The historical marker for Bizarre stands in the sidewalk in front of Poulston's TV and Appliance Store ("RCA 18 INCH SATELLITE DISH ONLY $500"), just across the Appomattox River from Farmville, Va. That's about two hours west of Richmond--10 hours if you're coming by horse-drawn carriage.

There's a snall law office across the road, which is Route 45, and an electrical-supply store alongside the parking lot. Every so often, says Billy Poulston, people pull into the lot and get out of their cars. "They take a picture of that historical marker," Poulston reports, "then get back into their cars and drive away."

As an officer of the Prince Edward County Historical Society, he is not surprised when, rather than motor on across the bridge into Farmville, people turn onto Plank Road, toward the fields and forests beyond. The historical marker notes only that Bizarre, a once-prominent tobacco plantation that has assumed a strange allure over the years, was "near here." To the true history buff, an equivocation like that represents a kind of challenge, if not a dare.

The old house burned in 1813, but strangers still poke around the woods in search of the foundation, graveyard or other evidence of its existence. Locals speculate that it was somewhere between Plank Road and the Appomattox, probably on one of the hills overlooking the river. Maps made by Union Army engineers indicate a "ruin location" between Plank Road and the river; aerial photographs by the Department of Agriculture almost a century later show nothing at all.

THE RANDOLPHS

AND OTHER GREAT FAMILIES

Drive down routes 1, 17 or 15 some Saturday or Sunday morning. Shun I-95, and once you're past Fredericksburg, the countryside opens up, and just beyond the fence rows and down shaded country lanes you will begin to see evidence of the great plantations and the complicated, often conflicted people who built them. A remarkable number of the great houses still stand and remain in private hands. Many, especially those along Route 5, which meanders from Richmond to Williamsburg, are magnificently polished gems from the Colonial period. Some, like Berkeley, Westover and Shirley, are open to the public. The docents at these mansions will talk of a Golden Age in which high-minded men like Washington and Jefferson and Madison worked selflessly to establish an Empire of Reason, then retired, Cincinnatus-like, to their serene country seats.

But the more adventurous traveler, or demanding amateur historian, will want to explore the more rugged country west and south of Richmond, out on Routes 6, 60 or 360, where the Founders' descendants made their last, desperate, perhaps indefensible stand against Progress. Here the great houses are frequently wood frame rather than brick. They are often less well maintained than those on the James River Plantation tours. Some have vanished altogether, as the families that built them fell on hard times and had to sell out as they slipped into middle-class anonymity. Over the years, their descendants have watched wistfully as the old mansions slowly deteriorated and the acreage around them was subdivided to make way for Dollar General Stores and fast-food franchises.

Others, like the plantation named Bizarre, were consumed by fires that now seem somehow all too conveniently symbolic of the fate of a class that lived off the labor of African slaves. Sometimes all that remains, on some field that once produced the finest tobacco in the New World, are barns where the slaves hung the leaf to dry and the quarters where they slept.

One family that rose and fell with the antebellum tobacco economy, that built Bizarre and watched it burn, was the once-mighty Randolphs. One of the most important families in America at the time of its founding, the Randolphs were to Virginia what the Adamses were to Massachusetts and the Roosevelts would be to New York--rich, socially prominent and politically fearsome.

The Randolphs amassed great wealth from tobacco, owned hundreds of slaves, built imposing mansions and produced generations of statesmen, generals and jurists. These included not only Edmund Randolph and Peyton Randolph but Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and Robert E. Lee, whose mothers were all Randolphs. They also produced, in 1774, Anne Cary "Nancy" Randolph, a high-spirited girl whose story I've been researching for several years for a book.

Nancy's is the story of a family and its fall in the midst of wrenching social upheaval. That anything at all remains of the places where she grew up, suffered and endured is remarkable. The resourceful investigator who is determined to discover something of that vanished world--in little-known places like Bizarre, and better-known ones like Tuckahoe and Monticello--will not be disappointed.

