She haunts the waves
Did Theodosia Burr Alston leap to her death while traveling aboard the schooner Patriot in 1813 after being overcome by pirates or was she a victim of her own madness years later? Theodosia, or Theo as she was more commonly known, was the daughter of Aaron Burr, the vice president under Thomas Jefferson and crack shot duelist who killed Alexander Hamilton. Boarding the Patriot on New Year’s Eve, 1812, on route to visit her father after the death of her own young son, Theo’s full story is still a mystery.
Young, beautiful, and highly accomplished, Theo was the only child of the Burrs. After her mother passed away, Theo assumed the role as hostess to her father’s estate at Richmond Hall in Albany, New York while he navigated the rough waters of politics. Devoted to Burr, Theo was an excellent companion and charmed men easily, including the man her father was to eventually kill over an argument, Hamilton. In 1880, she met and fell in love with Joseph Alston. The two were married a year later and she moved with him to South Carolina to his family plantation, “The Oaks.”
As she made her home among the heat and humidity of the unfamiliar southern climate, Theo’s life began to tear at the edges. A difficult labor brought their beloved son, Aaron Burr Alston, into their lives but had left her weak and unable to cope with the demands of motherhood. Depression began to cloud her days. Joseph’s successful bid to become governor of South Carolina burdened her even further and her health weakened. Struggling to excel at both her family obligations and her new role as the First Lady of South Carolina, the pressure began to take its toll. As her father’s political life became embroiled in scandal with the duel that left the popular former Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton, dead, she was determined to be strong throughout his trial for murder. When he was acquitted of the crime, Burr was left resentful of those whom he’d felt had worked against him. A few years later and plotting to place himself as the head of a new nation made of states west of the Appalachian Mountains, he now faced treason charges from the United States government. Lacking any substantial evidence, the government’s case fell apart and Burr was found not guilty – at least by the law. The court of public opinion, which had yet to forgive him for the killing of Alexander Hamilton, shunned the former vice president. Retreating in a self-imposed exile, Burr left for Europe for a number of years. After traveling constantly to stand by her father during the trials, Theo now had to face her demons alone.
Tragedy struck in 1812 as Theo and Joseph moved to their summer home, “The Castle” on Dubordieu Beach to escape the oppressive heat of The Oaks. Their son, already sick with malaria, died a few weeks after the move. Burr, returning to New York to be closer to his daughter, convinced her to come after the holidays. The British were already making aggressive moves on the United States, and the waterways up the coast were known as dangerous; Joseph cautioned his wife against the trip, but gave in as he knew Theo wouldn’t rest until she was once again with her father.
Writing her a letter of safe passage that would hopefully pass the British commander’s inspection if the ship were boarded, Joseph stayed behind to deal with business matters as his wife went aboard the schooner Patriot on New Year’s Eve, 1812.
The trip north was to take five to six days. Comfortably situated in a cabin below deck, Theo stored away the trunks of clothing needed for the season of entertaining she would be again hostessing while in New York, and a portrait of herself to give to her father. On the second night, the Patriot met up with a British ship but was allowed safe passage due to the letter her husband had given her. After that, the ship’s final fate is a mystery.
A storm was recorded as whipping the shoreline of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina into a frenzy, and the Patriot ay have been caught by the swells and sunk in the famous “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Many ships shared a similar destiny as they lay upon the rocks of the treacherous shore.
Another theory is that the ship was lured to wreck itself by the mooncussers – land pirates who tied a lantern around the neck of an animal and led the beast to walk the cliffs overlooking the water. Mistaking the glow to be that of a lighthouse or friendly port, ships during a storm would head straight toward their doom, only for the crew and passengers to be pillaged and murdered by the pirates. Indeed, a deathbed confession to an Alabama newspaperman in 1833 of a mooncusser, so named because they would shout at the moon for foiling their plans as it shone upon the water and warned away potential victims, said he and the others had killed everyone aboard the Patriot at Nags Head as the ship mistakenly trusted the false light. Fifteen years later, another pirate, “Old Frank” Burdick told the same story of how he held the plank for a beautiful woman dressed in white as she stood unsteadily upon the board, pleading for the men to tell her husband and father of what had become of her. Burdick described how after the passengers’ deaths, he and the pirates had plundered the ship and had seen the portrait of the same woman in the main cabin. In his book, More Great Southern Mysteries, R. Randall Floyd told of how the man had named one of the passengers Odessa Burr Alston and that she had chosen death over the prospect of sharing the pirate captain’s bed.
But was that really the end of Theodosia? One story tells as the mooncussers swarmed the ship, the tenuous hold on her mind finally slipped away. The pirates bundled a woman and the portrait she refused to leave, into a dingy and let her sail away into the night. Washing ashore onto the Outer Banks, the woman was taken in by a fisherman and his family and cared for, though no one was able to discover her name or why she’d held onto the portrait. As the years passed, her health began to fail. A doctor was called in to care for her at the fisherman’s home, and her caretaker offered the portrait to the doctor as payment for his services. The legend states that the old woman rose from her bed in protest, claiming that the portrait was of herself and that she was on her way to New York to see her father. Tearing the painting from the wall, she ran to the sea and into the water, never to be seen again. The portrait washed up upon the sand the next day. The doctor retrieved it and returned with it to his home in Elizabeth City. Today, the portrait resides with a descendent of the Burr family who bought it from an art dealer after the doctor’s family decided to part with it.
Theodosia’s spirit is still searching the haunted stretch of land by Cape Hatteras lighthouse for her lost portrait. Her long white dress knotted in an invisible wind, she is still looking for her way home. Her ghost is also seen along the paths that cross her former home of The Oaks, along the strand near her summerhouse, and floating above the waves at Huntington Beach.
Photo credit: familytales.org