The Fate of Theodosia Burr

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

Legends and myths pervade the coast of North Carolina. From the disappearance of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony to the mystery of Blackbeard’s buried treasure, tales with a basis in historical fact abound. Perhaps one of the most fascinating and ironic tales involves the daughter of one of America’s founding fathers.

On a cold stormy night in 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston vanished along with the schooner Patriot somewhere off the Outer Banks. To this day, her fate remains shrouded in mystery, hidden beneath the shifting sands and shoals of the barrier islands.

TheodosiaburrTheodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, former vice president to Thomas Jefferson, who claimed a notorious place in history as the man who killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in America’s most famous duel in 1804. And although this is a tale of the Burr family, it begins with Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was born by the sea in the West Indies and grew up with a healthy admiration for its power. When he was 15, he wrote such a vivid description of a hurricane that ravaged his St. Croix home that local merchants sponsored his schooling in New York.

In 1773, while on one of his frequent journeys between New York and the Virgin Islands, young Hamilton’s ship, the Thunderbolt, was caught in a terrific gale of Hatteras. As the captain hove to in an effort to ride out the storm off the Cape, the galley caught fire, and for 12 terrifying hours, the crew and Hamilton fought the blaze. Once under control, the heavily damaged ship limped northward to Boston.

Hamilton would never forget that night off Cape Hatteras. He swore an oath that should he ever be in a position to do so, he would erect a lighthouse on the treacherous cape as a warning to all other mariners.

Hamilton went on to become on the leaders of the Revolution and eventually a member of President George Washington’s cabinet. True to his word, in 1790, he passed a bill through Congress calling for the construction of the first lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Nine years later, it was completed, and although it has long fallen into the sea, ‘‘Mr. Hamilton’s Light’‘ served its purpose well.

During his rise to political power, Hamilton befriended a young New York lawyer named Aaron Burr. They had initially met while serving under Washington during the Revolution. After the war, Hamilton found Burr’s political ambitions matched his own and together they worked to forge a new nation.

Burr married in 1781 and two years later his wife gave birth to their only child –a daughter they named Theodosia. From the start, father and daughter were connected in ways very few are. Theo’s love for and devotion to her father were rivaled only by Burr’s nearly obsessive parenting. Burr spent many of Theo’s formative years in Washington, and when she was 10, they began a 20-year legacy of correspondence that remains to this day as a record of their strong relationship.

When her mother died of cancer in 1794, Theo easily stepped into the role of mistress of Richmond Hill, the family home in Albany. She supported her father’s rising political career by hosting grand parties at the estate. Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton were all regular visitors, and Theo was charming and gracious to them all, all the while remaining close by her father’s side.

Theo had many suitors, but she did not meet her husband until a dashing young southern aristocrat by the name of Joseph Alston visited Albany in 1800. Theo soon after confided to her father that she was falling in love with Alston, and in February 1801 they were married.

Theo left Richmond Hill to make her new home in South Carolina, where she would spend her days supervising two plantations and the Alston family home. She loved her husband, but often missed her New York home –and especially her father. She wrote to him that the hot, humid climate and swampy Lowcountry was no match for the beauty of Hudson River Valley.

In May 1802, after a very difficult labor, Theo gave birth to a son, named Aaron Burr Alston. She never completely recovered from the birth. When her husband was elected Governor of South Carolina, her weakness coupled with her new demands as First Lady of South Carolina began to take their toll. She made several visits to health resorts with no lasting effect. But her dedication to her family never wavered.

In 1804, Aaron Burr’s political career disintegrated. The heated political climate of the day had found Burr and Hamilton on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their rivalry descended into a war of personal insults waged in the northern newspapers until Burr, outraged beyond apology, challenged Hamilton to the duel that would kill the former vice-president.

Burr was charged with murder. Throughout the ordeal, Theo stood by her father. She traveled to New York several times during the long trial and was elated when he was finally acquitted. But Burr became a bitter man. He longed for political power and allegedly planned his resurrection with a scheme to convince several western states to seceded and place him at the head of the new government.

In 1807, he was again arrested for conspiracy. And again, Theo decried his innocence. ‘‘The knowledge of my father’s innocence, my ineffable contempt for his enemies, and the elevation of his mind have kept me above any sensations bordering on depression,’‘ she wrote to her husband from New York.

After an arduous yearlong trial, Burr was once again acquitted, and he left the country, a once-powerful leader in voluntary exile. Theo returned to South Carolina, the ordeal adding to her increasingly frail health. The final blow came in June 1812, when her son died of tropical fever.