Birth of a ScandalJust as nobody knows precisely where Bizarre stood, nobody knows precisely what was going on there in the early 1790s, when all the gossip started. That's when Nancy Randolph, not yet 20, moved to the plantation to live with her big sister, Judith, and her sister's husband, Richard Randolph, who was the sisters' cousin.

Nobody knows why Bizarre was called what it was, a mystery that has endured for centuries. The Randolphs never said. When the architect Benjamin Latrobe visited the plantation in June 1796, he noted in his journal that it was a "French name, but not quite applicable to Mr. Richard Randolph's house at present for there is nothing bizarre about it that I can see." In French, "bizarre" originally meant valorous and only later took on the more sinister connotation of odd or fantastic that it has in English. Others through the years have speculated that the plantation was named for a wildflower that grows in the area, though even Virginia horticulture buffs seem never to have heard of such a plant.

In any case, the place will be remembered for Nancy Randolph alone, who seems an exotic enough specimen in her own right. Nancy was by every indication a fetching girl with a "little upturned nose," a gift for self-dramatization, remarkably little in the way of discretion, and oodles of sex appeal. Richard was a good-looking if somewhat directionless young man in his early twenties who had studied at Princeton and partied with the most sophisticated circles of Philadelphia society before coming home to Virginia to marry.

By the 1790s, when Nancy moved to Bizarre, the tobacco economy was collapsing and the way of life of the great Virginia slaveholding families had begun to disintegrate beneath their feet. Anti-slavery sentiment was building, and the confidence of an entire class was crumbling. Many of the young men and women Nancy grew up with would never recover from the blow.

Almost as soon as Nancy arrived at Bizarre, visitors began to say that she and Richard were "too fond" of one another, considering that he was married to her sister and was their cousin besides. By the summer of 1792, Nancy began to gain weight without explanation, making people even more suspicious of her relationship with Richard. It was in the fall, when Richard and Nancy visited their cousins at Glentivar Plantation, that all hell broke loose.

The house of Glentivar, about 30 miles northeast of Farmville, near what is now Cartersville, was unfinished when the Randolphs came to call, with a pile of shingles in the yard. The original house is no longer standing. It was dismantled during the Randolphs' lifetime, but don't tell that to the old folks who rattle around in the brick house that replaced it on the property.

"A terrible crime happened here," one of them told me not long back. "There was a baby murdered in this house. We wish everybody would just forget about it."

That's unlikely, considering what happened--or was said to have happened.

On the last night of September, when everybody at Glentivar had gone to bed, Nancy's screams woke the household, but Richard blocked entry to her room. After the screaming stopped, someone--everybody assumed it was Richard--hustled downstairs, left the house and, moments later, returned.

The next morning, there were bloodstains on the staircase and the bedclothes. After the Randolphs left, Glentivar field hands told their master that they had discovered something in the shingle pile: the corpse of a white baby.

Storied Plantations

Virginia is like that. Around the bend of almost every country road, just past the taxidermy shop and the abandoned filling station, there looms upon the hill a large and handsome plantation house with secrets it does not give up without a struggle.

Tuckahoe, where Nancy was born, is one such house. Off River Road about 10 miles west of Richmond, Tuckahoe was built around 1710. Thomas Jefferson, a boyhood friend of Nancy's father, grew up there. Built "solely to answer the purposes of hospitality," in the words of one English visitor, Tuckahoe was a showplace when Nancy lived there and remains one today.

The grounds are always open to visitors, and the house, with its beautiful walnut paneling, can be toured if you call first and make an appointment. The character of the house and surrounding grounds is so well preserved that film crews regularly take over the property. There they make feature films and television shows like CBS's "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," which starred Sam Neill and aired earlier this year.

Tuckahoe is also--those who have stayed there insist--conspicuously haunted. Shady ladies glide around its corridors, then disappear. A rocking chair is known to rock on its own, and invisible partygoers make merry in the middle of the night. An "unhappy bride" moves mournfully down the lane by the old stable.

