Detail from the 1751 map drawn by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry showing Chatsworth's location.
Detail from the 1751 map drawn by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry showing Chatsworth’s location.

While 18th-century Virginians, with their healthy Latitudinarian distrust for anything that even hinted at the supernatural or superstition (fine for French and German fanatics, in their view, but not for the reasonable English), that did not mean that passion and violence did not enter their lives.  And so it was that on this date, All Hallow’s Eve in 1775, that Archibald Cary wrote to Thomas Jefferson, then in Philadelphia, about “very disagreable” news from the neighborhood along the upper James River, near Richmond.  The main characters were Peyton Randolph, the youngest son of William and Anne Carter Harrison Randolph of Wilton, and Lewis Burwell, who had just married Peyton’s sister, Lucy.  We don’t know precisely the nature of the argument, or what lie told by Peyton spurred Lewis into action (“to give the lie” was to charge another with a falsehood, something highly impolite under any circumstances).  We do know that they were rather different people.  Peyton was a native Virginian who sided with the patriots, while Lewis, although born in Virginia, had grown up in England, educated at Eton, Oxford (Balliol), and the Inner Temple of London, and remained a known loyalist for the rest of his life.  Cary’s main concern in telling Jefferson was that “the Speaker and his Lady,” the elder Peyton Randolph and his wife Elizabeth (the young Peyton’s aunt), who cared deeply for their extended family, not be alarmed by the news. It is interesting that even a Halloween stabbing, it not proving mortal (because the ladies stepped between them), could be swept under the Randolph family rug in Revolutionary Virginia.  Who needs Downtown Abbey with stories like this?

Peyton Randolph of Wilton, c. 1773 (Virginia Historical Society)
Peyton Randolph of Wilton, c. 1773 (Virginia Historical Society)

“As to News the Papers will Give you all Things except a very disagreable one in this Neighbourhood, a dispute arose at Dinner at Chatsworth between Payton Randolph and his brother Lewis Burwell, who gave the other the Lye, on which Payton struck him, Burwell snatched a knife and struck him in the side, but fortunately a Rib prevented it’s proving Mortal, he was prevented by the Lady’s from making a second stroke.  You’l judge what Poor Mrs. Randolph must suffer on this Unhappy Affair, but she is become Familiar with Misfortune.  Payton is well and no notice is taken of the affair as I can see by Either[.] they Dined at my House the day after I got Home.  If the Speaker and his Lady have not been acquainted with this matter say nothing of it to them.”

For the full text of the letter, visit http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0129.

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One thought on “(Attempted) Murder Most Foul on All Hallow’s Eve in Colonial Virginia

  1. It is likely that the “Poor Mrs. Randolph” to whom Cary refers was Lucy Bolling Randolph, the mistress of Chatsworth, who had lost her husband, Peter, in 1767. Born in 1719, she lived a long life and actively supported the patriot cause during the Revolution. Another candidate is Peyton’s mother, Anne Carter Harrison Randolph, the sister of Benjamin Harrison and a friend of George Washington’s. Her husband had died in 1761.

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