Portrait of Theodosia Burr

June 10, 2020


On December 31, 1812, Theodosia Burr, wife of wealthy Governor Joseph Alston of South Carolina, left her husband’s plantation and sailed north on the Patriot to visit her father, Aaron Burr, who lived in New York City.

In early January the vessel was approached off Cape Hatteras by ships belonging to Great Britain. During a time of war with the United States. The ship was was granted to proceed on its voyage by the Brittan’s. After that documented encounter, the Patriot was never seen again nor, with any certainty, was Theodosia.

An angry storm that very night swept the coast of North Carolina. Some say that during the gale pirates boarded the Patriot, removed all valuables, forced passengers and crew to walk the plank, then sank the ship. But legend persists that Theodosia survived, that she was cast ashore in a small boat onto the Outer Banks, bereft of all possessions except a portrait of herself, and that, with her sanity completely gone, she was thereafter cared for by a Banker fisherman and his wife.

Years passed, and In 1869 the strange woman became ill, and a doctor from Elizabeth City was called in to attend her. He did what he could, but it was clear that she had not long to live. As he was leaving the sick room, the poor fisherman’s wife told the doctor that, as she had no money, he would have to choose something from the house for his pay.

When he replied that he would like to have the handsome portrait hanging on the wall, the afflicted old woman sprang from her bed. “It is mine! You shall not have it! I am on my way to visit my father in New York, and I am taking this picture of his darling Theodosia!” With that, she grabbed the canvas, rushed through the door, ran down the surf, and walked into the ocean.. The next day, the portrait washed up on the beach. It is fact, not legend, that the doctor took the picture from Nags Head to his home in Elizabeth City, that a descendent sold it an art dealer who in turn sold it to a member of the Burr family, and that it exists today.