I don’t usually review nonfiction books, but this one was simply too marvelous to ignore. Alan Crawford writes a terrifically engaging book about Nancy Randolph (1774-1837), a woman who was reviled in her own time, but managed to comport herself with a quiet dignity despite the traumas of her life. I suppose the review below contains spoilers, but much of this information is given in the blurb of the book. The real fascination of the book is not “what happens next” so much as the fabulous character study written by historian Alan Crawford.
Nancy was born into the famous Randolph family, one of the first families of Virginia. When she was seventeen years old, Nancy made the mistake that would haunt her for the rest of her life. It appears that she became pregnant by her brother-in-law, Richard, and tried to conceal the pregnancy. She became listless, ill, withdrawn, and some noted that she appeared to be gaining weight. One night in particular she was taken violently ill, and she allowed only Richard into her room to tend her. Several days later, the body of a newborn baby boy was found on the property.
Nancy and Richard were both put on trial for murder. They hired the best lawyer in the country, Patrick Henry, who mounted a successful defense and the pair were found “not guilty.” Despite the court’s verdict, both Nancy and Richard were ostracized by society, as the pair were widely assumed to be guilty. In all likelihood, the child was indeed Nancy’s baby, and whether he was born dead or died from exposure will never be known. Richard Randolph died of natural causes a few years later, but rumor once again lashed out to strike Nancy, who was accused of poisoning her brother-in-law and partner in crime.
The next decades were fraught with more tragedy, as Nancy’s list of relatives who were willing to take her in dwindled and then she disappears from the historical record. Rumors abounded, including life as a thief and prostitute.
Nancy returns to the historical record when she became a housekeeper for Gouverneur Morris, a man who helped draft the Constitution of the United States and was also one of the wealthiest men in America. She eventually married Morris, and finally found physical safety, although she remained secluded on his estate rather than face a society which still scorned her.
The book is an interesting read, with all the makings of a modern day soap opera, but it is a thought-provoking morality tale. Would Gouverneur Morris, a member of congress and a founding father of the young nation, stoop to marrying a woman of no honor? What does Nancy’s life tell us about the role of forgiveness, redemption, and salvation?
There are no real answers to those questions in the book, but it makes for thought-provoking reading. I truly admire Alan Crawford’s ability to breathe life into history.