Enduring mystery in the Lowcountry

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2007

During a recent vacation to Pawley’s Island, S.C., I’d planned to spend quality time with a good mystery or two. I didn’t expect to stumble across a real-life one that has persisted for almost two centuries, with the Carolinas playing a central role.
What was the fate of Aaron Burr’s daughter, once the mistress of one of the Lowcountry’s richest rice plantations?
The bolder strokes of Burr’s life are, of course, well known. He was the vice president who in 1804 fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury and a political rival, during a duel. Hamilton became an instant martyr, and Burr lived on in infamy, later to be tried for treason (though eventually acquitted) for his involvement in a scheme to establish a Western empire with himself as ruler.
Although Burr’s relationship with his daughter Theodosia is a footnote in the larger story, it adds another dimension to his complex and enigmatic personality. Burr is often described as a womanizer who once catalogued his trysts with prostitutes in a private journal, yet he did not view women solely as objects of sexual conquest. In fact, he was ahead of his time in his belief that women should pursue intellectual interests and develop a life of the mind, a belief he put into practice when Theodosia was born on June 21, 1783.
“If I could foresee that Theo. would become a mere fashionable woman, with all the attendant frivolity and vacuity of mind, adorned with whatever grace and allurement, I would earnestly pray God to take her forthwith hence,” Burr wrote to his wife. “But yet I hope, by her, to convince the world what neither sex appears to believe ó that women have souls!”
By age 9, she was being tutored in French, Latin and Greek, along with composition and arithmetic. She mastered horseback riding and the harpsichord. Burr insisted that she regularly write letters to him, which he would scrutinize for grammar, spelling and rhetorical style before replying with suggestions for improvement.
It would be easy to dismiss this as simply another manifestation of Burr’s ambition, an obsession with creating an impressive vessel to carry the family genes, except that he was an attentive and solicitous father. He constantly fretted over Theodosia’s health, particularly her susceptibility to the yellow fever that often swept through cities in the sweltering summers. Their relationship deepened after Burr’s wife died at age 48, when Theodosia was only 11. Within a few years, she was acting as the mistress of Burr’s Richmond Hill estate, a self-possessed and graceful hostess, as well as a considerable beauty.
In a later age, Theodosia might have become a businesswoman, lawyer, political leader or diplomat. But in that era, she followed the typical career path of an attractive, well-bred woman: she married well. Her husband, Joseph Alston, was the scion of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest planter families, a future governor of the state and master of The Oaks, a rice plantation set alongside the Waccamaw River. They were married on Feb. 2, 1801, and a year later, she bore a son, Aaron Burr Alston.
Just as he lavished affection on his daughter, Burr doted on his grandson, whom he nicknamed “Gampy” after the child’s pronounciation of “grandpa.” They visited one another as often as possible, and in 1806, daughter and grandson accompanied Burr on the ill-fated trip to Ohio during which he set in motion the byzantine scheme that proved his downfall.
After his trial for treason, in self-imposed exile in Europe, Burr constantly wrote to Theodosia and collected presents for Gampy in anticipation of the day he would rejoin them. “If the little gamp could read,” he wrote to Theodosia, “I should write him volumes. I find my thoughts straying to him every hour in the day, and think more of him twenty fold than of you two together.”
Finally, after a four-year separation, in the summer of 1812, he deemed it safe to return home. There would be no joyful reunion, however. Soon after landing in New York, he learned that 10-year-old Gampy had died of malaria. Heartbroken, Theodosia’s fragile health declined. Burr begged her to visit him, to escape the swampy lowlands and find rejuvenation in his loving care. The trip was arranged, and she journeyed to Georgetown, S.C., where on Dec. 31, 1812, she boarded a small schooner named “The Patriot,” bid her husband goodbye and sailed out of Georgetown’s harbor into the gray Atlantic.
Neither she, the ship nor its other passengers were ever heard from again.
According to one theory, the ship was lost in a storm. Another holds that a mutinous crew forced all aboard to walk the plank. Yet another tale insists it was lured aground off Cape Hatteras by brigands who plundered its valuables and killed all aboard. Whatever Theodosia’s fate, it was yet another grievous blow for her father and husband, who himself died only two years later.
Today, the plantation grounds where Theodosia and Joseph Alston lived have been converted into Brookgreen Gardens, a parklike setting of several hundred acres where exquisite sculptures float amid drifts of flowers, shrubs and trees. You can take a boat tour along some of the canals that interspersed the rice fields where slaves plodded through the muck and toiled under a broiling sun. With its moss-draped oaks and swaying marsh grasses, the landscape retains an aura of mourning and mystery, as if reluctant to release the lives of the inhabitants who knew so much sadness, suffering and loss.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.