The Randolph’s were Virginia’s largest and most prominent family. The founders of the Randolph family, William and Mary (Isham) Randolph, arrived in North America around 1673 and are known as the “Adam and Eve” of Virginia. They had nine children and thirty-seven grandchildren. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall could trace their roots to this “first couple.”
One of their sons, William, married Maria Judith Page, my 8th Great Aunt, the daughter of another prominent Virginia family. William built a large Plantation and called it Tuckahoe. By 1745, William and his wife, Maria, had both died, leaving their three young children orphans. Before his death, William had named his good friend, Peter Jefferson, and his wife, Jane Randolph (William’s cousin), guardians of his children. To honor their obligation to see the children cared for, the Jefferson’s moved their own family from their home, Shadwell, to Tuckahoe for seven years, until the oldest Randolph son, Thomas Mann Randolph, reached 12 and could care for the younger children and run the plantation. Peter and Jane were the parents of Thomas Jefferson.
Judith and Ann Cary were daughters of Thomas Mann Randolph. Ann also known as Nancy, had a reputation as an independent and headstrong young woman. As one symbol of her rebelliousness, she moved out of her father’s house to live with her sister Judith and brother-in-law Richard Randolph. Here she was courted by her brother-in-law’s younger brother, Theodoric. This brought on a series of events that cast the Randolph family into a spiral of accusations and scandal.
Nancy and Theodoric planned to marry before his untimely death in February 1792. Nancy turned for comfort to her brother-in-law Richard, and he was attentive of her needs. Many people considered their closeness inappropriate, and there was a lot of gossip when people observed a noticeable change in Nancy’s appearance, mostly an increase in her weight. On October 1, 1792, Nancy joined Judith and Richard for dinner at the house called Bizarre at the plantation of Richard’s cousin Randolph Harrison. Nancy became ill during dinner and retired to an upstairs bedroom. That evening, screams were heard coming from her room. When the hostess went to look in, she found Richard in Nancy’s bedroom. She found traces of blood on Nancy’s bed, pillowcase, and stairs the next day, along with missing sheets and a quilt. Rumors quickly followed. The slaves on the plantation assumed that Nancy had delivered a child and claimed that the infant had been left for dead by Richard in a woodpile near the plantation house. Gossip followed rumor, and soon it was the talk of the county that Nancy had conceived a child by her brother-in-law, and that Richard had disposed of the child in the woodpile.
The talk of adultery and infanticide was so widespread that Richard turned to Attorney John Marshall for help. Marshall noted the lack of hard evidence against Richard, most significantly the lack of the infant’s body. Circumstantial evidence and rumor were all that the accusers had. Marshall advised Richard to appear in court and demand that he be tried for murder and adultery, or that he be exonerated. At Marshall’s suggestion Richard asked the semiretired Patrick Henry, still considered Virginia’s premier trial lawyer, to take up his defense. Richard followed Marshall’s advice and appeared in Court on April 22, 1793.
Proceedings began one week later before a panel of county magistrates. Patrick Henry examined the witnesses against Richard. Nancy did not testify but more importantly, under Virginia law the Bizarre slaves could not give testimony about what they saw that night. Henry’s examination of the witnesses proved he had lost none of his courtroom skills. Nancy’s aunt, Mary Cary Page, testified that she had peered into her niece’s bedroom while Nancy was undressing to see if she was carrying a child. Patrick Henry cut her to the quick, turning to the assembled magistrates and exclaiming: “Great God, deliver us from eavesdroppers.” John Marshall delivered a powerful closing argument, describing Richard’s relationship with Nancy as normal and affectionate for cousins-in-law. The lack of hard evidence meant that there were only rumors against Richard rather than facts, and Richard must therefore be given the benefit of the doubt. Marshall said of Nancy: “Every circumstance may be accounted for without imparting guilt to her … a person who may only be unfortunate.” The magistrates exonerated Richard and there would be no murder trial and all of the charges were dismissed.
Virginia society did not easily accept the decision of the magistrates. Richard, Judith, and Nancy found themselves outcasts in a social order that meant everything to them. Richard died within three years, a broken and disheartened man. Nancy moved to New York, attempting to earn a living as a teacher, but she soon fell into a state of destitution and prostitution. In 1808 she was befriended by Gouverneur Morris, a prominent Federalist and former senator from New York. Morris had known her father and was moved by Nancy’s impoverished condition. A bachelor, Morris invited her to live with him, and the two fell in love.
Morris and Nancy Randolph were married on Christmas Day 1809. Nine years later, in letters she wrote to relatives, Nancy told for the first time her version of what really happened. Yes, she wrote, she did deliver a child that evening at Bizarre but it was not Richard’s child. She had conceived a child with her doomed lover, Richard’s brother Theodoric. There would have been no scandal had Theodoric lived and married Nancy. Theodoric’s untimely death left Nancy in an enormous predicament. According to Nancy, she carried the child to term, and that night after dinner at Bizarre, her child was stillborn. Her brother-in-law Richard knew all of this and helped her through her adversity. But he never revealed his knowledge and went to his grave the subject of suspicion and gossip because, Nancy wrote, “He was a man of honor.”
Nancy died on May 28, 1837, in Bronx, New York. Since that day, it is said that her ghost has haunted Bizarre Mansion roaming not only the house, but also the place where the woodpile had been. Residents and visitors have heard her screams from the room upstairs, and they hear her cries out by the woodpile. This mansion is open for tours.