Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Mystery lingers from woman's 1812 disappearance at sea


Pilot Online
By Diane Tennant
December 31, 2005

In 1869, along the barren beaches of the Outer Banks, an old woman took ill. As the doctor tended to her, he saw upon her wall an oil painting of a beautiful woman dressed in white.

As the sick woman was poor, she offered the portrait to the doctor for payment. He asked her who it was.

I don’t know, the woman said, but it came from a shipwreck, a pilot boat that drifted ashore in a winter gale. In the cabin was a trunk containing two black silk dresses sized for a slender woman and a portrait of a lady.

In 1812, on the last day of the year, an ailing young woman stepped aboard a ship named Patriot and sailed from Georgetown, S.C., for New York.

She was on her way to see her father for the first time in many years, and her husband, the newly elected governor of South Carolina, reluctantly saw her off.

The Patriot was a pilot boat, a shallow-draft vessel lately back from privateering , preying on British merchant ships in time of war. The lady was received aboard and the Patriot slipped away, headed northeast.

The lady’s name was Theodosia Burr Alston. She was 29 years old.

The painting was on a wooden plank about 14 by 17 inches in size. The old woman said the boat washed up near Kitty Hawk, sails set and rudder fastened. No one was aboard.

The salvagers also found a vase of wax flowers under a glass globe and a shell carved in the shape of a nautilus, but it was the portrait that caught the eye.

Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, notorious for fatally wounding Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr later was tried on charges of treason and acquitted .

Theodosia was said to be the best-educated woman in the country at the time. She was able to read seven languages and speak four.

In 1812, she was sick and grieving, mourning the loss of her 10-year-old son to a summer fever, struggling with the pain and infections that had plagued her since his birth, possibly dying of uterine cancer.

Burr had just returned from four years of exile . His daughter, with whom he shared a strong emotional bond, longed to see him. A sea voyage was arranged.

The Patriot disappeared from view around the tip of North Island, heading for Cape Hatteras. The ship was never heard from again.

The doctor, William Gaskins Poole, took the portrait to his home in Elizabeth City, where it was much admired. A visitor said the lady looked like Theodosia. Some Burr descendants took a look and said it was, but none of them had ever seen her alive. The only Alston who had met her said simply that both Theodosia and the woman in the portrait had beautiful eyes.

Dr. Poole spent the rest of his life trying to sort it out. He never could.

In the years that followed the Patriot’s disappearance, many tales arose. “Deathbed confessions” of regretful pirates cropped up every few years, telling lurid tales of Theodosia walking the plank to her death. Novels began to appear and then magazines and then Internet pages, telling the sorry tale of the legendary Theodosia and how she was killed by pirates, captured by pirates, enslaved by pirates, ravished by pirates, loved by pirates or cast away by pirates. Her ship was sunk by the British, raided by the French, wrecked by Outer Bankers or, in one tale, destroyed by a hurricane off Texas with Theodosia rescued by cannibal Indians.

In 2003, Richard N. Cote wrote a nonfiction book called “Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy,” which says a violent storm Jan. 2 and 3, 1813, was recorded in the logbooks of six British warships off the coast of North Carolina.

It further says no documentary evidence exists of a shipwreck near Nags Head in January 1813.
But there is the portrait, now at the Lewis Walpole Library of Yale University. The portrait is not signed or dated.

There is one more legend. In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the week the Patriot set out on a voyage of no return, when the weather is rough and overcast, the ghost of Theodosia walks the beach.

The beam of the lighthouse that sweeps Cape Hatteras, the distance north to Nags Head – neither dissuades her. She is looking for her portrait.


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