Old Town's historic Carlyle House was the scene of a murder Saturday night when Woodward Randolph Wofart, the founder of a prosperous wagon and wine import-export business and a notorious womanizer, was struck down by an assassin's bullet during a party.
But guests in black tie not only celebrated Wofart's demise by eating hors d'oeuvres and dancing under the stars, they paid $50 apiece just to see the murder take place and guess the culprit's identity. The murder and appetizers were both part of the Carlyle House's "Murder Mystery Party," held to raise money for its educational programs.
About 125 people spent the evening playing amateur sleuths in the historic house and gardens to discover who had murdered Wofart, played by Frank Slate.
Slate was one of 15 actors decked out in authentic 18th century dress for the event. The actors are members of the Living History Foundation, a locally organized group with more than 200 members who study 18th century American history and culture and then reenact everyday 18th century life and historical events at area museums and historic sites.
The evening began on the mansion's front lawn, where the characters, while chatting with guests, weaved a story about Wofart, his family, his infidelities and his shady business dealings. Guests, knowing a murder would take place but not knowing who would be murdered, took the clues and tried to determine who among the characters would want to kill whom.
Later in the evening, on the garden terrace, a shot rang out and the actor playing Wofart tumbled to the ground and pretended to be dead.
Now that the victim had been determined, vignettes took place in the house involving the various suspected characters. These provided party-goers with further clues. Finally, guests wrote down who they thought the murderer was.
"I think Mrs. Williams did it," said Melissa Latta, a resident of Alexandria. "Her son died in an accident on one of Wofart's ships, she's who I'll vote for."
It seemed that each of the 14 suspects had motives for putting Wofart six feet under.
Some guests thought it was his wife, Willamina. "I had every reason to do him in," agreed Willamina, played by Kerry Holmes-DeHaven. "He's been carrying on with two other women, both of whom are at this party, one with a wee Wofart in the womb!"
But others thought it was Wofart's son, Willie, in cahoots with his wife, Wendy. Several of the characters concurred that Willie had been counting the days until he got control of his father's business and Wendy was counting the dollars they would get in inheritance.
In the end, though, the murderer was Wofart's business partner, Harold Hinkle, played by Robert Williams. Alexandria lawyer Clayton Tasker and his wife, Elizabeth, who is a docent at the house, were two of seven who guessed the murderer's identity. "He just kept avoiding my questions," Tasker said of the suspect.
Prizes for guessing the murderer's identity included a tea for two at a historic Alexandria home, gift certificates to the museum shop and an area department store and a selection of books on historic Alexandria.
Rosalind Bovey, a longtime Alexandria resident and an aide to Alexandria Council member William C. Cleveland, guessed incorrectly but thought the fund-raiser was a success. "This type of event fits the personality of Old Town. There are a lot of people here who are interested in local history," she said. "And for the museum, this type of fund-raiser is a good idea. Nonprofits are having to raise more funds for themselves because the government is cutting back" on its funding.
Latta and her date, Butch Weathers, weren't upset that they guessed incorrectly. "We came because the idea of a murder mystery party intrigued us," said Weathers. "And we're really enjoying it. The characters have really done their homework."
"Only the murderer knew he was the one," said Holmes-DeHaven. "We had no idea who it was -- it made it more realistic that way."
"It's important for us to know our characters," said Belinda Hayes, who played Wendy Wofart. "By acting and dressing this way, we educate people about what life was like then."
"The other reason is to help museums like Carlyle House raise funds," added Peter Ryan, the group's founder, who played William Wofart.
The murder mystery party was the first fund-raiser held by the museum since it opened in 1976.
Julia Claypool, administrator of the museum, said a cut in funding and a greater financial need by museums meant that about 5 percent of the museums that usually receive funding went without this year.
"We've received about $14,000 in federal funds each year for the last eight, but this year, we lost out to the competition," she said.
Claypool estimated that last weekend's party raised about $2,500. "We'll definitely have others," she said. "These events not only raise money, but are good to broaden our base in the community."
Built in 1752 by Scottish merchant John Carlyle, the house is the only colonial manor open to the public in Alexandria.
In 1970, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority purchased the property and restored it.
"This party's been a lot of fun," said Alexandria resident Lisa Heideman, who guessed the murderer's identity and won a book.
"Just for a few minutes to immerse yourself in 18th century history is seductive," she said.