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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | The Female Stranger

The Female Stranger

I was in Alexandria, Virginia this past weekend for a book event and a visit with my brother, who loves to take visitors on the walking Ghost Tour of Old Town. Probably the most fascinating story on the tour was that of the Mysterious Female Stranger. Afterward, I was on the internet until midnight, reading everything I could about this subject, and in the morning before we left for home, I talked my family into visiting her grave.

My family’s used to visiting strange graves by now. At least this one was in a pleasant cemetery! The morning was bright and cheerful, and the popularity of the grave is attested to by the fact that we found a bouquet of flowers lying in tribute to the mysterious young woman when we arrived.

The story of the Female Stranger begins in September 1816, when a ship from the West Indies made an unscheduled stop in Alexandria long enough to put off two passengers: a man and a woman. They were, by appearance and clothing, well-to-do, and the young woman was said to be beautiful. But she was also very ill. The gentleman carried her to the City Hotel, now known as Gadsby’s Tavern, where she was placed in Room 8. The frantic gentleman then called for the best doctor in town, as well as two nurses. Before letting them into the room he made each of them swear an oath on their sacred honor that if — while delirious — his wife revealed her identity, they would take that secret to their graves.

Despite everyone’s valiant efforts, the woman died on October 14, 1816. Her husband paid for an elaborate funeral and a lavish headstone where she was identified as “a Female Stranger.” The epitaph read:

To the memory of a
whose mortal sufferings terminated
on the 14th day of October 1816
Aged 23 years and 8 months

This stone was 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 though 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

By this time, the man had built up an enormous bill at the hotel — as well as gambling debts in the tavern. Rather than press him to pay up immediately, the hotel owner granted him the night after his wife’s funeral to grieve in peace. When morning came however, the man had vanished, leaving all his debts unpaid.

Who was she? One popular theory (though discounted by most historians) is that she was Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of disgraced vice-president Aaron Burr. Theodosia had vanished at sea four years earlier and was presumed dead, but some stories say she really ran off with a lover and the lost-at-sea tale was concocted to spare her reputation (or more importantly, her husband’s). Other people speculate that the Female Stranger was a European princess who had eloped or possibly been kidnapped — or that the couple was wanted for murder abroad. It’s also been suggested that the whole thing was a con, and that both the Male and Female Strangers left town alive after swindling a lot of people out of their money.

The most outrageous theory I read? That the lady was Naploeon Bonaparte in drag.

Yeah, I’m not buying that one. But the story of the Female Stranger has some intriguing possibilities, doesn’t it?

14 Responses to The Female Stranger

  1. What a fascinating story! I had never heard of this. Of all the possible scenarios you listed, her being a European princess who had eloped sounds the most likely. Very very intriguing.

  2. Wow, now that’s inspiring. Quite the tale could be spun from this post. 🙂
    Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com

  3. Just bought your book, The Eighth Day. Can’t wait to read it. I love MG fiction!
    Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com

  4. Tiana Smith says:

    Oooh, so interesting. I could see this being a great prologue/set up for a novel 🙂

  5. Robin says:

    I can see you running with this idea. It is all very curious, isn’t it? I rather like the idea that she never died at all and they made off with the money. Ha!

  6. mshatch says:

    Lots of intriguing possibilities; my mind is already spinning with them.

  7. J E Oneil says:

    It does! It definitely gets my writer brain going. If it was a con, I wonder who the funeral was for.

  8. Angela Brown says:

    So much scandal often surrounds such mysteries. Very interesting.

  9. Argh! Now I really, really want to know who she was. Can we invent time machines already?! 😉

  10. What a delicious mystery. I LOVE that flowery long-winded, engraving on the headstone. My hubby would probably opt for something romantic like, “Here lies the shell the nut passed away.”

    So how long until you pen a book based on this mystery…?

  11. Tonja says:

    That’s funny that your kids are used to going to places like that. Mine go on research trips with me and are used to visiting abandoned coal towns. 🙂

  12. Southpaw says:

    So cool and sad but what a story. 10 people could write a story about her and they’d all be different.

  13. AmyMak says:

    So intriguing! I’m a big fan of cemeteries…very interested in all this history.

  14. mshatch says:

    ps I just recommended TED to my sister who teaches (2nd grade) in Cincinnati – she’s going to suggest it to one of the older classes 🙂