The legend of the burning bride

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The legend of the burning bride
Laura Schafer, also known as the burning bride, died in 1868 after her dress caught fire. Some believe her ghost continues to haunt the building to this day. (Photo/Office of Historic Alexandria)
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By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]

Autumn is not only the season for brisk weather, mahogany and burnt orange color combinations and pumpkin bread with apple cider – it’s also the time of year when Alexandria’s spookiest ghost tales emerge from the shadows to take center stage.

Rooted in fact and interlaced with embellishments over time, the legend of Laura Schafer, or the burning bride as she has come to be known, is one story that has gripped residents for more than 150 years.

Historical documents reveal that a man named Charles Tennesson and his beloved, Laura, were engaged to be married after the Civil War ended. In June 1868, however, tragedy struck.

One summer evening, Laura tucked her grandmother into bed on the second floor of their home at 107 N. Fairfax St.

At this point in the story, the line between fact and fiction already begins to blur, with some saying the evening in question took place the night before the couple’s wedding. They believe the family had just arrived home from the wedding rehearsal and that Laura was therefore still wearing her wedding dress when she put her grandmother to bed.

“It was said to have been very elegant and beautiful – 15 yards of silk fabric for the train alone,” Wellington Watts, owner of Alexandria Colonial Tours, said.

Watts finds the story so captivating, in fact, that it has earned a spot on his Old Town Ghost & Graveyard Tour, in which guides don 18th century costumes while recounting local folklore and urban legends.

Others counter that the wedding dress detail is simply an elaborate – and perhaps inevitable – byproduct of these legends getting passed down over hundreds of years.

“That’s a story some of the guides will tell,” Eric Roper, owner of Dolci & Gelati, which is located in the building where Laura once lived, said. “She actually wasn’t … but they’ll embellish it a little bit, say it was her wedding day and she had her wedding dress on.”

While Laura’s exact attire on that fateful night remains unknown, what happened next is as certain as it is distressing.

After putting her grandmother to bed, Laura inadvertently cracked the kerosene oil lamp she’d been carrying. The glass bulb shattered and kerosene spilled onto her dress, which caught fire instantaneously.

According to the June 29, 1868 edition of the Alexandria Gazette, Laura’s brother-in-law William Phillips witnessed nearly the entire scene and provided his account of events.

“She immediately threw the lamp from her to the hearth, and [ran] down stairs, screaming piteously for help,” the Gazette reported. “Mr. Phillips, who was sitting at the front door steps, hearing her cries, rushed into the house, and saw her rapidly descending the stairs, enveloped in flames that extended far above her head.”

Laura made it down the stairs to William, who then suffocated the all-consuming flames with his coat, but at that point it was too late.

The family subsequently enlisted a man referred to by the Gazette as Dr. Lewis in hopes of preserving Laura’s life, to no avail.

“ … nearly the whole surface of her body was severely burned, and in some places to the consistency of a crisp, and on the following morning, shortly after eleven o’clock, she was relieved of her sufferings,” the newspaper reported.

Instead of celebrating the marriage between two young lovers that Sunday, Laura’s family is said to have held her funeral in the parlor on the first floor, which is precisely where Dolci & Gelati is currently located.

The fate of Laura’s fiancé was just as dire. According to the Gazette, a few hours after Laura’s death, Charles, who was presumed to be a Confederate soldier, raised a glass of alcohol to his friend and said,“Here’s to you and I; God save us.” Shortly after, he raised a small revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.

The story of the burning bride is indeed tragic, but the countless ghost tales it’s generated over the years are what have ensured its longevity.

Before Dolci & Gelati, 107 N. Fairfax St. was a real estate office. According to Watts, one of the real estate agents on the first floor heard something rustling around in the room that once belonged to Laura. Supposedly, the agent walked upstairs to investigate but could not open the door, behind which there was the distinct smell of smoke. Suddenly, the door burst open and a bout of intense heat rushed past the agent, Watts said.

“She then hears a woman screaming in pain, careening down the stairs and crashing into the hardwood floor,” Watts said. “She didn’t see a soul, at least not a living one, and it is said that was the ghost of Laura Schafer still reliving the horror of the night before her wedding.”

Another previous business owner in the building, Candida Kreb of Candi’s Candies, reported strange occurrences as well.

Kreb did not know anything about the building’s history before opening her candy store in 2007. As Kreb recollected in Michael Pope’s “Ghosts of Alexandria,” however, she would soon become privy.

From faint smells of smoke in the distance that led nowhere to the sound of deep voices telling her to leave, Kreb experienced her fair share of frights in the old Schafer house.

One particularly notable instance that is shared not only in “Ghosts of Alexandria” but also in whispers throughout town is the “basement story.”

Kreb was alone in the basement about a year after opening the business when she said she froze abruptly upon feeling the “unmistakable presence” that someone else was in the room.

“This was not Laura. This was definitely a male. I could feel him there with me; it was spooky,” Kreb said in the book.

Pope speculated that perhaps the presence belonged to the ghost of Charles Tennesson, or that maybe it was someone – or something – else entirely.

“In any event, the story of what happened to Laura Schafer is one of the most famous ghost stories in Alexandria, maybe because it has all the elements of a classic tale: love, loss, tragedy and redemption. Or then again, maybe it’s because the story remains alive today because strange things keep happening at the Schafer House,” Pope wrote.

According to Roper, today patrons often stop by Dolci & Gelati to both enjoy the gelato and explore the rich history and folklore entangling the space. Roper did not share any recent haunted happenings that may or may not have graced his shop, but he did pay homage to the infamous tale by first opening its doors on Oct. 31. This Halloween will mark the shop’s six-year anniversary.

A dynamic tale from beginning to end, the story contains a delicate sentimentality that Watts said resonates with residents and visitors alike.

“A woman’s about to get married and enjoy the happiness of the rest of her life, and then tragedy strikes,” Watts said. “It’s just heartbreaking. So people can relate to that and there’s still sympathy felt for the woman who had everything, all the happiness she was looking for, I hate to say it, go literally up in flames.”

Watts also pointed to the fact that in general, for whatever reason, people do gravitate toward a good haunting.

“This truly melancholy [affair] was the subject of general conversation yesterday and to-day,” the Gazette wrote of the event at the time, as it would be the following days, months and hundreds of years down the road.

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