This mysterious grave in St. Paul’s Cemetery has stirred more questions, more suspicion, and more romantic notions than perhaps any other location in Alexandria, Virginia. The legend has countless variations and through the centuries, has inspired poetry, short stories, and even the novel Narration of John Trust, translated from his MSS, by William Carne. The story has been around for nearly two centuries and has as many variations as any story of similar antiquity. Who was the Female Stranger? The world may never know.
Alexandria was a bustling harbor for shipping and trading after the Revolutionary War. Diplomats, visitors, and traders from around the civilized world regularly visited her harbors. A large schooner sailed into the Virginia port on July 25, 1815. It was owned by an Alexandria merchant named John Dean. The ship carried rum and sugar, as well as a mysterious couple.
The West Indies vessel, named “Four Sons,” was due in Halifax, Virginia. The ship made an emergency stop at Alexandria, only long enough for two passengers to disembark. A man accompanied a heavily veiled female. The couple told the spectators they were husband and wife. Their arrival drew an incredible amount of attention because she wore thick veils and “mourning weeds,” or the full Victorian mourning ensemble, during the hottest part of July. She had to be carried wherever she went due to an unknown malady.
The couple first visited “The Bunch of Grapes,” an informal name for Alexandria’s largest tavern and finest lodging. The gentleman registered them as husband and wife. As soon as they were checked into the best room, he sent for a physician. Part of the stories claim the couple spoke English. The other versions state only the husband spoke fragmented English and the couple normally spoke French.
Now, the story becomes stranger. Before the husband allowed a physician in the room, the doctor had to take an oath to absolute secrecy, a strange request for a man desperate to get his sick wife treated. The couple ascertained the services of two local women to work as their servants. The women were likewise sworn to absolute secrecy. All three individuals kept true to their word, regardless. The doctor visited weekly for around 10 weeks. The two women provided daily services, but the veiled lady’s primary servant was her husband.
Various rumors endured regarding their months in Alexandria. Some people claimed she never left the room. Others say they went out for walks when her health allowed. Every legend mentions the strange practice of wearing heavy veils. In some versions, her veils were occasionally lifted and the female stranger was pale, with ruby-red lips and large eyes. People were generally curious as to who they were and where they came from, but it seemed no one had any information.
The pair became a familiar couple in Alexandria. It was clear she was dying from her illness. On the night of October 13, her condition worsened. The husband called in the physician and the two servants; however, asked that they leave the room when she started to die. They consented and hours later, he emerged saying it was all over.
The bizarre rituals continued. The husband would not allow anyone else to prepare her body for burial. He wouldn’t even allow help with placing her in the coffin. Attendees were not allowed to watch his preparation or his placement of the body into the casket. He alone placed the body in the coffin and sealed the lid shut.
The brief funeral was held in the hotel and the coffin was quickly carried to the hearse. She was taken to the St. Paul Cemetery and buried. The husband ordered her monument after the burial and disappeared. The monument reads:
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 thou 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
Some legends state he never came back. Others state that, for several years, he returned annually to ensure her grave was maintained, but the visits suddenly ceased. Most people believed he passed on. The grave fell into disrepair and neglect after that.
Years later, one elderly man and two elderly women showed up at her grave. They were all obviously wealthy. They tried to clean the mysterious grave and make it presentable. The cemetery’s sexton came to see them. He wanted to know who they were and why they disturbed the dead. They claimed they were her relatives. They said her husband had been a British officer. The sexton wasn’t satisfied with the vague and negligent explanations. The town had speculated on the history surrounding the woman buried there for decades. He tried to question them further and they left. They never returned.
As time passed, people began to think that John Dean’s son, William H. Dean, knew the secret. Whatever it was, he carried it with him to the grave. Passenger lists were searched, but no one found anything more than the same false names used at the hotel.
Years later, the doctor admitted he never saw the woman’s face. She wore the veils even when he examined her. The two women only admitted she was beautiful and of uncommonly high birth.
Great care has been taken to provide a chronological version of the story, based upon historic texts. Details from varying accounts were utilized in the attempt to create something more solid than most stories. As with most, there are considerable inconsistencies with each tale, so the creation of a perfect account is impossible. This is a section devoted to any extra superfluous items.
Some sources state the couple arrived aboard an English vessel and the stranger was perfectly healthy until five months after their arrival, when she grew ill and died. Some legends state they arrived with two servants and sometimes it’s just one valet. Some stories claim the doctor was only allowed to examine her if the husband, or one of the servants, were in the room with her. Most stories state the couple was adamantly secretive and did not associate with others in the town, beyond necessity.
Rumors also suggested the husband was seen in New Orleans, Louisiana, shortly after her death. One persistent rumor stated a foreign man-o-war ship came into port, just below Alexandria, shortly after her death. The crew disembarked during the night and visited the cemetery. While there, they exhumed her grave and took her remains back with them. The ship was gone by morning.
Another rumor associated with the lore is that the gentleman, or “husband,” did not pay for anything while there. He did not cover the cost of the tombstone or the medical treatment the lady received. Some accounts say his surname was “Clermont,” and he had $1,500 on his person, but it was counterfeit. This version claims a man came forward after seeing Clermont in Sing Sing later on.
The “Bunch of Grapes,” is Gadsby’s Tavern today, still in operation in Alexandria. She is said to have stayed in room #8. Stories exist today that she still haunts the old tavern. Perhaps the anonymous burial never allowed her spirit to rest in peace.
There are also legends she was the daughter of Aaron Burr, Theodosia Burr, who disappeared while traveling. It’s also said the “female stranger,” was actually Napoleon Bonaparte.
This story was once enjoyed with the greatest Victorian ideas. People mourned along with the grief-stricken “husband” for a century after her death. Sadly, it would seem the explanation is fairly simple today. The female stranger was likely pregnant from an affair and the child’s father brought her to a strange land to have the baby. It would prevent his deeds from becoming known.
There were rumors that she was a noble who fell in love with a servant, or vice versa, but such unions had no need for secrecy in a foreign land. Perhaps the grieving man murdered her, as no one else was allowed to prepare the body for burial. Murderers in history have used the high emotions of grief to hide evidence of their deed, as with the Enfield Ghost in West Virginia.
Today, it doesn’t seem romantic at all. She was buried in a distant land, amid strangers, and wasn’t even allowed a name on her own tombstone. She suffered her illness separated from friends and loved ones. The physician couldn’t treat her without a hot and uncomfortable outfit. After she died, she was essentially erased from history. Even those who claimed to be her relatives so many years later would not speak her name or inscribe her tombstone with identification, nor did they care to visit a second time. Whatever the reason, she wasn’t a female stranger to those who knew her.
There’s also lingering suspicion that the situation was merely an elaborate ruse for someone who wanted to fake his or her death, or someone who wanted to dispose of an enemy’s body.