It was not a happy place, certainly, when Nancy moved out from Tuckahoe and went to Bizarre. Her mother had died and her father had quickly married a rich family friend's very young daughter, despite the girl's objections. Nancy and her new stepmother quarreled from the start, and Nancy was kicked out. She went to live at Bizarre with her sister and brother-in-law. Things did not go much more smoothly at Bizarre. After the ghastly night at Glentivar, slaves began to spread the story of their grisly discovery, and--fed up with the Randolphs' high-handed ways--people of less exalted station put up a fuss.

As a result, in the spring of 1793, Nancy and Richard were ordered to appear at Cumberland Court House, located midway between Farmville and Cartersville, and accused of "feloniously murdering" their illegitimate child. (The brick courthouse at Cumberland that stands today, built between 1818 and 1821, replaced the frame structure in which the Randolph case was heard.)

While Richard was locked up in the Cumberland jail, Nancy was released into the custody of the Randolphs' lawyers, two other well-known names from the period: a robust young John Marshall and a frail Patrick Henry. When court met on April 29, 1793, witnesses included Thomas Jefferson's daughter Patsy, who had married Nancy's brother Tom. Patsy said that, before the trip to Glentivar, she had procured for Nancy a medicine called a gum guaiacum, known to "produce an abortion." Others testified that they had seen the defendants kiss. Some said they believed Nancy had been pregnant.

But because Virginia law prohibited slaves from testifying, there was no testimony from anyone who claimed to have seen the baby's corpse.

Charges against the Randolphs were dropped.

Back to Bizarre

That was hardly the end of the story. The Randolphs returned to Bizarre. There, three years later, at 26, Richard suddenly died, under circumstances that remain mysterious. Nancy and her sister, the now-widowed Judith, continued to live together, and--as Judith stewed over the evidence presented in court that Nancy and Richard may have been lovers, if not outright murderers--their relationship quickly deteriorated. Before long, Judith--who by now called Nancy "the blaster of my happiness"--was treating her like one of the servants.

One of the few times Nancy left Bizarre was in the summer of 1800 when she was allowed to visit her Jefferson cousins at Monticello, near Charlottesville. Monticello is well worth a visit, but when Nancy was there, it did not look like it does today any more than Williamsburg--where she used to stay at the St. George Tucker House--looked like it does now.

By the time of American independence, Williamsburg was already in decline, parts of it in ruins. When Nancy went to Monticello, she found the house in a "terrible state of dilapidation." Jefferson as usual was at work on the place, which resembled a construction site. Shortly after his death in 1826, the family labored under the debts he left them and had to strip the place and sell its furnishings. Eventually they sold Monticello, calling to mind Chesterton's observation that history consists less of "completed and crumbling ruins" than of "half-built mansions abandoned by bankrupt builders."

Money was also tight at Bizarre, especially after John Randolph--brother of Richard, cousin of Nancy, another storied member of the clan who is known to history as Randolph of Roanoke--began his notorious political career. After debating Patrick Henry at Charlotte Court House, located at the intersection of routes 40 and 47, he was elected to Congress, where he established a reputation as the wittiest orator in the Capitol. A historical marker describes the famous debate.

Convinced that Nancy had poisoned his beloved brother Richard, John also commenced a lifelong campaign against her. Shortly after his return from Washington in 1805, he told her she was no longer welcome at Bizarre. She had better leave quickly, he said, because she had been taking "as many liberties" at Bizarre as she would "in a tavern."

At 31, unmarried, penniless and reduced "to a condition of total despair," Nancy headed back home to Tuckahoe. The mansion was by now abandoned, so that first night Nancy used aspen boughs to make a pallet and tried to sleep. For the next several months, she shifted from plantation to plantation, before moving to Richmond. There she took a room in the house of a couple who ran a disreputable riverfront amusement park, near the site of the old Tredegar Iron Works, which manufactured cannons for the Confederate armies. During her time in Richmond, Randolph of Roanoke would claim, she supported herself by prostitution.

