One of our Colonial Houses, the Chiswell-Bucktrout House, is believed to be haunted. Guests have reported feeling cold spots, hearing voices, and smelling sweet tobacco. The strange phenomena could be tied to the mysterious death of Col. John Chiswell, but they may go much deeper. They may include… murder.
When I was researching some information about Chiswell, I came across a great story involving the colonel and some—shall we say—unsavory business. It turns out Chiswell got into a verbal exchange with a man named Robert Routledge in Cumberland County in 1766. Some say Chiswell grabbed a sword, impaled Mr. Routledge, and said, “He deserves his fate, damn him. I aimed at his heart and I have hit it.”( Others say Routledge simply fell on the sword). Routledge was dead either way.
Chiswell was arrested and what happened next was pure scandal.
The justices remanded Chiswell to the General Court right here in Williamsburg where he was denied bail just like everyone else accused of such a crime. But thanks to Chiswell’s friends William Byrd III; Presley Thornton; and John Blair—he was able to secure bail. The story says the three men, who were also judges, never saw the records of the crime and only spoke with a sheriff and Chiswell’s lawyer about what happened in Cumberland County. After speaking with George Wythe, John Randolph, and Edmund Pendleton, the trio of judges secured bail for Chiswell. The colony was outraged. A man accused in the death of another was shown favoritism!
Some took to the Gazette to express their anger, even suggesting Routledge’s friends seek revenge.
While out on bail, Chiswell left town, but returned to his home on Francis Street in Williamsburg not long before his trial. Just weeks later, however, Chiswell would be found dead in the home. His death was said to be a suicide, brought about by “a constant uneasiness of mind.”
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! —tear up the planks! here, here! —It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator describes killing a man and then hearing the beating of his heart over and over and over until it drove him to confession. Was Chiswell a victim of his own conscience? Did he kill himself because he couldn’t stand the thought of hanging from the gallows at the hands of the General Court? The General Court had already shown him favor, who’s to say it wouldn’t do it again and he would be acquitted of killing Routledge?
In another morbid twist, people showed up at the site of his funeral, Scotchtown, and demanded to see his corpse to be ensure he was indeed dead. They figured because they couldn’t trust the justice system, there may have been a conspiracy to fake the man’s death so he could escape.
They were satisfied to find him in the coffin.
Only Chiswell knows for sure what happened with Routledge and with his own death. And he may still be roaming the halls of his former home waiting to share his story.
You can learn more about this mysterious tale during our Murder or Misfortune? The Tragic Death of Robert Routledge program. Click here for more information.