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January 21, 2020

From Our Archives – A Letter from John Wickham

In 1799,  John Wickham wrote this letter to Mutual Assurance regarding “the Act of Assembly papers in the year 1794 for establishing a Mutual Assurance Company”. He goes on to write an opinion on whether the “ground on which an insured building stands, as well as the building itself, is subject to be sold in order to raise the quota which the proprietor ought to pay in cases of loss by fire.

” The question is whether or not the land has to be sold in this case if the building has been destroyed by fire or if it is considered a separate entity. Wickham presents an interesting argument in this letter though some may not be able to read the cursive writing. No one can deny it is a beautiful example of penmanship from that era.

Who was John Wickham?

John Wickham was born in Cutchogue, New York and was a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War.  Wickham’s father, an “obnoxious” loyalist, urged him to leave the colonies and go to England to live with family following his run-in with local authorities in Williamsburg.

According to the William & Mary Law Library, Wickham often carried dispatches from New York to the British commandant in Charleston, SC and it was from there he was to take a ship to England. He was stopped and arrested by Colonial authorities with the papers in his possession but was able to use his influence and connections to escape prosecution.

Following the war, Wickham attended the law school at William and Mary where he became a close friend of John Marshall, later the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. Wickham moved to Richmond after graduation and worked as an attorney helping British merchants collect debts owed to them. He is one of the very few Loyalists who came to prominence in post-war America. We are certain the letter pictured was written on behalf of a client wanting clarification on his liability coverage with Mutual Assurance Society.

Wickham is best known for representing Aaron Burr in his treason trial in 1807. Though Thomas Jefferson wished otherwise, Burr was found innocent. It may have helped that Wickham’s friend, John Marshall, was the presiding judge.

In addition to being a lawyer, Wickham also bred racehorses. He lost his best horse, Boston, in a card game, however, after which the horse went on to become one of the best racehorses of his era. Wickham also fathered 19 children. Two with his first wife, and 17 with his second. He died at a very advanced age for that time, 75 in 1839.

The Valentine Museum of History is located in John Wickham’s home in downtown Richmond.

Sources: Wikipedia and W&M Wythepedia