Theo, Burr, and Alston were all inconsolable over the loss. ‘‘You talk of consolation,’‘ she wrote to her father. ‘‘Ah! You know not what you have lost. I think omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy.’‘

Burr returned to New York, and in December, he convinced Theo to come home for the holidays. It would be their first visit in five years. Alston, however, was reluctant to allow Theo to make the ocean voyage north. The country was at war with Britain, Theo’s health was still fragile, and there were rumors of pirates along the Carolina Outer Banks.

Theo’s insistence won, and Alston wrote a letter to the British Navy, which was blockading the coast, requesting safe passage for his wife. Aaron sent a trusted physician and friend, Timothy Green south to accompany his daughter. On December 30, Theo, Dr. Green, and a maid boarded the schooner The Patriot in Charleston harbor.

The Patriot was in from several months of privateering in the West Indies. The American government had hired The Patriot to harass British shipping during the War of 1812, and her hold was filled with loot from these raids. In order to disguise the ship’s true identity, the captain stowed the guns below and painted over the ship’s name on the bow. They lifted anchor late in the afternoon and set sail for the open sea. It was the last time Alston would ever see his wife.

The journey to New York normally took five or six days. After two weeks had passed with no sign of the Patriot, Burr and Alston became frantic. Alston wrote, ‘‘Another mail and still no letter! I hear too rumors of a gale off Cape Hatteras at the beginning of the month. The state of my mind is dreadful!’‘

In New York, Burr had already reached the inevitable conclusion. When a friend offered hope that Theo was still alive, Burr replied, ‘‘No, no, she is indeed dead. Were she still alive, all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father.’‘

The Patriot had disappeared without a trace. Later it was learned that the British fleet had stopped her off Hatteras on January 2. Governor Alston’s letter worked, and the schooner was allowed to pass. Later that night, a gale arose and scattered the British fleet.

Beyond that clue, no more was known. Burr sent searchers to Nassau and Bermuda with no success. Why he neglected to send them to the Outer Banks remains a mystery for it is there that Theo met her fate.

The evidence is compelling and first surfaced in 1833. That year, an Alabama newspaper reported that a local resident, a confessed pirate admitted to participating in the plunder of the Patriot at Nags Head and the murder of all on board.

Fifteen years later, another former pirate, ‘‘Old Frank’‘ Burdick, confessed a similar story on his deathbed. He told a horrifying story of holding the plank for Mrs. Alston, who walked calmly over the side, dressed completely in white. He said she begged for word of her fate to be sent to her father and husband. He went on to say that once the crew and passengers had been murdered, they plundered the ship and abandoned her under full sail. He also mentioned seeing a portrait of Theodosia in the main cabin.

Perhaps the most intriguing evidence to support this theory revolves around that painting. In 1869, a Dr. Poole from Elizabeth City was called to the bedside of an ailing old Banker woman in Nags Head. The woman was related by marriage to families who had once made their living by plundering vessels wrecked along the beaches.

The doctor noticed a stunning portrait of a young woman dressed in white hanging on the wall of the woman’s shack. When he commented on the beauty of the subject, the old woman offered an astonishing explanation.

She told Dr. Poole that one night ‘‘during the English war’‘ a pilot boat had drifted ashore at Nags Head at the height of a winter’s gale. The boat was abandoned with all sails set, and the name on the bow had been painted over. In the main cabin, the Bankers had found several trunks and women’s belonging’s scattered everywhere. They also found the portrait, which one of the looters took as a gift for the old woman.

The ailing woman had no money with which to pay Dr. Poole, so she offered him the 12-by-18 painting instead. The portrait generated much publicity when Dr. Poole returned to Elizabeth City, and several years later, a descendant of the Burrs came to see it. She immediately identified it as Theo because of the subject’s resemblance to other members of the Burr family.

There is no record today of what Theo carried aboard the Patriot that fateful day. It certainly would be in keeping with her devotion to her father to have such a fine portrait in her possession as a gift to him. Yet through such inconsequential details are myths made, and for now, the truth lies buried beneath the shifting sands of Nags Head.

The irony, however, is inescapable. Somewhere along this shore, where her father’s nemesis had erected a lighthouse to save her, Theodosia Burr Alston lost her life on a stormy January night. And although we may never know exactly how that happened, a suicidal poet may have touched on why.

In 1894, a very young Robert Frost came to Kitty Hawk. Suffering from acute depression, he felt the need to get away from the pressure of life, and as many similar people do, he came to the Outer Banks. One night, he crossed over the Kitty Hawk beach and walked with a member of the local lifesaving crew on patrol. The patrolman told him Theo’s story, and it moved him deeply. Years later, he would recount the experience and her tale in one of his lesser-known but moving poem, Kitty Hawk:

‘‘Did I recollect
how the wreckers wrecked
Theodosia Burr off this very shore?
‘‘’Twas to punish her
but her father more.’‘

 

 

Do We Still Need “Gay Weddings?”

Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for Same-Sex Marriage on April 28, 2015

Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for Same-Sex Marriage on April 28, 2015

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage represents the LGBTQ rights movement’s biggest leap forward. At long last, the one fundamental right denied our community for so long is a reality. And now we celebrate.

But as America’s checkered past with equality illustrates, acceptance is slow to follow the letter of the law. If we look at the American experience of African-Americans, Latino, women’s, and other minority communities, there is no doubt that while legal protections are in place, forms of discrimination are still in practice.

Similarly, the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality is in some ways just beginning. Religious objection initiatives and lawsuits are popping up across the country as those who object to our rights make one last attempt to abridge them.

One example is the current lack of federal legislation defining sexual orientation as a protected class under Title IX. Technically, this means people can still be legally fired for their sexual orientation. While 22 states have passed legislation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, most states do not have such a provision. So while homosexual couples can now get married in all fifty states, they can also get fired for simply being gay

LGBTQ fair housing laws are another protection lacking from the law books. While 21 states and a patchwork of municipalities ban anti-LGBTQ housing discrimination, the Federal Fair Housing Act does not address the issue. The Supreme Court may very well find that there is a constitutional right to marry, but such a ruling would do nothing to prevent landlords from denying newlyweds housing in the 29 states where this type of discrimination remains entirely legal.

Last week, the Equality Act that addresses these issues was introduced in Congress. But even if the Equality Act passes, it will not do away with what former Attorney General Eric Holder referred to as subtle discrimination. “The greatest threats,” he said, “do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper.”

We in the LGBTQ community are all too familiar with subtle discrimination. It’s the rare but hurtful unspoken look of disapproval, the curious lack of service, or an unexplainable “no” from individuals, organizations, and businesses that quietly refuse to accommodate our community.

The good news is that in the wedding industry, the overwhelming majority of wedding vendors I work with fully embrace marriage equality. Still, we’ve all read the recent stories of those who aren’t so welcoming.

As LGBTQ couples navigate the already-stressful new frontier of wedding planning, the last thing they want is to encounter the quiet “no”. Fortunately, we’ve discovered that LGBTQ couples are aware of that possibility and approaching the task as savvy consumers.

At Weddings with Pride, we’re currently asking LGBTQ couples about their wedding planning needs. One of the most surprising findings is that a vast majority of them—84%—replied that when researching wedding professionals, they look for LGBTQ-positive language in the business’s marketing language, photos, and reviews. In addition, 72% indicate that their first preference when hiring a vendor is one that is gay-owned or operated, or one with same-sex wedding experience.

Until the new definition of marriage has time to permeate the American psyche—which may take years—LGBTQ couples will seek out equality-minded wedding professionals first. Providing them with the resources to do so is the next step in moving marriage equality forward to the point where the “gay” distinction is dropped, and our society simply celebrates weddings.

This op-ed appeared into AltDaily.com, Hampton Road’s alternative blog. I republish it here for your consideration.

The Wreck of the Home

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

It was Alexander Hamilton who coined the nickname that has stayed with the seas of North Carolina for 200 years: Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1773, a 15 year-old Hamilton was caught off Cape Hatteras in a furious storm which nearly sent his ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.

When the steamship Home left New York Harbor for Charleston 65 years later, none of the 135 passengers and crew had any inkling of Hamilton’s experience–or that they were headed directly into the teeth of a similar storm that would have a much more tragic result. The illustrious passenger list read like a Who’s Who of the day, and the only thing on most of their minds was that they would hopefully be a part of a record-breaking ocean passage between the two cities.

Home1The Home had done it twice before. The sleek steamship was the pride of a growing fleet of steam packets that plied the waters off the East Coast in the days prior to the Civil War. Steam-powered side wheelers were rapidly becoming the most popular form of transportation in the country, and the Home was the creme de la creme of these newfangled vessels.

Originally constructed for river trade, the 220-foot ship was converted to a passenger liner by James Allaire, a wealthy New York businessman. The ship’s interior was paneled in deep mahogany and cherry wood with breathtaking skylights, saloons and luxurious passenger quarters. Allaire spared no expense in making the Home the most plush vessel of its type. But in an oversight that would prove fatal, he equipped the ship with only three lifeboats and two life preservers.

At peak performance, the Home could easily make 16 knots, unheard of in the days of sail. She embarked on her maiden voyage in the spring of 1837. On her second trip that year, she made it from New York to Charleston in a record-breaking 64 hours. The steam packet immediately became the hot ticket for the wealthy and prominent citizens of the day. When a third voyage was announced in October, 1837, the Home’s ticket office was swamped with reservations.

