition of The William and Mary Quarterly, opened to an article entitled, "The Murder of George Wythe," which posited the question of whether or not Wythe was actually murdered.
From there, Chadwick began to wonder what forensics were involved in the murder of George Wythe. It is precisely this line of inquiry coupled with his meticulous research of colonial era medicine, forensic evidence and law that make the characters and events in I Am Murdered come alive; reading, at times, more like a crime novel than history.
From the Newsroom to the Classroom
Chadwick became interested in crime, murder and forensics when he was a full-time journalist working for the New York Daily News, a position he held until 1992 when an economic downturn cost him and 300 of his colleagues their jobs. During that time, however, Chadwick took notice of the fact that "the interest in murder...was going way up, and at the same time the murder rate and crime rate started to go down."
This fact fascinated him. The reason, he believes after years of studying, writing and teaching on this topic, is that "murder has just become part of the American landscape." He cites an interest in organized crime that is peculiar to Americans and particularly evident here in New Jersey, home to The Sopranos, noting as well that James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano, is a Rutgers graduate.
After being out of work for a year and a half, Chadwick landed a job teaching journalism at NJCU, but the position was dependent on him earning a PhD. "They said, just get a PhD in any subject you want, and we’ll pay the entire cost," he remembers.
He chose to attend Rutgers University and study American history, a subject that had fascinated him since his youth. He describes the five years he spent working toward his doctorate as "the single greatest professional feeling of my life...It reenergized me." He continues, and says with a smile: "You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.”
It is precisely this energy that Chadwick brings to his subject, whether writing about history or talking about it for a recently aired History Channel series on the American Revolution. But history is only one of his many interests. In his more than 25 books he has written about baseball, football, sports memorabilia and film. Additionally he has taught on each of those subjects as well as crime and forensics, journalism and creative writing.
In the classroom, he's the kind of professor you wished you had when you were in college; the type to incorporate films such as Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, television shows like CSI and Law & Order alongside novels, short stories and Shakespearean plays into his syllabi. He encourages student writers to experiment with journalism and creative writing to see if they like it. Additionally he insists that they read insatiably and watch a lot of movies and television to get ideas and to learn about plot, narrative and dialogue.
"When I was in college, there were a lot more short stories and literary magazines around then there are today,” he says. “Today all of that has shifted over to television.” He sees many of today’s television crime dramas of today as “the short stories of 20 or 30 years ago.” Plus, he acknowledges, watching television or film is "a lot easier. Just sit on the couch and watch TV." What you'll come away with, Chadwick thinks, is a better sense of how each of these mediums are written and the ways in which their narratives come together.
Chadwick is optimistic about the future of Jersey City writers based on the work he sees his students doing in the classroom and in New Jersey City University's newspaper and literary magazine. "We get a lot of good writers here," he says of NJCU. “[They have] a sense to life on the streets in Jersey City or Hoboken or New York; a real connection to what people in this area are like — what their hopes and dreams are, and their fears. They're pretty finely tuned to what's going on."
He hopes that in their not too distant futures his students, about 40 journalism majors and nearly as many creative writers, will write about their experiences in Jersey City and carry on the rich tradition of New Jersey writers.
As for his own work, Chadwick is finishing up work on a book that will be released this winter, tentatively titled Abe Lincoln for President, about Lincoln's first election. Last month saw the release of his 28th book, Triumvirate: The Story of the Unlikely Alliance That Saved the Constitution and United the Nation, a mere three months after I Am Murdered was released, and Murdered itself is now going into its second printing. He has no plans for a next book as of right now. “I'm waiting for something to fall out of the sky,” he says.
Now back to that murder trial in Richmond. I'm not going to tell you how it ends or even show off everything I learned about early American law and forensics, but I will say it doesn't shake out like you might expect and that the strengths and weaknesses of the American legal system were as obvious then as they are now. And in that way the story told in I Am Murdered, in addition to being as riveting as any of television's crime dramas and, at times as addictive, is as relevant today as the trial it describes was 200 years ago.