End of Everything

About the time Nancy left Richmond and headed for New York, John Randolph quarreled with Judith and moved to Roanoke Plantation, some 30 miles south in Charlotte County, off what is now Route 746. There, in a cluster of cabins that still stand on the grounds of a private residence, he existed between congressional sessions in a condition of "savage solitude." During this period, he described himself, with a certain perverse bravura, as a "poor, crazy moonstruck Southsider."

He made Roanoke his home until his death in 1833, and the boulder he selected to mark his grave still rests in the yard of a farmhouse that was built in later years. (Randolph's remains were later removed to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.) For much of this time, he read Byron, took opium and pursued his vendetta against Nancy, on whom Fortune suddenly seemed to smile.

One day, Nancy was visited at her 54 Greenwich St. boardinghouse in New York by the rich Gouverneur Morris, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and an old friend of her father's. Morris asked her to come to his Harlem River estate, called Morrisania, as his housekeeper. With no better prospects, Nancy took the job. Several months later, on Dec. 25, 1809, Morris shocked family members he had invited to Christmas dinner by having a clergyman present and marrying her on the spot.

As Nancy's prospects brightened, Judith and John's grew bleak. Bizarre burned, and Judith moved into a modest house, probably in Farmville on Main Street where the Walker Diner stands today. That's just across from where the old Farmville Hotel stood, until it collapsed during an ill-fated renovation attempt in 1964. The Randolph Shops were built on the site of the old hotel, surrounded by antiquated brick tobacco warehouses that today house the Green Front furniture stores.

The old hotel was where, in April 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would make his headquarters. From there he sent a message to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was camped out on Cumberland Road, now Route 45, near Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1754 and still holds Sunday services. Cumberland Presbyterian was also where Judith had been when Bizarre caught fire. In the message, Grant recommended that Lee's Army of Northern Virginia surrender. Two days later, on April 9, they met at Appomattox Court House and sealed the fate of the old slaveholding aristocracy in which Nancy's family had been so prominent.

Meanwhile, in New York

On Feb. 9, 1813, at Morrisania, Nancy gave birth to a son named Gouverneur Morris II. Randolph of Roanoke conspired with would-be heirs of the Morris fortune to destroy Nancy's marriage, but without effect. John wrote a much-circulated letter dredging up all the old scandals and adding a few new ones. Nancy had killed his brother, John charged, and was now plotting to kill Morris. She had been ordered off the plantation, he said, because she had taken one of the slaves as her lover. Nancy struck back with an equally caustic letter that was even more widely circulated, especially among Randolph of Roanoke's political enemies. She surely got the better of the exchange.

Nancy outlived Gouverneur Morris by more than 20 years and Randolph of Roanoke by four, dying in New York at Morrisania in 1837. In 1841, in her memory, her son erected St. Ann's Church on the grounds of the old Harlem River estate, which no longer exists. The old mansion was torn down years ago, making way for development of the South Bronx. A plaque in the east aisle of the church marks the place where Nancy is buried, though the parishioners today hardly seem to notice. St. Ann's sits in one of New York's roughest neighborhoods, serving a poor, largely black and Hispanic congregation with more urgent concerns.

Nancy never made it back to the Old Dominion, though she had been planning a trip home as late as 1816. These plans were canceled when her husband's fatal illness came on. Remembering how "every chord in my heart had burst asunder" when she first left Virginia, she had longed to see it again, perhaps to visit her sister Judith's grave at the old Tuckahoe cemetery.

Judith was the only one of Nancy's 12 siblings to be buried there. The others had long since gone their separate ways, and in 1830 Tuckahoe, like Monticello, would pass out of the hands of the once-proud, now debt-ridden family that built it.

Tourism officials can tell you how many thousands of people walk the grounds of these great houses and restored places like Williamsburg, and these places should be visited. Serious historians work to make the experience as rich as it can be for the casual tourist, and they are to be commended. They have made strides in recent years in their treatment of slavery.

But even the most conscientious docent will rarely volunteer stories like Nancy's, which is not as unusual as one might think. We know, for example, that a sister-in-law scandal almost identical to the Randolphs' was played out at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, involving Robert E. Lee's half-brother "Black Horse Harry" Lee. We also know that Patrick Henry used to chain up his insane wife in the basement of Scotchtown Plantation in Hanover County, and that in 1806 George Wythe was murdered at his Fifth and Grace Street home in Richmond, almost certainly by his own grandnephew.

