The mystery of the Female Stranger

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The Female Stranger is buried at St. Paul's Cemetery. The story of the Female Stranger is one of the most enduring pieces of Alexandria folklore. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Every fall, Alexandria’s rich history takes on a distinctly spooky tone, the hard facts of the historical record giving way to the vague, but no less intriguing, allure of urban legends and ghost stories.

And there are few local legends as well known and enduring as that of the Female Stranger.

As the story goes, in 1816 a young woman and a man, who was presumed to be her husband, arrived at Gadsby’s Tavern.

“The gentleman was polished and polite; the lady was young and handsome,” according to the July 20, 1866 edition of the Alexandria Gazette.

The woman had taken ill on the voyage to Alexandria and, after being tended to by doctors and nurses for weeks, it became clear she wouldn’t make it. At this point, the story takes a turn.

The words inscribed on the Female Stranger’s gravestone continue to inspire intrigue more than a century later. (Courtesy photo)

“After a brief conversation with his wife, [the man] calls the doctor and nurses and Mr. Gadsby to the bedside and he asks them to swear an oath,” Wellington Watts, owner of Alexandria Colonial Tours, said. “And, in the oath they are to promise that they will never reveal the identity of either the man or the woman for the rest of their lives.”

The woman died shortly after and was buried at St. Paul’s Cemetery. Her grave is marked by an extravagant tabletop tombstone with a mysterious, yet tragic, inscription:

“To the memory of a female stranger 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.”

Followed by verses from an Alexander Pope poem and the Book of Acts, the inscription has inspired more than the name of the legend. It reveals the tragic heart of the Female Stranger’s story and has led to more than a century of mystery and intrigue.

“Once you start reading the words on her gravestone, it’s super hard not to pique your interest and kind of dive deeper into who this person might have been,” Liz Williams, director of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, said.

“It’s a tragic story that’s been romanticized over time, but it’s a soul asking for forgiveness,” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church verger Heidi Schneble said.

The cost of the tombstone, inscription and burial plot was pricey; in an 1861 edition of The Local News it was estimated to be around $1,500. The woman’s companion paid for it all, but the bill bounced. He promptly fled town, angering the locals.

The tabletop headstone, burial plot and cryptic inscription dedicated to the Female Stranger cost around $1,500 at the time. The stranger’s male companion left town shortly after his payment bounced. (Photo/St. Paul’s Episcopal Church)

“They tried to find his name at Gadsby’s, but Mr. Gadsby scribbled the name out of the registry and doctors and nurses refused to say as well,” Watts said. “The mystery continues to this day who that couple was.”

Despite, or perhaps because, there are so few concrete details, the story has captivated Alexandrians and visitors alike.

“The true facts of the Female Stranger story are very few, so that’s why it’s turned into this amazing urban legend, to try to fill in the pieces of where the holes are in the story,” Williams said.

“[People are] intrigued. They’re saddened by it,” Watts said. “It’s love unfulfilled, happily ever after turns tragic.”

The Female Stranger has become an intrinsic part of Alexandria’s narrative. When the conversation about whether to preserve Gadsby’s Tavern began in the early 20th century, residents quickly rallied to protect the landmark. According to Williams, they cited three key figures in the building’s history: George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Female Stranger.

Like any good mystery, the Female Stranger’s story has spawned countless theories over the years, some more fanciful than others.

The most popular theory claims the Female Stranger was Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, who disappeared in 1813 after her ship was caught in a hurricane. Some recount an elaborate story in which Theodosia was kidnapped by pirates, held captive on a deserted island and, after escaping her captors, arrived in Alexandria. Williams is not so sure.

“That seems like a pretty aggressive connecting of the dots to make it work,” Williams said.

Some theories are more plausible. One story claims the couple was star-crossed lovers who wished to marry against their parents’ wishes. Yet another identifies the couple as a pair of notorious con artists who had made their way down the port cities of the eastern seaboard.

Other theories dramatize and romanticize the story to the point where it resembles a soap opera. One notable theory involves two sets of orphans and a love triangle.

