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Col. John Chiswell
 1710 - 1766

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  • Title  Col. 
    Birth  Abt 1710 
    Gender  Male 
    Will  23 Jun 1766  Written in Augusta Co., VA
    Died  17 Oct 1766  Williamsburg, VA
    Will  6 Nov 1766  Probated in Augusta Co., VA
    Person ID  I043755  Herring
    Last Modified  29 Jan 2010 08:49:32 
    Father  Charles Chiswell, b. Abt 1678, Hanover Co., VA 
    Mother  Esther 
    Family ID  F022592  Group Sheet
    Family  Elizabeth Randolph, b. 12 Oct 1715 
    Married  19 May 1736 
    >1. Elizabeth Chiswell, b. 24 May 1737
    >2. Susanna Randolph Chiswell, b. 1740, Williamsburg, VA
    >3. Mary Chiswell, b. Abt 1748, Hanover Co., VA
    >4. Lucy Chiswell, b. 3 Aug 1752
    Family ID  F021182  Group Sheet
  • Notes 
    • To John Chiswell there hangs a tale--a weird, sensational tale. He was defendant in one of the most interesting murder trials of that or any other period. He killed Robert Routledge, a Scotch gentleman, in Cumberland County; the County Court refused to give him bail, but William Byrd, John Blair and Presley Thornton, well known members of the Virginia aristocracy--that close corporation to which Chiswell belonged--and members also the General Court, overruled the dictum already issued, and did bail Mr. Chiswell. His bond was 2,000 and theirs 1,000 apiece.

      For their action the members of the General Court were bitterly attacked. We give the opinions of Chiswell's friends and Chiswell's enemies. Both constitute valuable commentaries on the feelings of the day.

      The Rev. John Camm, then professor at William and Mary College, in a letter to a friend, written at the time, says: "Colonel Chiswell has committed a murder on the body of one Mr. Routledge. He was sent down by the examining court to take his trial in Williamsburg. Instead of his being lodged in jail, three judges of the General Court, led to it, no doubt, by Chiswell's connections, out of session, have carried their power so far as to stop him in his way to prison and admit him to bail, which is like, as well it might, to put the whole country into ferment."

      It did put the country into ferment. The circumstances were these, colored to suit their fancy by adherents of both sides of the question:

      On the night of June 3, 1766, Chiswell and Routledge were in the dancing-room of the tavern at Cumberland Courthouse. Colonel Chiswell was talking in an important manner, and somewhat liberal of oaths. Routledge gave a word of reproof. Chiswell then asked him if he ever swore. "Yes," answered Routledge, "by all the gods." "You fool!" said Chiswell, "there is but one." More heated conversation followed, and Colonel Chiswell called Routledge a "fugitive rebel" and a "Presbyterian fellow." Routledge had been drunk three times that day, and he was in no state of mind to stand anything. He snatched a glass of wine from the table and threw it in Chiswell's face.

      This was an indignity that a man of honor had to resent, and Colonel Chiswell picked up a bowl of "bumbo" for Routledge's face; but some friends prevented him. Then he seized a candlestick for the same purpose, which was also defeated. Then he tried to hurl a pair of tongs, but these also were wrested from him. Enraged and baffled, he ordered his servant to go to his room and bring his sword.

      The testimony for and against Chiswell varies somewhat. Mr. John Blair deposed:

      "That it was a most unhappy drunken affair and very culpable, yet there was no malice prepense. That the first assault was from the deceased, who threw a glass of wine in Colonel Chiswell's face, both much in liquor, which was returned with the bowl of punch; and so assaults on both sides were reiterated until Routledge took a chair to knock Chiswell down; on which he sent his man for his sword; but when brought to him naked he got his back to the wall and stood on his defense, pointing it out and calling several times to take Routledge out of the room; that accordingly one was taking him out of the room, and two men seized Chiswell's sword arm, and held it so strongly that it was impossible for him to move; that Routledge broke from the man that was carrying him out and rushed upon the sword that was pointed out, and was thus killed."

      These accounts in Chiswell's favor and against him may be found in the Virginia Gazettes of June and July, 1766. A very irate person, who signs himself "Dikephilos," announces that Chiswell's friends would prevent the truth being published; but he, bent upon justice, gives his impression in a three-column letter, with diagram of the room in which Routledge was killed, with letters to denote every movement of the contending gentlemen.

      The servant brought the sword, for his master assured him that he would kill him if he did not. Colonel Chiswell, taking the deadly weapon, swore that he would kill anybody who came near him. Then, in an imperious tone, he ordered Routledge from the room. Routledge was "desirous of remaining, and, hickuping, said that he had no ill will against Colonel Chiswell, and that he was sure Colonel Chiswell would not hurt him with his sword; and when some of the company proposed that Routledge should be carried off and put to bed, others said he ought not to be carried out, as he was not the intruder." Mr. Joseph Carrington attempted to take Routledge out, and Colonel Chiswell moved cautiously along the wall towards him, abusing Routledge roundly. While Mr. Carrington searched his pockets for a key to a room in which he proposed to put Routledge to bed, Colonel Chiswell continued his abuse, reiterating his opprobrious epithet, "Presbyterian fellow," and Routledge became enraged again, broke from Mr. Carrington, and ran towards the table near which Colonel Chiswell stood. Colonel Chiswell went instantly forward, and with his sword, or hanger, which was about two feet long, stabbed him through the heart across the table." Mr. Thomas Swann was near by, and the sword in its way passed through his coat near the extremity of the third buttonhole from the bottom.

