Friday, August 6, 2010


Patriot, January 1, 1813.

During the week of January 1, 1813, the schooner Patriot disappeared. On board was Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of former Vice President Aaron Burr and the wife of Joseph Alston, governor of South Carolina. (Snow, Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea, pp. 167; Thomas Jeffrey, Bermuda Triangle, pp. 45; Winer, Devil's Triangle 2, pp. 34.)

On December 31, 1812, Theodosia sailed aboard the schooner Patriot from Georgetown, South Carolina. The Patriot was a famously fast sailer, which had originally been built as a pilot boat, and had served as a privateer during the War of 1812, when it was commissioned by the United States government to prey on English shipping. She had been refitted in December in Georgetown, her guns dismounted and hidden below decks. Her name was painted out and any indication of recent activity was entirely erased. The schooner's captain, William Overstocks, desired to make a rapid run to New York with his cargo, and it is likely that she was laden with the proceeds from her raids.

The Patriot and all those on board were never heard from again.

Mystics have made much hay of the dismounted guns and the safe conduct granted by the blockading British. Of course, all lost ships not sunk by enemy warships can safely be assumed to have been beamed up to a Martian mothership.

Thomas Jeffrey trots out the old canard that the Patriot cannot have been sunk by a storm because no wreckage was found, as wreckage is found from every ship that sinks in a storm.

A perennial popular favorite is that pirates got her. Bermuda Triangle writers relate all kinds of deathbed confessions by would-be pirates that wanted to immortalize themselves with such a final yarn. They said they made Theodosia walk the plank or kept her as their sex slave until she died from exhaustion. Historically, walking the plank was much less popular than keeping sex slaves.

Winer very reasonably objects that pirates would not have dared to plunder in the presence of the British blockading fleet and that seas would have been too rough to board any ship.

Here some stories from the Wikipedia article, in case you don't have any of the Bermuda Triangle books handy:

Following the Patriot's disappearance, rumors immediately arose. The most enduring was that the Patriot had been captured by the pirates Dominique You or "The Bloody Babe"; or something had occurred near Cape Hatteras, notorious for its wreckers.

Her father refused to credit any of the rumors of her possible capture, believing that she had died in shipwreck, but the rumors persisted long after his death and after around 1850 more substantial "explanations" of the mystery surfaced, usually alleging to be from the deathbed confessions of sailors and executed criminals.

One story which was considered somewhat plausible was that the Patriot had fallen prey to the wreckers known as the Carolina "bankers." The bankers populated the sandbank islands near Nags Head, North Carolina, pirating wrecks and murdering both passengers and crews. When the sea did not serve up wrecks for their plunder, they lured ships onto the shoals. On stormy nights the bankers would hobble a horse, tie a lantern around the animal's neck, and walk it up and down the beach. Sailors at sea could not distinguish the bobbing light they saw from that of a ship which was anchored securely. Often they steered toward shore to find shelter. Instead they became wrecked on the banks, after which their crews and passengers were murdered. In relation to this, a Mr. J.A. Elliott of Norfolk, Virginia, made a statement in 1910 that in the early part of 1813, the dead body of a young woman "with every indication of refinement" had been washed ashore at Cape Charles, and had been buried on her finder's farm.

Writing in the Charleston News and Courier, Foster Haley claimed that documents he had discovered in the State archives in Mobile, Alabama, said that the Patriot had been captured by a pirate vessel captained by John Howard Payne and that every person on board had been murdered by the pirates including "a woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth". However, Haley never identified or cited the documents he had supposedly found.

The most romantic legend concerning Theodosia's fate involves piracy and a Karankawa Indian chief on the Texas Gulf Coast. The earliest American settlers to the Gulf Coast testified of a Karankawa warrior wearing a gold locket inscribed "Theodosia." He had claimed that after a terrible storm, he found a ship wrecked at the mouth of the San Bernard River. Hearing a faint cry, he boarded the hulk and found a white woman, naked except for the gold locket, chained to a bulkhead by her ankle. The woman fainted on seeing the Karankawa warrior, and he managed to pull her free and carry her to the shore. When she revived, she told him that she was the daughter of a great chief of the white men, who was misunderstood by his people and had to leave his country. She gave him the locket and told him that if he ever met white men, he was to show them the locket and tell them the story, and then died in his arms.

