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Three Mysterious Portraits

March 2024
3min read

Around almost everyone—and everything—connected with the Burr conspiracy, time and flourishing legend have drawn a cloak of mystery. This is particularly true of three supporting characters: Burr’s beloved daughter, Theodosia, and Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, the couple who were charmed into contributing much of their fortune to the little colonel’s grandiose schemes. The mystery continues to cling even to the surviving portraits reproduced above and on the opposite page.

On December 30, 1812, the American privateer Patriot put out from Charleston, South Carolina, for New York, her guns and a rich cargo of booty concealed below decks under sacks of rice. In her cabin was a distinguished passenger, Theodosia Burr Alston—desperately ill and still grieving over the death of her little son—on her way to visit her father. To get the Patriot through the British blockade, Theodosia’s husband, Governor Joseph Alston, had given the captain a letter addressed to the commander of the British fleet, calling upon his gentlemanly gallantry to let the lady pass. The ruse worked. On New Year’s Day, 1813. when the privateer was stopped by a British warship off Cape Hatteras, the letter was produced and the Patriot was waved on her way. The Englishmen may have been the last to see her company alive: that night a violent storm blew up and the Patriot was never heard from again.

The scene shifts now to a dirty little shack in the hamlet of Nags Head on Cape Hatteras, that traditional graveyard of ships off the North Carolina coast. The year is 1869, and the shack’s owner, a poor, sick old “banks” woman named Mrs. Mann, has called in Dr. William G. Pool of nearby Elizabeth City. Having no cash to pay his fee, she offers him an oil painting of a young and beautiful lady whose approximate age, auburn hair, and piercing eyes give her a strong resemblance to Theodosia Alston. With the portrait goes a story. The picture—and some dresses evidently made for a gentlewoman—had been given to Mrs. Mann many years before by her lover, a young Hatteras fisherman; they represented part of his share in the loot from a deserted sailing vessel found driving toward Nags Head one morning early in 1813 bunks made up and table laid, rudder set and sails drawing. No vessel other than the Patriot and no gentlewoman other than Theodosia were known to be missing as a result of the terrible storm. Was the lady in the picture Theodosia? Many, including Dr. John E. Stillwell, a long-time collector of Burr portraits, have thought so, and have speculated that she was taking the picture to New York as a present for her father. Others are not so sure.

But how did the lady meet her death? In the half century following the Patriot ’s disappearance, there were at least seven reports of deathbed statements by sailors—in places as various as a death cell in Norfolk, Virginia, and a poorhouse in Cass County. Michigan—confessing that they had been among a crew of pirates who boarded the wallowing privateer off Hatteras and, having stripped her of everything valuable, forced her people to walk the plank. One even recalled that a beautiful lady passenger had asked for a moment’s reprieve while she went below, changed into a long white dress, and got her Bible; then she walked to her death with seraphic calm. More sober historians are inclined to a more prosaic interpretation: storm, shipwreck, drowning at sea. No one knows.

No one really knew, either, why the wealthy, cultivated Blennerhassetts went to live on a nearly deserted island in the Ohio River a year after their arrival from England in 1796. Not until 1901, long alter both were dead, was it revealed that Harman had married his own niece, and that the newlyweds had been ostracized by their families. Partly for that reason and partly in order to keep their secret from their children, they had crossed the seas and sought a remote abode where no one who knew them was likely to follow. Their two daughters died in infancy, their three sons turned out to be drunkards or ne’er-do-wells, and neither Harman nor Margaret ever recovered more than a fraction of the $50,000 their association with Burr had cost them. Harman died in much straitened circumstances on the island of Guernsey in 1831, his wife in New York in 1842. Ironically, her claim against the government for the damage done to her home on Blennerhassett Island by Ohio militiamen during the conspiracy was about to be honored; it was sponsored by Senator Henry Clay, who had once defended Aaron Burr.

In 1854, as Harman Blennerhassett, Jr., lay dying in an almshouse in New York City, he gave his few possessions to a merchant named Orlando D. McClain, who had befriended him. Among them were fine miniatures of his parents, each set in pearls. Before McClain could keep his promise to send the miniatures to a surviving Blennerhassett brother in St. Louis, a mysterious stranger came to the house. McClain was absent. To Mrs. McClain the man represented himself as a historian who wanted to have the miniatures daguerreotyped for a forthcoming book. He had already obtained Mr. McClain’s consent, he said, and Mrs. McClain gave up the miniatures—much to the chagrin of her husband, who, it turned out, had never seen or heard of the stranger before. Several years later a package was left at the house containing good daguerreotype copies; the McClains never saw the original miniatures again. The daguerreotypes came into the possession of the same Dr. John Stillwell who spent so much time inquiring into the provenance of the Nags Head portrait of Theodosia Alston, and eventually became part of the collection of the New-York Historical Society, with whose permission they are reproduced below.

—The Editors

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