      A gentleman tried to stay Colonel Chiswell's arm, but immediately Colonel Chiswell told him it was too late, adding, "He is dead, and I killed him." Mr. Routledge sank down in the arms of Mr. Carrington and expired.

      Colonel Chiswell, unruffled, handed his sword to his servant, bade him clean it carefully with tallow, lest it rust, and added defiantly, "He deserves his fate, damn him. I aimed at his heart, and I have hit it." Then he ordered a bowl of toddy, drank freely, and became somewhat intoxicated before the arrival of the justice of the peace. This is the testimony of Routledge's side. "Dikephilos" thinks it natural that gentlemen of Colonel Chiswell's class should attempt to save a man of Colonel Chiswell's "figure," but he appeals to the public for justice. It is the beginning of a mass against class, of a clarion call to justice, unmindful of estate. "Philanthropos," on the 22d of August, 1766, in a fiery letter cries to the people: "Take heed what ye do, for ye judge not for man, but the Lord! Be strong, deal courageously, and the Lord shall be with you." It is indeed mass against class. This is testimony for Routledge.

      The testimony of Colonel Chiswell's friends was contradictory. They differed materially from "Dikephilos," "Philanthropos," etc. They were Mr. Wythe, William Byrd, Ousley Thornton, John Blair, Thomas Mann Randolph, Richard Randolph, and many others.

      Colonel Chiswell, "they affirmed," did order his sword, which was brought; he did order Routledge out of the room; he did call him "Presbyterian fellow" and "Scotch rebel;" he did hold his sword naked in his hand, but he did not advance, and Mr. Littlebery Mosby and Mr. Jacob Mosby had him so fast that he could not move the sword. But Mr. Routledge, who had been delivered by Mr. Joseph Carrington to a slave at the door, got so enraged at Chiswell's calling him "fellow" that he himself rushed upon the point of the sword. Chiswell did say "I have killed him," because he felt him upon the point of the sword which no other man could know. Virginia was shaken by the circumstances, contemporaneous papers bristled with it, the people awaited breathlessly for the decision of a case which would show how far an aristocrat could withstand the law--how far the law and public opinion agreed. Colonel Chiswell was first put in jail, where he preserved a careless and dignified demeanor, inquired after Colonel Swann, whose button hole his sword has pierced, and awaited developments which were somewhat unpopular owing to the decision of the three members of the General Court--Byrd, Thornton and Blair--to have him bailed.

      On the 12th day of September this potential announcement appeared in the Williamsburg Gazette, "Yesterday Afternoon Colonel John Chiswell Arrived in Town." The trial was near. This gentleman went as usual to his house, which still stands in Williamsburg. In October the trial was going on. Some witness swore that "it was out of Chiswell's power to advance--Routledge had cast himself upon the point of the sword"; others that Chiswell had cried, "So would I kill fifty others for the same offense." Joseph Carrington affirmed that "Routledge, stung at something Chiswell said, darted at him," and so it went. The people sneered at the partisanry of the Randolphs, Mr. Byrd and others.

      The State was in a tense condition. The feeling for and against Colonel Chiswell was growing each way. He himself, intelligent and thoughtful, felt the tremendous consequences of his rash deed, and on October 14, 1766, he killed himself at his own house at Williamsburg. This notice came out in the Gazette of October 17, (???):

      "On Wednesday last, about eleven o'clock in the afternoon, died at his house in this city, Colonel John Chiswell, after a short illness. The cause of his death by the judgment of the physicians upon oath were nervousness, owing to a constant uneasiness of the mind."

      Blessed old Gazette! Throwing a veil of charity over an unfortunate deed, scorning to pander to vitiated tastes by dwelling upon a circumstance which would have been a dainty tidbit for our yellow journals--a tidbit to be shredded and chewed. Instead it merely announces the death of a distinguished and rashly impulsive gentleman, and calls suicide a "nervous fit owing to a constant uneasiness of the mind"--a very nice diagnosis.

      Son of Charles Chiswell, was for a number of years one of the most prominent men in the colony. He was burgess from Hanover county from 1744 to 1755, when he removed to Williamsburg and represented the city in 1756, 1757 and 1758. He engaged actively in lead and iron mining, and in 1752 operated a furnace for the manufacture of iron five miles south of Fredericksburg. In 1757 he discovered the New river lead and zinc mines, about which time Fort Chiswell, a few miles distant, was erected and named for him. In 1766 he got into a quarrel at a tavern in New Kent with a Scotch gentleman named Robert Routledge, in the course of which Routledge was killed. He was arrested and sent by the examining justices to Williamsburg to await trial. But on his way thither he was released on bail, out of term time, by three of the judges of the general court. His prosecutor was chosen in the prevailing custom by lot, and it fell to John Blair Jr., an intimate friend, to conduct the case against him, but the suicide of Colonel Chiswell at his home on Francis street, in the city of Williamsburg, prevented any trial. His residence in the city is still standing. He married Elizabeth Randolph, daughter of William Randolph, of Turkey Island.

      Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Volume I
      IV--Burgesses and Other Prominent Persons


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