When Theodosia Burr Alston went to meet her father in New York, she left her husband behind and boarded a ship with her doctor. But by the time the ship should have arrived, it was nowhere to be found.
Mysterious disappearances capture the imagination for the strange circumstances in which they occur, the unusual or chilling clues they leave behind, and the plethora of false leads and confessions by strange individuals that lead to dead ends.
Most have heard of Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa but there is another mysterious disappearance which is largely forgotten, which in its day was subjected to a number of strange theories, deathbed confessions and even formed part of a trial to send two criminals to their execution.
That was the disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston.
Theodosia Burr And Aaron Burr
Public fascination with the mystery was in part notoriety. Theodosia Burr Alston herself had not been particularly scandalous. But her life was inextricably linked to that of her father, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president who was charged with murder, put on trial for treason, and escaped to Europe.
Alston was born Theodosia Bartow Burr on June 21, 1783, in Albany, New York. She was thought to be her father’s only surviving child, and as such her father groomed her like a son to carry on the family legacy. She was given a rigorous education in a wide range of subjects with the notable exception of religion. Alston excelled in her studies showing shades of brilliance even as a young child. Her father wrote, “I hope yet by her to convince the world what neither sex seems to believe that women have a soul.”
But it did not come easily. In 1794, at age ten, Alston’s mother died, and while continuing her studies she took over management of the family’s primary New York residence.
In 1800, two events changed her life. First, she met Joseph Alston, a planter from South Carolina, whom she married a year later and then moved to his plantation called The Oaks in South Carolina. The second was the 1800 election that led to her father serving as Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President from 1801 to 1805.
Aaron Burr’s success was brief. Jefferson had chosen Burr as his running mate on the ticket. However, Burr tried to take over the presidency when he tied over the ballot box with Jefferson. Jefferson never trusted Burr, and it became clear he would be a one-term Vice President.
Adding to his woes, Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel and killed him in July 1804.
Hamilton and Burr had been bitter political rivals for years. Hamilton had savagely attacked Burr during the former Vice President’s bid to become governor of New York in 1804.
When he lost, Burr sought to restore his honor by challenging Hamilton to a duel. Some suggest that Hamilton spread rumors of an incestuous relationship between Burr and his daughter, but it is unfounded with its origin in Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel, Burr.
When Burr learned that murder charges had been laid against him, he fled like a common criminal to South Carolina to be with his daughter. There, Burr spent time with his two-year-old grandson, whose difficult birth had resulted in a uterine prolapse for Theodosia Burr Alston. She would never fully recover from the great physical pain this caused.
It wasn’t long before Burr set his sights on the western frontier, where he planned on seceding territory from the United States so he could form his own empire. By the end of 1806, Jefferson was aware of the plot, and Burr was arrested in Feb. 1807 for treason.
Despite her ill health, Alston and her husband traveled to be at her father’s trial. Even though he was acquitted on Sept. 1, Burr became the target of public outrage, even more than he already had for killing Hamilton. Burr had also tarnished his own daughter’s reputation in the process.
In June 1808, Burr fled to Europe, and over the next four years, Alston campaigned to have her father allowed back into the United States. Finally, Burr returned to the country in 1812. But tragedy struck soon after when his grandson died from malarial fever. The child’s death took a heavy toll on Alston. “There is no more joy for me,” she wrote. “The world is blank. I have lost my boy.”
She decided to set sail for New York to be with her father. Her husband had just been elected governor of South Carolina in Dec. 1812 and could not accompany her. Worried for her safety, Burr organized for Dr. Timothy Green to accompany his daughter to New York.
On December 13, Alston boarded a small schooner called the Patriot. The ship departed Georgetown into the open sea never to be seen again.
After The Disappearance
At first, Aaron Burr and Joseph Alston held out hope for Theodosia Burr Alston’s safe arrival. But by February 24, 1813, Joseph had lost hope. “My boy and my wife- gone both! This then is the end of all the hopes we had formed,” he wrote to his father-in-law. Three years later, Joseph Alston died while Burr lingered on for another 23 years. Neither of them escaped the pain of hearing various stories about the Patriot’s fate.
A June 23, 1820 article in the New York Advertiser reported that Jean DeFarges and Robert Johnson, privateers aboard the Patriot, had confessed to taking over the ship two or three days into the journey trapping everyone in the hold, stealing all of their valuables, and then sinking the boat. But certain details contradicted their account. They said the weather remained calm for three days but it wasn’t. They also said the Patriot left from Charleston when it actually departed from Georgetown.
Another confession made was by Benjamin F. Burdick, known as “Old Frank,” who on his deathbed said he had made Theodosia Burr Alston walk the plank. Despite the idea of walking the plank being more pirate fiction than fact, there are other problems with the authenticity of Burdick’s account. He said she was clutching a Bible before she descended into the sea “without a murmur.” But Alston, like her father, was decidedly un-religious.
Then some considerably more eerie accounts emerged.
At St. Pauls Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia there is the mysterious grave of the “female stranger”. According to lore, a man and woman arrived in Alexandria in 1816. The woman was very sick, and when a doctor was summoned the couple would not answer any questions about their identity. The woman died soon after and some believe the couple was Theodosia Burr Alston and Dr. Green.
But the most mysterious account is the story behind the Nags Portrait.
In 1869, Dr. William Pool and his daughter Anna encountered the painting in the home of his patient Polly Mann in Nags Head, North Carolina. Both were drawn to the portrait which Anna recalled was “of a beautiful young woman about twenty-five years of age.”
After questioning his patient about the painting, Dr. Pool was convinced it was of Theodosia Burr Alston. Mann told Anna that the painting was found by her deceased husband, Joseph Tillet inside the cabin of a shipwrecked schooner near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Pool received the portrait in lieu of payment and spent the following years trying to authenticate Alston’s likeness with members of the Burr and Alston families. But, unfortunately, the family members could not agree if it was Alston or not.
Alston’s disappearance remains a mystery to this day, and despite stories of pirates, enigmatic portraits found on schooners, and anonymous gravesites, the most likely cause of her disappearance is also the most mundane.
On January 2 and 3, 1812, fierce storms raged along the Patriot’s route on the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina. Considering other ships were damaged in the region, it seems most likely the Patriot — and Theodosia Burr Alston — were lost at sea.
After learning about Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia Burr, check out the unexplained disappearances of Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon. Then, read about Bobby Dunbar, who disappeared and came back as a new boy.