“You slander my family. With God’s help I’ll dance in your blood you course, Presbyterian fellow!” Shortly after these angry words were shouted, a man lay dead on the floor of an out-of-the-way tavern in what was then Cumberland County, Virginia. Now a mere footnote in our local history, to be sure, but at the time this event and what would follow was one of the most talked-about sensations of the day.
It was June 1766 and the dead man was a transplanted Scotsman; a merchant and landowner by the name of Robert Routledge. He had lived in Virginia for only a short time. It was rumored he’d ridden with Charles Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in Scotland in 1745. By the 1760’s he seemed to be making his way in the world of Virginia but apparently to the chagrin of some of the more established men of the colony who saw him as nothing more than a common upstart. One man in particular would play an important role in this tale. His name was Colonel John Chiswell and it would be at the point of his own sword that Robert Routledge would meet his violent end.
Chiswell was born at Scotchtown in Hanover County. A member of the Virginia elite from birth, by 1766 he was living in a beautiful home in the capital city of Williamsburg. Due to a string of poor investments, though, Col. Chiswell found himself deeply in debt. He did, however, own an interest in a lead mine venture in the New River Valley, in the western portion of the colony. By all accounts, Chiswell was a rather arrogant man and accustomed to giving orders. In June 1766, he and some companions were riding east from the mines, heading for Williamsburg and home.
While slowly meandering through Cumberland County along what was then called the Middle Road (now US Route 60) the party decided to stop for the night at a road-side establishment, Mosby Tavern. Built by Benjamin Mosby in 1740, the tavern was well-known to westward bound travelers of the day. In the 19th Century the place would also be familiar to Benjamin Mosby’s kinsman, the Confederate guerrilla chieftain John Singleton Mosby. Privately owned, the old tavern still stands along Route 60 in what is now Powhatan County.
The story goes that Mr. Routledge and Col. Chiswell knew one another. Not companions by any stretch but they certainly were acquainted. Later that evening in Mosby’s taproom both men dined separately with friends and downed numerous tankards of Rum. And, as is normally the case, the alcohol soon began to take effect as the evening wore on. From the eyewitness accounts we know that Col. Chiswell, in his jubilance regarding the hoped-for success of his lead mine enterprise, became a little loud and boisterous. He began to swear or to “utter certain oaths”, happy in the prospects of his impending wealth.
Apparently Robert Routledge took umbrage at the remarks and took the colonel to task for “swearing and talking as you do among such good company”. To Col. Chiswell, Routledge was certainly not a member of the Virginia gentry. He was a commoner, an upstart and certainly no one to correct his speech or instruct him on the proper discourse of a gentleman. Tempers began to flare and soon the men were standing in the middle of the taproom, on legs made wobbly from the drink. Routledge suddenly raised his tankard and threw liquor onto the face and clothes of Chiswell. The Virginian exploded in a rage and called for his sword. He ordered Routledge to depart from the room! “You are not worthy to appear in such company. If you do not get out immediately I’ll kill you!
What happened next is a bit murky and accounts from those present that evening tend to differ. Some say that Routledge, in a spirit of friendship, attempted to assuage the anger of the man standing before him. He moved forward, his arms raised in hopes of placating Chiswell. In response, they say Col. Chiswell ran Routledge through with his sword, murdering the Scotsman in cold blood.
But John Chiswell would tell a different tale. It was his claim that Routledge was drunk, which he most likely was, and in moving towards him apparently stumbled over his own feet. Stumbling forward, according to Chiswell, Routledge accidently fell onto the colonel’s sword! It was not murder, he claimed, but purely a tragic accident.
John Chiswell was arrested and later remanded to the General Court in Williamsburg for trial. In cases of possible homicide, it was not the court’s custom to grant bond (bail). However, three of the court’s justices took an interest in the question of bond. After questioning Colonel Chiswell and the Cumberland bailiff who escorted him to Williamsburg, and discussing the matter with the eminent legal minds of the colony, including George Wythe, the justices determined that bond should be granted and Col. John Chiswell was allowed to await his day in court in the comfort of his own home.
This case promised to be the “Trial of the Century”. It was known and discussed throughout the colony and especially so in Williamsburg. Many residents there considered the episode to be scandalous. They believed a wealthy man was getting away with murder. It was so scandalous that for months local newspapers printed stories accusing the justices of showing partiality to an arrogant, wealthy man due only to his social status. Chiswell was under de facto house arrest as crowds gathered daily in front of his home in protest. The fact that the justices in this case, William Byrd, III, Presley Thornton, and John Blair, were all companions and even business associates of the accused, only made matters worse.
Mysteriously in October 1766, before the case could come to trial, Col. John Chiswell was found dead in his home. It was suspected that, not having the strength to endure the scandal and the scrutiny of his fellow citizens, Chiswell took his own life. The coroner’s report, however, simply stated that John Chiswell died from “nervous fits, owing to a constant uneasiness of the mind.” It should be noted that the Coroner was also a companion of Col. Chiswell.
With suicide suspected, the Chiswell family was not allowed to bury the deceased colonel in the graveyard at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. Instead, the body was taken by cart to the place of his birth, back to Scotchtown in Hanover County. The colonel’s daughter was abiding there at the time. But John Chiswell would not rest in peace even after arriving at the beautiful home he knew as a child, or not yet anyway. Fearing that he had possibly posed his own death as a means of avoiding trial and the gallows, the family and friends of Robert Routledge gathered in the yard of Scotchtown and awaited the arrival of the body. They insisted the coffin be opened, much to the heart-felt agony of the widow, so that the body could be positively identified as that of Col. Chiswell. It was so identified; as a matter of fact, one of the men there that day and who recognized the visage of Chiswell was the future owner of Scotchtown himself, Patrick Henry. Mr. Henry noted afterwards that the skin on the face of Chiswell had turned black, a sure sign of arsenic.
It was a scandalous and sensational story and certainly the “OJ Simpson Case” of its day. Most people of colonial Virginia knew of it and yet, today, the story is not very well known at all. How many other stories like this one are out there, waiting to be discovered?