She was brilliant, independent and her name was to become a song in the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton.”
But the enduring mysteries of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of third vice president and duelist Aaron Burr, are in her disappearance at sea off Charleston in 1813, and the discovery of what may be her oil portrait in Nags Head a half-century later.
The Nags Head Portrait, as it came to be called, will be featured on Thursday’s episode of “Mysteries at the Museum” on the Travel Channel.
Theodosia Burr was 10 when her mother died, but she soon became a social asset to her infamous father. After marrying future South Carolina Gov. Joseph Alston, she stood by Aaron Burr when he killed Alexander Hamilton, the former treasury secretary, in an 1804 duel and as he was tried for treason in 1807.
But the death of her son from malaria five years later threw her into a dark depression. Still in mourning, she left Charleston to visit her father in New York on Dec. 31, 1812. Neither she nor the schooner she sailed aboard were seen again, likely because of a storm off Cape Hatteras.
The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City picks up the story from there.
An Elizabeth City physician, Dr. William Poole, was vacationing in Nags Head in 1869 when he was called to treat a fisherman’s widow. For his fee he received a painting that the widow said had been recovered from a sunken ship that washed up in breakers during the War of 1812.
Poole’s research led him to believe the painting that somehow survived was that of Theodosia Burr Alston. The unsigned, 18-by-20-inch work is believed to have been done by well-known painter John Vanderlyn. Passed down in Poole’s family, it landed at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University, which in July loaned it to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City through February.
On Thursday, reports the Outer Banks’ Island Free Press, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras and director Joseph Schwarzer will appear in the “Mysteries at the Museum” episode on Burr and the portrait.
Schwarzer told the news outlet that Theodosia brought her portrait aboard the Patriot as a gift to her father. “She left the docks of Charleston,” Joseph Schwarzer told the Free Press, “and neither she nor the ship was ever seen again. No one knows what happened to Theodosia Burr.”