Alexandria’s Mysterious Female Stranger
In September of 1816, a couple arrived in Alexandria after a voyage from the West Indies, boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. The woman, adorned in a black veil, sadly suffered from typhoid or yellow fever. Accompanied by a French-speaking valet and maid, they discreetly requested to keep their identities unknown. To tend to the mysterious lady, Doctor Samuel Richards attended to her with the assistance of Elizabeth Tretcher Steuart (1795 – November 26, 1854, laid to rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery 42:60). Mrs. Steuart described her as youthful and exquisitely beautiful.
Regrettably, she passed away on October 14, cradled in her husband’s embrace. He acquired a burial plot in St. Paul’s Cemetery and arranged for a monument to honor her memory once the funeral concluded. After the solemn ceremony, the husband, valet, and maid vanished, never to be sighted again. Astonishingly, the payment of $1500 in English currency, covering all expenses such as accommodation, meals, medical care, funeral arrangements, the plot, and the monument, turned out to be counterfeit. The true identity of these enigmatic individuals remained a mystery, as neither the tavern keeper, Dr. Richards, nor Elizabeth Steuart knew of them.
Who was the Female Stranger?
There were various speculations surrounding her identity. Some speculated that she might be Theodosia, the daughter of Aaron Burr, who was lost at sea during a shipwreck in 1813, only to resurface in Alexandria three years later, having escaped from pirates.
Another theory linked her to the infamous Reynolds Affair, suggesting that she could be the illegitimate daughter of Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds. Some believed the couple might have been con artists, especially given that the man was later spotted in Sing-Sing Prison, adopting the alias “Clermont” – the name marked on the St. Paul’s Cemetery map – but his true identity remained elusive due to numerous aliases he allegedly used.
Still, others contended that she hailed from a wealthy family and had eloped with her impoverished lover, seeking refuge in Alexandria while trying to evade detectives sent by her family to bring her back home. The mystery surrounding her origin and the conflicting narratives left her true background uncertain.
Interestingly, the tale of the Female Stranger did not surface in Alexandria until July 1866. Subsequently, newspapers across the country began publishing accounts about the enigmatic figure laid to rest in St. Paul’s Cemetery, a mystery that had endured for many years.
One such instance can be found in the Thursday, June 2, 1898, edition of Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star. The newspaper featured a story about a lady and a gentleman who paid a visit to the grave and conversed with Emanuel Webb, the superintendent of the cemetery. According to the lady’s account, the “stranger” buried there was a relative of hers and the wife of a British officer. The officer had married her despite objections from his family, and after his wife’s burial in Alexandria, the couple never returned to England. Instead, the officer departed Alexandria and journeyed to France. The intriguing narrative continued to capture the public’s imagination and remained a topic of fascination for years to come.
In 1912, Charles T. Johnson Jr. recounted the legend of the Female Stranger, describing her as the ward of an English lord with whom she had a romantic entanglement. One day, the lord discovered her in the company of a young lover named John, leading to a heated confrontation between the two men. Tragically, during the altercation, the lord accidentally fell, hitting his head and losing his life. Fearing the consequences, the young couple decided to escape any potential blame by fleeing to America.
They settled in a cabin near Georgetown, an area now known as Cabin John. As time passed, the young woman fell ill with Typhoid fever, prompting John to take her to Alexandria for medical help. Sadly, she succumbed to the illness and passed away there. In the years that followed, John maintained a heartfelt tradition. He would row down the Potomac and up Cameron Run to visit her grave, where he would tenderly place a flower each year on the anniversary of her untimely demise. The poignant story of their love and tragedy continued to be passed down through generations, capturing the imaginations of those who heard it.
In her book, “The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia,” Mary Gregory Powell mentions that Mr. William F. Carne, concerned about the state of the tomb at St. Paul’s graveyard, composed a brief speculative account of the enigmatic couple. He then sold this narrative to raise funds to restore the tomb, which had become overgrown with weeds. Thanks to his efforts, the tomb is now in excellent condition.
Regardless of the actual truth, the burial site of the Female Stranger has become the most visited grave in Alexandria, especially during the October anniversary of her death. Despite the lack of official records confirming her stay at the hotel, local tales and folklore persist, shrouding her story in mystery and intrigue. Moreover, the legend endures, with many believing that her ghost still lingers, haunting Gadsby’s Tavern to this very day!
Sources of Information
Powell, Mary Gregory. The History of Old Alexandria, VA, from July 13, 1749, to May 24, 1861. With New Index by Wesley E. Pippenger. Westminster, Maryland, Willow Bend Books. 2000.
Miller, T. Michael and Smith, William Francis. A Seaport Saga Portrait of Old Alexandria, Virginia. Virginia Beach, Virginia, The Downing Company Publishing, Third Printing. 2001.
Pippenger, Wesley E. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia (Vol 5). Berwyn Heights. M.D. Heritage Books. 2014.