Another myth about her fate traces its origin to Charles Etienne Arthur Gayarre's novel Fernando de Lemos: Truth and Fiction: A Novel (1872). Gayarre devoted one chapter to a confession by the pirate Dominique You. In Gayarre's story, You admitted having captured the Patriot after he discovered it dismasted off Cape Hatteras following a storm. You and his men murdered the crew, while Theodosia was made to walk the plank: "She stepped on it and descended into the sea with graceful composure, as if she had been alighting from a carriage," Gayarre wrote in You's voice. "She sank, and rising again, she, with an indescribable smile of angelic sweetness, waved her hand to me as if she meant to say: 'Farewell, and thanks again'; and then sank forever." Because Gayarre billed his novel as a mixture of "truth and fiction," there was popular speculation about whether his account of You's confession might be real, and the story entered American folklore. The American folklorist Edward Rowe Snow later put together an account in Strange Tales from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras incorporating the Gayarre story with later offshoots; for example, on February 14, 1903, one Mrs. Harriet Sprague issued a sworn statement before Notary Freeman Atwell, of Cass County, Michigan claiming to corroborate the details of You's confession in Gayarre's 1872 novel. Mrs. Sprague described the contents of an 1848 confession by pirate Frank Burdick, an alleged shipmate of You's when the Patriot was discovered. The pirates left most of Alston's clothing untouched, as well as a portrait of Alston. Later, "wreckers" (locals known for rifling stranded vessels in often-criminal fashion) discovered the deserted Patriot and one of them carried the painting and clothing ashore, giving it to a female suitor. Years later, a physician caring for the now-elderly woman noticed the unusually expensive oil painting in the Nag's Head shack and it was supposedly confirmed to have belonged to the Alston family. The detail of the painting in Mrs. Sprague's story appears to be derived from a separate legend that first appeared in print in 1878. In 1869, Dr. William G. Pool treated Mrs. Polly Mann for an ailment; in payment she gave him a portrait of a young woman which she claimed her first husband had discovered on board a wrecked ship during the War of 1812. Pool became convinced the portrait was of Theodosia Burr Alston, and contacted members of her family, some of whom agreed, though Pool conceded "they cannot say positively if it was her." None of them had ever seen Theodosia in life. The only person who had actually known Theodosia that Pool contacted was Mary Alston Pringle, Theodosia's sister-in-law. To his disappointment, she could not recognize the painting as one of Theodosia.

A popular (though very improbable) local story in Alexandria, Virginia, suggests that Theodosia Burr Alston may have been the Mysterious Female Stranger who died in Alexandria at Gadsby's Tavern on October 14, 1816. She was buried in St. Paul's Cemetery with a gravestone inscription that begins: "To the memory of a / FEMALE STRANGER / whose mortal sufferings terminated / on the 14th day of October 1816 / Aged 23 years and 8 months."

The truth, however, is probably more prosaic.

A less romantic analysis of the known facts has led some scholars to conclude that the Patriot was probably wrecked by a storm off Cape Hatteras. Logbooks from the blockading British fleet report a severe storm which began off the Carolina coast in the afternoon of January 2, 1813, and continued into the next day. James L. Michie, an archaeologist from South Carolina, by studying its course has concluded that the Patriot was likely just north of Cape Hatteras when the storm was at its fiercest. "If the ship managed to escape this battering, which continued until midnight," he has said, "it then faced near hurricane-force winds in the early hours of Sunday. Given this knowledge, the Patriot probably sank between 6 p.m. Saturday [January 2] and 8 a.m. Sunday [January 3]."


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