The Home pulled away from the New York docks on October 7 at full capacity, with 90 passengers and 45 crew. Some of the most prominent names of the day were on board: Senator Olive Prince of Georgia; James B. Allaire, nephew of the owner of the Home; and William Tileston, a wealthy Charleston entrepreneur who carried more than $100,000 in notes with him. A majority of the passengers were women and children.

Meanwhile, off the coast of Jamaica, a hurricane was gaining in intensity. Dubbed ”Racer’s Storm,” the cyclone would cross the Yucatan Peninsula, slam into Texas, then curve east over Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia before emerging in the Atlantic off the Carolina coast.

In the annals of hurricane history, Racer’s Storm wasn’t a particularly violent storm. But steamships like the home were not built for ocean travel. The long, sleek packets were originally designed for calm river trade routes and were dependent solely on steam for power. They rode low in the water, and the slightest ocean chop sent water sloshing into the boiler room.

So when the Home encountered the fringes of Racer’s Storm off the Virginia Capes, Captain Carleton White became concerned. A boiler pipe had burst earlier in the day, and the ship was difficult to control under reduced power. As the storm grew in intensity, the steamship drifted ever closer to the northern Outer Banks shoreline, and Captain White had just decided to beach the vessel when word came from below that the pipe was repaired. Captain White ordered full-steam ahead, not knowing that he was taking his ship and passengers directly into the teeth of the storm.

Several hours later, a huge wave broadsided the Home, sweeping everything above deck and sheering off part of the bulkhead, leaving all the cabins on the port side exposed. Water cascaded into the boiler room. Captain White ordered the passengers and crew to form a bucket brigade to prevent the rising waters from extinguishing the boiler fires. Barely under power, the ship limped around Cape Hatteras on the early evening of October 9.

Finally, at 8 PM, the boiler fires went out and the ship was drifting helplessly. Captain White had no alternative but to beach the ship. He raised the small auxiliary sails, tacked to the west, and headed straight for the beach on Ocracoke Island. He had the three lifeboats readied and assembled the 135 passengers and crew.

The situation was desperate. Confusion reigned on the once-proud liner as men, women and children scrambled to carry what they could to the decks. Finally, the breakers along the shore were spotted in the distance.

In his published account of the disaster, Captain White described the grounding: ”I ordered Trost, the man at the wheel, to port his helm; I then said to Trost, ‘Mind yourself, stand clear of that wheel when she strikes, or she will be breaking your bones.’ He answered, ‘Yes sir, I will keep clear.’ The boat immediately struck on the outer bar, slewed her head northward, the square sails caught aback, she heeled offshore, exposing the deck and upper houses to the full force of the sea.”

USS Huron 3It was about 10 PM when the Home grounded about seven miles east of Ocracoke Village. The towering breakers raked the ship in terrifying succession, and within minutes, most of the people gathered on deck had been swept into the raging surf. One of the three lifeboats was smashed when the ship struck, and panic ensued as the passengers made for the remaining two boats. Two able-bodied men commandeered the two life preservers and jumped into the sea. They made it to shore alive.

One lifeboat filled with women and children as launched but capsized as it hit the boiling surf. The last boat landed upright but also sank with a few seconds. The sea was filled with screaming women and children. One witness later said he doubted that anyone in those two boats survived.

As midnight approached, the Home began breaking up. Each wave carried away more passengers. Others took their chances. One female passenger lashed herself to a settee and floated to shore, waterlogged but alive. Another woman tied herself to a wooden spar and jumped into the surf. She too made it to shore.

In one ironic instance, two brothers, Philip and Isaac Cohen jumped into the surf. The brothers had been wrecked off the Carolina coast on another ship only a year before. Now they were faced with a much more critical situation. Isaac made it to shore safely, but his brother drowned.

Captain White and seven others had taken refuge of the forecastle deck, and as the ship disintegrated, the forecastle broke free and carried them safely to shore. By 11 PM, all that was left of the Home was its boiler, which rose above the waves like a monument to the 90 people who lost their lives that night.

Dawn broke over a hellish scene. The Ocracoke beaches were littered with debris and bodies. The villagers, accustomed to wrecks on their shores, took in the survivors and buried the dead anywhere they could. The survivors–mostly men–were ferried across the inlet to Portsmouth where they gained berth on outgoing ships. White remained on the island for three days to supervise burials of the victims. He then returned to New York only to face charges of negligence and drunkenness.

For years after the disaster, the Captain answered these charges. He wrote his account of the disaster, but the wreck of the Home was the most deadly sea disaster on American shores at the time, and his reputation was ruined. The long-lasting effects of the disaster were more positive. As soon as the news became widespread, ship owners voluntarily equipped their vessels with adequate numbers of life preservers. The next year, Congress passed The Steamboat Act, which required all passenger ships to carry one life preserver for each person on board.