“It’s like an international soap opera where children are separated from birth, go to different places, there’s a love triangle and, in the end, you find out that the love triangle is really between siblings and it’s kind of crazy,” Michael Pope, reporter for Virginia Public Radio and author of “Ghosts of Alexandria,” said.

The Female Stranger died from an illness in Gadsby’s Tavern in 1816. Some say she still haunts the building today. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Pope said this story – and his book – gives the Female Stranger a name, however the complete lack of contemporaneous documentation makes it difficult to verify.

“This is where the documents really sort of fall apart because there’s nothing in 1816,” Pope said.

In fact, the first details surrounding the Female Stranger aren’t reported in local papers until nearly 50 years later.

The stranger’s male companion, denounced as “a cheat and a swindler” in an 1866 edition of The Alexandria Gazette, also remains a mystery. An 1861 edition of The Local News claims the man’s name was Clermont, based on the word of Lawrence Hill, who accepted the bill from the man.

“This is one of the fascinating things about this, is that because it’s so captivating to the imagination, there are all these totally separate stories, that do not intersect at all, about different theories and about different things that could have possibly happened,” Pope said.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church believes the mystery is worth preserving for the sake of the woman and the power of the story, Schneble said.

“Personally, I want her to stay the Female Stranger,” Schneble said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you can do DNA testing today.’ I was like, ‘This was her arrangement, so let’s respect that. Hon- or her at her final resting place.’ I just feel proud that St. Paul’s is the one that’s her earthly custodian.”

Some say the Female Stranger’s story continues today – in the afterlife.

Over the years, several people have reported seeing a young woman dressed in 19th-century clothing wandering Gadsby’s Tavern.

“A couple of years ago one of the tour guides from this company was at a costume ball at Gadsby’s … and the guide sees an attractive woman in early 19th-century clothing, out of step with everyone in costume,” Watts said.

One man claims to have seen the ghost of the Female Stranger at a costume ball held in the Gadsby’s Tavern ballroom. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The man followed this strangely dressed woman into one of the tavern’s rooms – room number eight – but she had vanished. There was only a lit candle to indicate someone had been in the room. Unnerved, the man rushed out of the room to find someone.

“He’s kind of freaking out about the whole thing and goes back into this room and the candle is clean like it had never been lit, but it was still hot to the touch,” Williams said.

A young woman who had returned home from college to work at the Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant for the summer also claims to have come face to face with the stranger, Watts said.

“Her first night on the job she goes to the kitchen, gets her customer’s meals, she turns around and the ghost is staring her right in the face,” Watts said. “She screams and panics, the plates drop on the floor, the ghost vanishes, she runs out the door and quits on sight. We were told she’s never been back in Old Town since.”

The ghost stories have become a fun part of the tavern’s history and a welcome boon during the fall. The story is a big hit on Watts’ Ghost and Graveyard Tour, and, every fall, Gadsby’s receives countless calls from people hoping to learn more about the Female Stranger’s story and any supernatural sightings, Williams said.

In Alexandria, history lingers. The stories of the past, its people and events, are woven into the narrative – and economic – fabric of the city. Perhaps, that’s why the city is so full of ghost stories, Pope said. Ghost stories are a way to connect with a past that never seems too far away.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has taken on the role of “earthly custodian” for the Female Stranger’s grave and legacy. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“When you live in a place like Old Town that has endured the British burning down Washington D.C. in 1814 and has endured through the Civil War and Union occupation and has endured through the crisis of Watergate … when we walk around a city like that, you’re bound to wonder about all the crazy stuff that happened,” Pope said. “That’s the allure of ghosts in Old Town Alexandria.”

According to Watts, an admitted skeptic, the appeal of ghost stories and the Female Stranger might be more primal. One’s mileage may vary on the supernatural, but there is an undeniable fear and allure to the unknown.

“Other people are drawn to ghost [stories] because there’s always that little hint that maybe it’s real,” Watts said. “Maybe there’s something lurking behind closed doors. There’s someone behind the curtain you don’t expect to see. Something’s going on that we don’t have regular access too.”

(Read more: The history of Halloween on South Lee Street)

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