Virginia's history is more complex than even some tour guides realize--and far more compelling.

Alan Pell Crawford is the author of "Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman--and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America" (Simon & Schuster). A resident of Richmond, he is a vice president of Emergence Brand Labs.

DETAILS: Nancy Randolph's Virginia

GETTING THERE: Richmond is about 100 miles south of Washington, down I-95 or U.S. 1, though it is also reachable by more scenic highways and back roads. By train, Amtrak takes about two hours and costs $60 round trip.

Tuckahoe Plantation, where Nancy Randolph was born and Judith Randolph was buried, is about 10 miles west of Richmond, at 12601 River Rd. To schedule a tour of the house, which is a private residence, call 804-784-5736. The grounds, which include spectacular gardens, are always open to the public. Admission: $7, or $2 for grounds only.

After visiting Tuckahoe, drive west on River Road until it joins Route 6. Follow Route 6 to Fork Union and turn south on U.S. 15, which will take you to Farmville, which was built on lots sold by the Randolph family on the south side of the Appomattox River. Bizarre, the main plantation, stood on the north side of the river, just across the Appomattox Bridge, which is at the end of Main Street.

When you cross the bridge, you are on Route 45. The historical marker for Bizarre Plantation is on the west side of Route 45 at Poulston's TV and Appliance Store. Locals say the plantation house at Bizarre was about a mile west on Plank Road, between the road and the river.

After visiting Bizarre, drive about 18 miles north on Route 45, passing Cumberland Presbyterian Church on the left, to Cumberland Court House, where the Randolph trial was held (in a building that preceded the current one).

Continue about 15 miles on Route 45 toward Cartersville. Glentivar Plantation, where the Randolphs were visiting when Nancy supposedly gave birth to Richard's baby, was one mile down Ampthill Road, on the southern outskirts of Cartersville. A two-story brick house with a fenced-in cemetery (for the family of the current owners) replaced the frame house at Glentivar.

At Cartersville, cross the James River and proceed on Route 45 to Georges Tavern. At this point, Route 45 meets Route 6, by which you can return to Richmond.

WHERE TO STAY: Richmond's many lodgings include the elegant Jefferson Hotel (800-424-8014; rates $169-$205) at 101 W. Franklin St. and, down the street, the less expensive but equally charming Linden Row Inn (804-783-7000; rates $89-$179) at 100 E. Franklin St.

WHERE TO EAT: The best restaurant in town may be the pricey Berkeley Hotel Dining Room at 1200 E. Cary St. (entrees from $21), but the Frog and the Redneck at 1423 E. Cary St., also in trendy Shockoe Slip, is popular as well.

In Farmville, enjoy lunch or dinner at Charley's Waterfront Cafe, overlooking the Appomattox River at 201-B Mill St., among old tobacco warehouses built on land that was once part of Bizarre Plantation. The tobacco warehouses are now home to Green Front Furniture Co. (316-318 N. Main St., www.greenfront.com), a sprawling 12-building furniture and Oriental rug emporium.

SIDE TRIPS: To reach Charlotte Court House, where John Randolph debated Patrick Henry, drive about 20 miles south on U.S. 15 from Farmville, pick up Route 40 and drive nine miles west. Roanoke Plantation, now a private residence, was about 15 miles southwest of Charlotte Court House, off Route 746 near the hamlet of Randolph. Red Hill Plantation, where Patrick Henry lived during his final years, is 18 miles southwest of the court house, off Route 619 in Brookneal. For more information about Red Hill: 804-376-2044, www.redhill.org.

Appomattox Court House, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, is about 15 miles west of Farmville off U.S. 460. For more information: 804-352-8987, www.nps.gov/apco.

INFO: Virginia Tourism Corp.,800-934-9184, www.virginia.org

--Alan Pell Crawford