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When Aaron Burr's Daughter Disappeared.
The Disappearance Of Theodosia Burr.
Aaron Burr's beloved daughter, Theodosia, led a life filled with misfortune, including recurring bouts of tuberculosis, the death of her young son and the forced exile of her father following his lethal duel with Alexander Hamilton. By the tender age of 29, she was missing at sea, presumed dead. Centuries later, historians still don't know what happened to Theodosia, although at the time of her disappearance, rumors involving pirates, mutiny and plank-walking described a dramatic end.
Theodosia Burr was born in 1783 to Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Burr. She grew up in New York City, where Aaron Burr took a great interest in her academic development and schooled her in Latin, Greek and French. This was an uncommonly comprehensive education for a girl of her era. In his 1907 biography of Theodosia, Charles Pidgin wrote that her female peers didn't study ancient languages, but instead embroidered, played the pianoforte and "sang despondent love songs, calculated to awaken the sympathies of their bachelor friends."
Though she focused on Latin over love songs, Theodosia did, at 17, attract a bachelor friend named Joseph Alston. Twenty-two years old and convinced he was destined to marry Theodosia, the wealthy South Carolinian laid out his matrimonial plans in several letters to her. Though Theodosia initially resisted, quoting Aristotle's claim that a man should not marry before age 36, the two wedded in 1801 and settled into their Charleston home. The next year, they had a son, Aaron Burr Alston.
Theodosia and her father frequently wrote letters to one another, delighting in their mutual ability to describe events with passion and linguistic flair. Gaps in communication were unusual. "Five weeks without hearing from you!" wrote Aaron Burr to his pregnant daughter in 1802. "Intolerable."
Over the next decade, a series of calamities made life difficult for the Alston family. Soon after giving birth, Theodosia was beset by periods of illness, including tuberculosis. In 1804, her father, then vice president, killed Alexander Hamilton, was dumped from President Thomas Jefferson's second-term election ticket and fled to Europe after being accused of treason in 1807. Then came the worst blow: in June 1812, 10-year-old Aaron Burr Alston died, likely from malaria-induced fever.
In a state of being "very low, feeble and emaciated," Theodosia decided to journey from Charleston to New York in December 1812, to reunite with her recently returned father. On December 31 she boarded the schooner Patriot. The journey was expected to take five to six days. She was never seen again.
Twenty days after Theodosia set sail, Joseph Alston wrote to Aaron Burr. "It is three weeks, and yet not one line from her," he said. "My mind is tortured." After a month with no news of "our dear Theo," he wrote again: "I have been the prey of feelings which you only can imagine. When I turned from the grave of my boy, I deemed myself no longer vulnerable. Misfortune had no more a blow for me. I was wrong." Alston died three years after Theodosia's disappearance.
Burr was similarly distraught. James Parton's 1867 biography of the former Vice President mentioned that Burr "could not go upon the Battery, then the chief promenade of the City of New York, without looking wistfully down toward the Narrows, with a secret, pining hope that even yet the missing vessel might appear." Burr himself told a friend that "When I realized the truth of her death, the world became a blank to me, and life had then lost all its value."
But what happened on those seas? Samuel Knapp's 1835 Life of Aaron Burr states that "the most agonizing fears were entertained that the vessel had been taken by pirates. They swarmed at that time upon the southern coast of our country, and all about the West Indies; but after months of awful suspense, he [Burr] had, heaven forgive the expression, the happiness to think she had been buried in the 'fathomless abyss.'"
These pirate rumors, however, did not let up. Decades after the Patriot sailed into oblivion, Alabama's Mobile Register maintained "the belief is that she fell victim to piratical atrocity." In 1833 the Alabama Journal claimed that a dying man in Mobile confessed "he had been a pirate and helped to destroy the vessel, and all the crew and passengers, on which Mrs. Alston had embarked for New York." The dying former pirate had apparently been the one to make Theodosia walk the plank, though he made sure to say that due to Theodosia's pacifism, he'd felt guilty about it.
This death-bed confession story recurred in the press over many decades, with small changes. An 1858 version, reported in the Asheville News, involved a dying sailor in Texas, who supposedly said that during the voyage "the crew mutinied and murdered all the officers and passengers, Mrs. Alston being the last one to walk the plank. The sailor remembered her look of despair, and died in the greatest agony of mind."
An 1873 version, written by C. Townsend Harris of Piermont, NY, and reported in the Daily Journal of Wilmington, North Carolina, said Theodosia boarded the vessel with two of her children. She, of course, had no children. In this confession, a former pirate named Gibbs was captured and sentenced to death. At this point he admitted he captured the Patriot after hearing word it contained valuables. Many crew and officers were killed, and Gibbs decided to kill the survivors. "Mrs. Alston begged for the lives of herself and children;"—who, you'll recall, did not exist—"she offered him all the wealth she possessed, and promised to secure him from harm. She knelt to him and entreated him in the most beseeching tones, but the pirate was inexorable." Gibbs then forced Theodosia's "two sons," to walk the plank, and, in defiance, she walked the plank to follow them into the briny deep.
Facts vs. Fiction.
Those who claimed knowledge of Theodosia's fate did not let facts get in the way of a good story. In 1842, the Boston Post published the words of H. Smith Jr. of Mississippi, an apparent acquaintance of Burr who had spoken to the grieving father. "A year or two before Col. Burr died, I had a long conversation with him on the subject, and he stated to me that he had thoroughly investigated the pirate story, and was satisfied that it was a fiction, from beginning to end," wrote Smith. "He had not a doubt that the schooner in which Mrs. Allston sailed was lost by shipwreck, and all on board perished!"
At the time of the Patriot's disappearance, the War of 1812 was underway, but the only recorded naval battle during that week took place off the coast of Brazil. It's unlikely Theodosia became caught up in the war and perished as a result. The truth of her fate may be tempestuous in a more literal way: there was a severe storm in the region of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at about the time the Patriot would have been passing through.
With no flotsam having washed ashore, and the only "first-hand" accounts coming from dubious sources, Theodosia's disappearance remains unsolved.