Across the Potomac River, the grave of a mysterious young woman who died over 200 years ago rests in an Alexandria cemetery. The legend of the female stranger has been a part of Old Town’s lore for centuries. One hundred years after her death, a romance novel attempted to sprinkle some of the legend’s fairy dust on Cabin John, just as the area was being developed by J.S. Tomlinson’s American Land Company. To this day, the identity of the female stranger remains an abiding mystery.
Alexandria’s Gadsby’s Tavern and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, as well as the valley below the Cabin John Bridge all played a role in the 1912 novel. On a recent weekend, I dragged my family across the Potomac in search of the female stranger’s story, and perhaps to even catch a glimpse of her ghost in Gadsby’s, where she died.
The story begins in St. Paul’s Cemetery, where a large marble slab set upon six rounded legs continues to draw tourists. It’s inscribed with the following:
To the memory of a
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.
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
The story of Old Alexandria’s female stranger and her husband portray them as mysterious upper class figures, often with a British accent. The couple met the end of their tragic tale in room 8 of the City Hotel (now Gadsby’s Tavern), where the young wife died of an unknown illness. The legend of the female stranger was chronicled in countless newspapers throughout the 1800s.
An 1882 book by William F. Carne, The Narrative of John Trust, describes a love triangle between orphans. Another tale recounts a young couple who disembarked from their ship because the wife had taken ill. She succumbed to her illness and her husband, after paying for her tombstone with forged English notes, disappeared.
One popular theory is that the female stranger may have been Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr (the carrot that convinced my Hamilton-mad daughter to come along on our excursion), who went missing at sea in 1813. Some forty years after Theodosia disappeared, a pirate and sailor claimed they had taken her boat and held her captive, then secretly brought her ashore when she fell ill.
What connects the legend of the female stranger to Cabin John? A 1912 romance novel by Charles T. Johnson Jr., The Legend of the Female Stranger: A Tale of Cabin John Bridge and Old Alexandria.
Johnson’s novel depicts the story of a beautiful young orphan raised by an elderly nobleman in England. The lord fell in love with her but was devastated to learn that she loved a young army surgeon named John. After he witnessed the young woman and her lover embrace, heated words were exchanged and the lord accidentally fell, never to recover.
The young lovers, fearful of murder charges, escaped to America with the help of John’s brother, a ship captain. They married en route. Upon reaching the shores of the Potomac, John’s brother took them to a place he’d seen on a previous journey, a place that “should he ever desire a place whither he might hide from all the world, yet remain at the very elbow of civilization, he knew of no nook more ideal than in this valley on the banks of this peaceful brook.”
Along Cabin John’s Run, the couple built a small, rustic cabin and lived happily in the abundant forest. Yet the young woman’s health slowly deteriorated. One September morning John returned from an outing and found his bride delirious with fever. He grabbed his canoe and paddled to Alexandria. The couple were helped to the City Hotel, a distinguished inn which boasted dinner guests that included George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. A doctor was summoned to their room. John’s wife confessed that should she not survive, she wished to remain unknown, a stranger in a strange land.
On October 14th, 1816 the young woman passed away, leaving behind her distraught husband John. As promised, he buried her beneath a slab that memorialized a female stranger; her burial plot and tabletop gravestone would have been a considerable expense. John returned to his cabin in the woods, distraught. He wandered the creek, birds and squirrels his only friends. His unkempt hair and overgrown beard enveloped his gaunt body.
Is the female stranger’s shattered husband the reclusive hermit that gave Cabin John its name? Mr. Johnson’s novel weaves together two legends, borrowing Old Alexandria’s female stranger and placing her alongside John of the Cabin. It is interesting to note that Johnson’s book ends with a “Nota Bene” that details the trip to Cabin John Bridge, “long a favorite jaunt of pleasure seekers. The beautiful valley spanned by the big bridge, which was home to the lovers during their exile, lies about five miles northwest of Washington.” Whether pure fiction or a catchy sales pitch for the new development, the mystery endures.
By Rachel Donnan, Regular Contributor