The Mysterious Gone Girl: She left and never returned
March 14, 2020
Was Theodosia Burr Alston lost at sea, or does she occupy the grave signified as Female Stranger?
On December 31, 1812, a young woman bade farewell to off-seers, walked up the gangplank of The Patriot, en route from Georgetown, SC to New York. The boat sailed to the edge of the horizon and no one ever saw her again.
The same events may have happened to several women at that time in early American history—women getting on boats or other conveyances and disappearing. We hope not, but it was a dangerous time for women to travel. What made this event unique was that the woman was famous. She was from high circles in society and the daughter of Aaron Burr, Theodosia.
The reason she was traveling to New York was to meet up with her father who was returning from exile in Europe. Theodosia’s husband could not accompany her, so her husband asked a man known only in history as Dr. Green to chaperone her on the voyage. He did.
Now, I never could warm up to Aaron Burr, third vice-president of the United States, because of what he did to Alexander Hamilton. He was convinced his sometimes political rival, Hamilton, had insulted his name. He seized the opportunity to challenge him to a duel, then, killed him–dead. Problem solved.
Theodosia’s own mother, also of that name, had been brought up in a home where many of our forefathers were lavishly entertained on a regular basis. Even George Washington had attended social events there. The younger Theodosia was used to these types of events and carried on the tradition.
When Theo was barely 14, she became mistress of her the Burr estate on Manhattan. When she was of age she married Joseph Alston who would later become governor of South Carolina. Even though her father had been tried for treason and banished to Europe, Theodosia remained loyal to him and worked on his behalf to orchestrate his return.
They had such a deep bond, and she so idolized him that there had even been unfounded hints of incest from the gossipy. Theodosia lost her only child, a five-year-old son, to malaria earlier in 1812. Because of the horrible depression that followed, those close to Theodosia thought the trip to New York to see her returned father would do her some good.
The Patriot never made dock in New York. Aaron Burr was hopeful that there was some delay due to weather or other conditions. After a few days, then a week went by it was clear something was dreadfully wrong. Where was The Patriot? Where was Theodosia?
There are several theories as to what could have possibly happened:
The Patriot was possibly lost at sea during wicked storms that pummeled Cape Hatteras on January 12-13, 1813. No evidence of the shipwrecked schooner was ever coughed up, from then until now.
The war of 1812 was still being waged along the Atlantic Coast. The Patriot had been a privateer, but had been stripped of its war equipment and converted to a passenger-cargo schooner. Had it been sunk by a warship along the Atlantic—by mistake? Neither side fessed-up to sinking it.
Pirates may have attacked the ship. Two pirates admitted that their crews had attacked The Patriot. One of the rascals described how they boarded the ship, forced the passengers and crew in the hold, removed all the valuables and sank the ship.
His story was debunked because he got many of the details wrong, including weather conditions. The other rascal claimed they had made Theodosia walk the plank and she did so bravely, clutching her Bible. This is hardly believable because Theodosia was not known to be that religious.
Is Theodosia Burr Alston buried in a mysterious grave at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia? Does she occupy the grave signified by Female Stranger? It is said that a man and woman came to Alexandria in 1816. The woman was very ill and they were searching for a doctor.
They would not give out any information about themselves. The woman died and was buried there. Did Dr. Green and Theodosia run off together? Dr. Green is described as a physician in some texts and as a man with medical knowledge in others. If either, why would they need to find another doctor? There are some holes in this scenario.
Another odd tale surfaced fifty years after Theodosia’s disappearance. It is a tantalizing tale: a Dr. Poole was vacationing in Nags Head, North Carolina in 1869. He was called upon to do some emergency doctoring and the couple paid him for his services with a handsome portrait.
The man who offered the portrait was a fisherman who had pulled the portrait from the remains of a shipwreck that had happened during the war of 1812. Intrigued by the portrait, Poole did research on it and thought he determined the artist, John Vanderlyn. There is a rumor that Theodosia had commissioned this portrait to take to her father and had it with her onboard The Patriot.
Perhaps the most far-fetched but romantic tale of all involves a Native American in Texas, a Karankawa brave. In 1813, the brave found a splintered ship at the mouth of Rio San Bernardo. When he eased his way on board, through debris and bodies, he heard the faint cries of a woman.
He recognized the language as English and he followed them to the source—a small white woman with her ankle chained to the bulkhead. The brave had learned some English from a hermit and could decipher her story. Her ship had been taken over by pirates and she had been captured off Cape Hatteras. The Pirates set out on a voyage to Galveston. She was the lone survivor of a bad storm.
She gave a locket around her neck to the brave and told him to give it to her people. She knew she was dying. She was then buried near the mouth of the San Bernard. Some of the people who had glimpsed the locket and seen the inside image of a mother and son knew it had to the locket of the famously-missing Theodosia. In fact, the name Theodosia was engraved on the back.
There is still no definite answer to the mystery. Theodosia Burr Alston was a political celebrity of her time—of the highest magnitude. She was educated, intelligent and loyal, described as dark-eyed and distinguished-looking. Will we ever know what became of her?
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of true stories about the mysterious and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.