A Virginia Mystery Grave Has Led To Two Centuries Of Rumors And Legends
If you happen to find yourself in the St. Paul's Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, you might come across a strange grave. It looks like a table on six legs, and on the marble slab on top, barely legible now after years of wear and lichen, reads a strange tale:
An unknown woman, a grieving lover, a mysterious grave that has inspired rumors and legends for two centuries. It's the perfect stuff for a legend, and quite a legend it is. In short, the story of the Female Stranger says that a mysterious woman checked into Gadsby's Tavern and stayed in the East Bedchamber along with a man who claimed to be her husband but may not have been (scandalous!). After a period of illness, she died and was buried under this weird gravestone, and then the man disappeared, leaving only questions. At least, that's the narrative cobbled together in newspaper articles and by word of mouth over the course of a century.
The first appearance of the Female Stranger in the public eye wasn't until 1834, when a poem about her appeared in the March 12 edition of the Alexandria Gazette by someone with the initials "S.D." This was later revealed to be Susan Rigby Dallam Morgan. The (very flowery and Victorian) poem describes coming across an unusual-looking tomb circled with an iron fence and small trees.
The Stranger gained more attention when a more detailed article on her appeared in 1836 by a columnist named Lucy Seymour. But the plot thickens already: "Lucy Seymour" was a pen name of none other than Susan Rigby Dallam Morgan. Maybe her poem didn't garner enough attention the first time? This article, which cites no sources outside of hearsay, says that the Female Stranger arrived in Alexandria with "a gentleman who called himself her husband" and appeared to be under considerable emotional stress. She spoke to a local minister, presumably telling her sad story.
After her passing, her male companion departed in secret, leaving behind the mysterious monument with an epitaph written in a way "strangely calculated to awaken interest and elicit sympathy." It doesn't explain how he managed to purchase the plot, commission the carving, and install it while also mysteriously disappearing, though, but does mention that the subject was a popular one among the ladies of Alexandria.
By 1848, another article surfaced, this one of unclear authorship, and, as legends tend to do, elaborated even further, talking about how beautiful the Stranger was and listed her male companion as being named "Clermont." It says he went into deep mourning after her death, commissioning the monument for $1,500 (about $26,000 today) and then vanishing. After his disappearance, the bills were found to be counterfeit, and he was later found in a New York prison, although apparently didn't give any explanation.
From there, the story continued to expand, but, frustratingly, without any actual sources. In 1886, a Chicago paper brought up the story, saying the couple checked into a "City hotel," later determined to be the still-standing Gadsby's Tavern, where the woman became ill and died a few weeks later. This story also includes two French maids traveling with them, who were equally secretive, and describes the man as English.
By 1887, a Kansas City, Missouri paper added some sensationalist details: the woman was now a "voluptuous blonde," and she died locked in a passionate kiss with the man. After her death, the man, who might have been spotted in New Orleans, returned to Alexandria in the dead of night, exhumed his dead wife's body, and absconded with it, we can only assume for creepy purposes.
In 1890, The Washington Evening Star reported that an elderly couple visited the Stranger's grave, explaining that the woman was a "connection" of the Stranger and that the Stranger had married a British officer against family wishes. After the Stranger's death, the officer went to live in France. The short article says that the woman said she would return with more information, but of course, that never happened.
Finally, in 1913, nearly a century after the Stranger's supposed death, The Ladies Home Journal wrote probably the most detailed account of the tale. In this version, the couple was on a ship heading from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Caribbean but disembarked in Alexandria due to the wife's illness. Throughout the trip to the "Bunch of Grapes Tavern" (a reference to Gadsby's Tavern, whose sign bore an image of grapes), the woman was wrapped in heavy veils, and only her husband and valet (not maids) were present at her death. Two other female guests were sworn to secrecy regarding her identity. The article suggests the Stranger might have been Sarah Curran, heartbroken fiancee of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, but even states that this is unlikely. (And it is.)
