“Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Women and the First Great Scandal of 18th Century America” by Alan P Crawford. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 329 pages, $27.50
Concealing a birth and incest were both crimes known to colonial America, and Virginia gentlewoman Nancy Randolph stood accused by rumor of doing both during the fall of 1793. The pretty 18-year-old daughter of a prominent tobacco planter, Nancy was thought to have born the illegitimate child of her sister’s husband and then suffered it to be killed and thrown on a trash heap during the wee dark hours of the night after its birth.
The putative father was young aristocrat Richard Randolph, her older sister Judith’s husband of only 2 or 3 years. Nancy had been making her home with the couple since quarreling with a new stepmother who wanted her sent from her childhood plantation home where she was raised along with 9 siblings. At one point, Nancy had even been engaged to one of Richard’s brothers and there were close ties of affiliation between the two families.
The Randolphs of Virginia were known for their aristocratic bloodlines, their large land holdings, their political aspirations and a tendency to intermarry with cousins. This led to the local saying “Only Randolphs are good enough for Randolphs”. Richard Randolph attempts to sway public opinion by an open letter to a colonial newspaper indicating that he has nothing to hide, but instead he’s brought up on charges of infanticide.
The resulting inquest becomes a show trial featuring a defense put on by well-known statesmen Patrick Henry and John Marshall. The resultant verdict of not-guilty is thought to have arisen because some of the evidence was hearsay and because the testimony of the enslaved woman who attended the birth and the enslaved older man who found the child’s corpse were not admissible in court. Under Virginia law, enslaved persons could not testify in court against their owners and the live birth was therefore unverifiable, with the outcome being attributed to “quarrels among women”.
Despite the not-guilty verdict, Nancy Randolph never lives down public opinion. It follows her when she becomes estranged from her relatives and cast out into poverty in the North. She represents a social and political liability to her relatives, even though the implication is that she suffered a miscarriage on the fatal night in question and had been taken advantage of by a family member.
Only in middle age, does Nancy contract an advantageous marriage with a well-to-do widower who appreciates her refined tastes. The two marry and she becomes the doting mother of one son who transforms her troubled personal life and leaves her content at life’s end.
Unwise Passions is a soap-opera page turner set among the household names of America’s founding fathers and supports that history isn’t necessarily dull and that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference and Local History Librarian at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.