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The Disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston
Pirates, forbidden love, high treason – no, it’s not the plot of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Although the life and disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr, could make a fascinating blockbuster.
A few weeks ago marked the 199th anniversary of her disappearance. The strange circumstances of her vanishing have inspired lurid tales, vivid rumors, and some pretty bad novels.
Theodosia’s celebrity during her lifetime was exemplary, but it only increased after her death. The only daughter of the notorious vice-president, Theodosia’s mother died when she was ten years old. Burr insisted that her education be as rigorous and well-rounded as a boy’s would be, and she grew up intelligent and was regarded as one of the most accomplished and captivating women of the early American period. She was Aaron Burr’s best friend and chief confidante. As a teenager she often took on the role of hostess for her father and entertained the big names of the post-Revolutionary period – a handful of early presidents and a Mohawk chieftain who was smitten with her. It is also well-known that Aaron Burr (who was sometimes known to get himself into complicated and inconvenient romantic attachments) went to his daughter for relationship advice.
She was married in 1801 to Joseph Alston of the South Carolina rice planting family (Alston would become governor of South Carolina). A tireless supporter of her father even after he fled the United States following his trial for treason, Theodosia worked to raise money and social support for Burr. Prior to his flight he entrusted her with most of his important manuscripts, documents, and personal correspondence.
She took this collection of her father’s documents with her when she set sail for New York City aboard the Patriot, a War of 1812 pilot-boat-turned-schooner. The Patriot left Georgetown, South Carolina on the last day of 1812. The ship never arrived in New York City and no one on board, crew member or passenger, was ever heard from again.
Her morbid celebrity endured even into the latter half of the century. Newspapers continued to publish stories on her disappearance for decades and in death the sharp-minded Theodosia Burr became a docile, romantic hero. Novels were written about her dramatic disappearance. Many people named their daughters after her – she is the namesake of the silent film actress Theda Bara (real name: Theodosia Burr Goodman).
Nothing more than conjecture was known about the fate of Theodosia or the Patriot until decades after the disappearance. Even today there is no concrete evidence of what happened to them, but here are some of the more popular (and interesting) theories.
A Woman in White
Several known pirates would make deathbed confessions to having killed Theodosia Alston. The first occurred within ten years of her disappearance. It is doubtful that any of them are true. Many of the stories contain anachronisms (some pirates mistakenly identified the Patriot as having embarked from Charleston, not Georgetown). One of the more outlandish stories claim that Aaron Burr was having an affair with the wife of the Patriot’s captain, and arranged to have the whole ship done away with to make things easier.
No one has ever accused pirates of being truthful, and the sensation surrounding the disappearance of Aaron Burr’s daughter may have inspired some sailors to immortalize themselves as her murderer. However, piracy was a serious problem on the Carolina shores in the early years of the nation. It is entirely possible that Theodosia did meet her end at the hands of brigands.
One of the more famous pirate stories was the deathbed confession of “Old Frank” Burdick, an associate of the pirate Dominic You. Burdick claimed that he and his crew had sacked the Patriot and killed everyone on board, but that even the savage pirates were reluctant to kill the beautiful and compliant Theodosia. Burdick alleges he was selected to hold the plank which Theodosia was forced to walk. He claimed she was wearing a long white dress and descended gracefully into the sea, hands crossed in prayer.
Burdick said that there was a portrait of Theodosia clad in white in the captain’s cabin. Such a portrait does indeed exist; it was allegedly given to Dr. William Pool in the 1870s by a “wrecker” (a scavenger of shipwrecks) who claimed to have found it on the shores of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in the early 1800s. Dr. Pool tried for years to identify the portrait’s subject as Theodosia, but to no avail. The woman in the portrait bears a resemblance to Aaron Burr’s daughter, but it can never be proven.
A Lady of High Birth
Another pirate, John Foster Payne, claimed to have taken the Patriot and murdered everyone on board, including a “noblewoman” or “lady of high birth.” These reports are supported by the supposed testimony of an Alabama resident in the State Archives.
It is known that pirates along the shore of Nag’s Head, North Carolina would erect makeshift lighthouses during storms to lure ships off the water with the false hope of refuge. This practice was in full swing in the early nineteenth-century. These pirates were known as “bankers” (because of their loitering around the Outer Banks) and many believe that it was this gang of ne’er-do-wells who brought Theodosia to her end.
The Daughter of an Exile
One legend holds that Theodosia was captured by the pirates who took the Patriot and imprisoned onboard for several years. The legend says that eventually the ship was destroyed in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico and the severed mast washed ashore, Theodosia chained naked to it. A local Karankawa Indian chief happened upon her and she told him she was the daughter of a “great white chief” who had been exiled from his people. She gave him the locket around her neck (inscribed with the name Theodosia) and entreated him to tell her tale to any white or English-speaking man he met. She died in his arms. The chief buried her on the beach and wore her necklace forever after.
Incidentally, this story first surfaced in 2001, almost 200 years after Theodosia’s death. Whatever the reality of her death, it must be true of Theodosia that she was a singularly captivating woman. Her celebrity has endured undimmed for a very long time indeed.