13 September 2011

Alan Pell Crawford. Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman -- and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth Century America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

photo from Simon & Schuster

These days, celebrity gossip is everywhere, whether we want it or not. An entire industry (think tabloids, public relations firms, TMZ, E!, even your local weekly) is centered around what goes on in the lives of the famous, and the definition of “famous” is forever changing (one word: Snooki). Love it or hate it, society seems to have an indelible appetite for it (and truthfully, I think that some celebrities enjoy the publicity. Obviously Charlie Sheen is winning!). Luckily for those of us who enjoy it, there are plenty of scandals going around to keep us happy – at least until the next big story.

Nearly two hundred twenty years ago, the big scandal that had everyone talking occurred right here in Southside Virginia.
A young woman was said to have given birth to her brother-in-law’s child and then, with his help, murdered it. The act was not necessarily as important as the players in this scene. Anne Cary Randolph – one of the Randolphs of Virginia – was accused of seducing her sister Judith’s husband, Richard Randolph. People were outraged at the rumored injustice. In the interest of restoring honor to his name as well as to Nancy’s, Richard turned himself in to the court at Cumberland Court House. With Patrick Henry as his attorney, Richard was absolved of the charges.

Although Richard’s reputation may have been cleared, Nancy’s was most certainly not. When Richard died three years later, she was left to be the sole surviving participant in the scandal – and truly the only person who really knew what happened. Gossip surrounded and followed her no matter where she went. Not only was she called an adulteress and a murderess, Nancy was also accused of carrying on a romantic relationship with a slave named Billy in addition to poisoning Richard. That she and her sister, Judith, had a contemptuous relationship did not help Nancy’s situation. In fact, few Randolph’s came to her defense. Perhaps the most disdainful was John Randolph of Roanoke who, as Richard’s brother, was highly suspicious of Nancy but felt responsible for his brother’s family. When he forced her out of Bizarre, the Randolph plantation outside of Farmville, Nancy entered a destitute period. Only later, when she was in her thirties and tending to a Founding Father’s home, did Nancy find genuine happiness.

Gouverneur Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned out to be Nancy’s saving grace. Very wealthy and attentive to her, Morris gave little mind to what people said about Nancy (yes – more than twenty years later, the scandal followed her). At this point, John Randolph of Roanoke’s career in politics was over, his fortune had dwindled, and he drank alcohol and used opium heavily. He still held Nancy responsible for Richard’s damaged legacy and death, and seeing her so satisfied upset him to the point of initiating an all-out campaign against her. As with every aspect of her life, Nancy was resilient and fought back to clear her name.

And we think Britney Spears has it bad!

Find Unwise Passions in the Charlotte County Library catalog.

Have you read Unwise Passions? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

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