Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Ghost of Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr or Theo as she was called was Aaron Burr’s only daughter. 

Burr, an influential political figure in the early 1800s, was a doting parent. He made sure Theo was educated beyond what most young ladies of the time were offered. She was allowed to study music, languages, philosophy, and politics. 

Theo was also charming and very beautiful. 

When her mother passed away from cancer, Theo was more than prepared to take over as her father’s hostess, at Richmond Hall, the family home in Albany.

Prominent figures of the time, as well as hopeful young suitors, attended the dinners that Theo hosted. Theo had her pick of eligible bachelors, but to everyone’s surprise, Theo married Joseph Alston. 

Joseph was a southern gentleman who had inherited his families’ wealth. 

Alston came from a very different world from the high society that Theo was used to. Burr, unlike most, was delighted with his daughter’s choice. He admired Alston’s political ambitions.

Theo and Alston on their way south, to the Carolina Lowcountry in February of 1801, stopped to see Aaron Burr inaugurated, as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. 

Joseph Alston had attended Princeton and passed the bar at the age of twenty, but he didn’t practice law. 

Part of his inheritance was a large rice plantation called “The Oaks” in South Carolina. This is where he brought Theo after they were married. 

Theo helped manage The Oaks and several other properties Alston owned, but the hot, humid southern climate did not agree with her. Though she loved her husband, she missed her father and the beauty of the Hudson River Valley.

The distress she felt being separated from her father increased as Burr became embroiled in two political scandals. 

The first involved a bitter political rivalry he had with Alexander Hamilton, which resulted in a duel in which Burr killed him in 1804. Burr was arrested for murder but later was acquitted. 

Theo rushed to be at her father’s side during this time. 

The second scandal revolved around some shady land schemes Burr was involved in. Burr left for Europe in a self-imposed exile.

Theo’s health was in a frail condition when she gave birth to a son in 1802. It was a rough delivery, and Theo never managed to completely recover. 

Joseph and Theo named their son Aaron Burr Alston, they were very devoted parents, making sure their son had the best of everything. 

Theo often wrote letters to her father about her son's progress, this and news about her husbands’ political successes kept Burr interested. He usually replied to her messages with political advice for his son-in-law.

It was during this period that Theo’s life brightened, but then another tragedy struck. 

Theo and her husband each summer would move to their summer home “The Castle” on Dubordieu Beach, to escape the rice plantations’ oppressive heat and swamps. 

Early in the summer of 1812 two weeks after they arrived young Aaron, now ten years old, and already ill with tropical fever (malaria) died. Theo was inconsolable.

Burr heard of his grandson’s death as he returned to New York. He encouraged Theo to visit him over the holidays. Theo desperately wanted to but her husband, now governor of South Carolina, felt the trip would be too dangerous. 

He was concerned about her health, and the fact that American was again at war with Britain (War of 1812). 

There were also rumors that pirates were active off the Carolina Outer Banks. Despite these dangers, Theo won out, and Joseph reluctantly wrote her a letter to the British Navy requesting safe passage.

Theo said her last goodbye to her husband, while they waited in a warm warehouse in Georgetown, near the wharf where she was to embark. 

She boarded the schooner “Patriot” in December of 1812 anticipating the six-day trip north. Joseph having important business regretted that he could not make the voyage with her. 

The Patriot never made it to New York. Theo's disappearance remains a mystery.

The Patriot did encounter a British vessel, her second day out, and Joseph’s letter worked for the British let the ship pass. 

That night a strong winter gale swept across Cape Hatteras known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Some speculate the Patriot was lost in this storm. 

There is also evidence that the Patriot might have been a victim of pirates or “wreckers." Wreckers are people who plunder a ship after it has foundered near to or close to shore.

In 1833, an Alabama newspaper reported a confessed pirate admitted that he had participated in the plunder, and murder of all on board the Patriot at Nags Head. 

Fifteen years later, another former pirate, “Old Frank” Burdick confessed a similar story on his deathbed. 

His description included how he had held a plank for a pretty woman in a white dress. Before she plunged to her death, she begged someone send word to her husband and father. 

Burdick stated they then plundered the ship and abandoned her under full sail. He also said he saw a portrait of a woman in white in the main cabin.

Further evidence came to light in Nags Head to support the above stories.

An ill patient, too poor to pay her doctor, offered instead a portrait her husband’s family had given her as a gift. 

When the doctor questioned her possession of the portrait, she admitted to him that her in-laws were wreckers and they had plundered a ship they found abandoned after a gale. It sails were fully set, with no one aboard.

She stated that her relatives had found a woman’s belongings strewn about the main cabin, and amidst this, they had found the portrait. 

It is not known if Theo left Georgetown with a portrait. It did not surface until after her husband Joseph Alston had died. But many feel this is a possibility. For the picture could have been intended as a gift for her father. 

Years after the doctor was given the portrait, a descendant of the Burr’s came forward and immediately identified it as a picture of Theo.

Whatever her fate, Theo’s uneasy spirit appears to still roam some of the locations where she was most happy and sad in life.  

Her ghost has been spotted in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. 

She is observed pacing near the warehouse in Georgetown Harbor, where she said goodbye to her husband before she boarded the Patriot. 

Others have seen her strolling along the strand near Alston’s summer home-- The Castle at Dubordieu Beach--her head bent in sorrow. 

Some have described seeing her on foggy nights floating above the waves at Huntington Beach—once called Theaville in her honor.

Her spirit is also seen walking the paths, and descending the rice island steps near her husband’s plantation, The Oaks. 

Today this plantation, combined with three other rice plantations, make up what is called Brookgreen Garden. This spot is a popular tourist attraction.

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