Eventually, visitors to Gadsby's Tavern reported seeing the ghost of a woman holding a candle in the East Bedchamber, and this specter was assumed to be the female stranger, standing in the room where she died. The Gadsby Tavern includes even more bizarre rumors involving murder and orphans but, like the rest of these versions, doesn't elaborate on them at all.
It would be easy to dismiss the story of the Female Stranger, her mysterious husband, and her ghost as just another local legend going through the same evolutions that all urban legends and ghost stories do. There are no really solid pieces of evidence to tell us that this woman ever existed, that she stayed or died at Gadsby's Tavern. After all, hotel records from 1816 are unlikely to exist. But there's the problem of the actual grave, which can still be seen and visited today. Visitors note that there's an indentation in the ground underneath, which happens when caskets decompose and collapse, suggesting that something might really be buried there.
So, what's going on here? Let's get into some theories:
Theodosia Burr Alston
The theory that the Female Stranger was Theodosia Burr Alston has been around since the 1880s, although it's considered pretty unlikely. Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr (the one who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel), who is believed to have died en route from South Carolina to New York when her ship was lost in a storm near Cape Hatteras -- inspiring her own set of legends regarding her ultimate fate.
However, the dates are wrong. The Female Stranger was said to have died at the age of 23 in 1816, while Theodosia died in 1813 when she was 29. Furthermore, the legend says that the Female Stranger apparently wanted her identity hidden, and Theodosia, highly educated and intelligent, was known for being outspoken in defense of her disgraced father, so there would be no seeming reason for her to hide her identity had she survived the shipwreck -- which she likely did not.
The second-to-last stanza of the inscription is a paraphrasing of Alexander Pope's 1717 poem Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, which tells the story of a woman who takes her own life and is buried in a "humble grave" in a foreign land. Written a century before the Female Stranger's death, it was criticized for romanticizing suicide.
Suicide was seen as shameful and was stigmatized in the 19th century, so it would not have been openly discussed. Could the inclusion of the imperfect Pope quote allude to suicide? Maybe. However, it's also quite possible that the stanza was lifted without knowledge of the rest of the poem; burial inscriptions of the time often refer to returning to dust. Plus, the timeline of the Stranger's death usually describes a period of illness, up to ten weeks of it, so that makes suicide unlikely.
It's a Prank
It's possible that there is no one buried under the strange monument and that this was all some kind of bizarre ploy for some equally bizarre reason. The grave has never been opened in all the time it's been there. Could this lack of exploration be because there's nothing in there to explore? It also might explain the bizarre story etched into the stone: if this woman really wanted her identity hidden, why not just quietly bury her in an unmarked grave?
But for this to be a prank, it would have involved a lot of coordination and a lot of money. Having a grave marker created is pretty expensive today with modern machinery, and in the early 1800s, that whole explanation would have had to have been carved by hand. That's not cheap. It would certainly not be the first or last time some rich weirdo did something extravagant for kicks, but this one would also have to involve the participation of the church and the cemetery to install the monument on their property.
Also, why would someone do this? It would have to just be for their own amusement because it's not like the Female Stranger is a money maker.
It seems like the only way to get at least one answer -- if there's anyone buried under the weird-looking marble table at all -- is to open the grave, but that's never happened. And plenty of other questions remain: When was this monument installed? It must have taken considerable time to create, and it's not mentioned by anyone until nearly two decades after the Stranger's supposed death. So it must have gone up between 1816 and 1834. But who built and installed it? Is it on any kind of registry with the church? And, most interesting of all, who was the Female Stranger, if she ever existed, and why was the concealment of her identity so important?
Identifying this mysterious woman is not impossible, although perhaps the mystery of her, her origins, and her fate are ultimately more important than whatever the truth might be. If the strange-looking table-shaped tombstone in Alexandria was designed to pique interest, it's certainly done its job.
Top Image: Michael Lusk