A tomb with no name: The legend of the Female Stranger
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
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Gravestones can tell us a lot about a person. We can learn their full name, how old they were when they died, who their spouse was, when they were married and even how many children they had. But the engraving on one gravestone in northern Virginia is so vague, it’s inspired a local legend that’s endured for over two centuries. Let’s talk about the woman buried in this grave — a woman only known as the Female Stranger.
The story of the Female Stranger is a bit murky. There are all sorts of different versions and contradictory details, and it’s not clear which parts are true and which ones have been distorted over time or made up entirely. But here’s what I’ve been able to piece together from various sources.
Around September of 1816, a young couple arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, traveling from the West Indies. The wife was said to be extremely beautiful, and both of them were described as “person of quality” by the Virginia Chronicle. The couple rented room number 8 at Gadsby’s Tavern, but didn’t reveal their identities to many people. The wife was said to wear a long black veil that prevented anyone from getting a good look at her face.
And she was gravely ill. In fact, the ship they’d arrived on wasn’t even supposed to stop in Alexandria; the man requested that they be allowed to disembark early due to his wife’s illness. He hired a doctor and, in some versions, a nurse to take care of his wife. (Another version says she refused to see a doctor, though that doesn’t quite jive with some of the other details.)
Even with all this medical care, it was clear the woman wasn’t going to make it. Before she died, her husband made the doctor and nurse swear that they would never reveal the identities of him or his wife. He must have made the same request of the tavern owner, who would later scribble out their name in the registry.
The woman died on October 14. Her body was buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria. The inscription on her gravestone reads as follows:
To the Memory of a
whose mortal sufferings terminated
on the 14th day of October 1816
Aged 23 years and 8 months.
This stone is placed here by her disconsolate
Husband in whose arms she sighed out her
latest breath and who under God
did his utmost even to soothe the cold
dead ear of death.
How loved how valued once avails thee not
To whom related or by whom begot
A heap of dust alone remains of thee
Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be
To him gave all the Prophets witness that
through his name whosoever believeth in
him shall receive remission of sins.
Acts. 10th Chap. 43rd verse
The third paragraph is a quote from Alexander Pope’s ‘Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady.’ The last is from the Bible.
In order to pay for the headstone, the woman’s husband borrowed about $1,500 from a local man named Lawrence Hill. He paid him back and quickly skipped town. But the bill he’d used to repay his debt turned out to be forged.
A few years later, Lawrence Hill visited New York’s Sing Sing Prison. The reason for his visit isn’t clear, but while there he came across a man only known as ‘Cleremont’ — who turned out to be the unknown man who had payed him back with a forged bill. When Hill confronted the man about this, he said it was “probably owing to some informality” and that he would pay him back at some time. He apparently never did and what happened to him after this is unknown. Various versions have him living as a hobo or going back across the Atlantic.
The story inspired quite a few fictionalized accounts in newspapers, magazines and books. A story emerged in the mid 1800’s about a man who visited the Female Stranger’s grave in October every year. He was reportedly spotted several nights in a row, moaning, groaning and praying. Whether this was the woman’s husband or someone else entirely remains a mystery.
In 1898, a man and woman visited the grave and the woman told the Superintendent that she knew the Female Stranger. According to this woman, the Stranger was the wife of a British officer who had married against her family’s wishes. The Stranger’s husband had gone to France after his wife died. This woman promised to give more details later, but never did.
Over 200 years after the Female Stranger’s death, the story of the Female Stranger continues to baffle those who hear about it. And the Stranger herself may still be hanging around Gadsby’s Tavern. Her ghost has reportedly been spotted in windows from the street, in the tavern’s ballroom and in room number 8, the room she died in. She’s also been seen by her gravestone in St. Paul’s Cemetery.
One story tells of a tour guide at the tavern who saw a beautiful woman in 19th century clothing. He followed her into room number 8, where she disappeared — but there was a lit candle in the room. The guide freaked out and went to tell someone about what he’d just seen. When he came back, the candle was no longer lit — but still warm to the touch.
So who were the Female Stranger and her husband? Was he really even her husband? And why were they so intent on keeping their identities a secret? Let’s go over some theories.
The first theory is a little bit silly — that the woman was really Napoleon Bonaparte in disguise. I saw this theory in several places but couldn’t find any reason as to why people believe it. So I’m going to assume there’s not much to it.
The next theory is that the couple were con artists. The husband was clearly guilty of forgery at minimum. Was his wife working with him? Did they want to keep their identities secret so they wouldn’t get caught in whatever other crimes they might have committed? Were they on the run? Or was only one of them a criminal and wanted to keep the others’ identity hidden as well so they couldn’t be traced through their spouse?
The next theory is that they were royalty or nobility. This is what people in Alexandria thought when they first arrived in town. Some people believe the woman was the daughter of an English lord who had eloped with her commoner husband. Others believe they weren’t necessarily of high birth, but had married against their parents’ wishes and were trying to get away. This is similar to the story the other mystery woman told when she visited the grave in 1898.
The last two theories are kind of wild. The first is that the Stranger was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr. On December 31, 1812, Theodosia boarded a ship in South Carolina, headed to visit her father in New York. The ship and everyone on it were lost at sea, never to be seen or heard from again. Or were they?
The ship likely sunk due to bad weather, but another theory emerged — that Theodosia was kidnapped by pirates and escaped the deserted island they were holding her captive on. Then she somehow found her way to Alexandria — and gained a male companion along the way.
This theory doesn’t explain who the Stranger’s husband was or why they were so intent on hiding their identities. As the daughter of a well known political figure, wouldn’t Theodosia want her family — and the public — to know what happened to her? At 29, she was also older than the Female Stranger, who was 23 when she died.
The last theory is probably the craziest of all. It suggests that the Stranger was a woman named Blanche Fordan. While spending time in India, Blanche became acquainted with two men — John Trust and John Wroe. She fell in love with Trust, but Wroe had feelings for her — feelings that weren’t returned. Using his knowledge of black magic, he put Blanche in a trance and essentially forced her to board a ship with him and marry him while at sea. But she got sick on the voyage and, of course, wouldn’t be alive for much longer. One source made sure to note that the marriage was unconsummated when she died. (‘the Rambler tells a Gothic Tale.’ Evening Star)
Somehow, Trust found out after Blanche died that she was actually his long lost twin sister — and John Wroe, the man who essentially kidnapped her, was also their long lost brother. Another source implies that they found out about this before she died and kept their identities hidden to avoid the stigma that comes with incest. Every version of this story I read was incredibly convoluted and contradictory, and this theory is likely not substantial.
So will we ever find out who the Female Stranger was? She might have descendants out there who would be interested to know what happened to her. She probably had family members who died without ever finding out what happened to their daughter or cousin or friend. But it’s been over 200 years since she died, and I get the feeling people will still be speculating about her for quite some time.
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