Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Alexandria is home to one of the most unusual graves in the world. Travelers come from near and far to visit it. On ghost tours and in coffeehouses, people speak of its mysteries. There in the cemetery, people stand in awe when they see it — as if they hadn't believed it could possibly be true. No name appears on the elaborately engraved monument. Instead, the stone is inscribed to the memory of a Female Stranger.
"One of Alexandria's most persistent mysteries involves the dark secret which surrounds the true identity of the famous Female Stranger who died at Gadsby's Tavern on October 1816," wrote Michael Miller, city historian, in a 1983 article for the Alexandria Port Packet. "Facts pertaining to this story have been embellished so frequently that it is difficult to untangle the web which shrouds the truth."
Old Town is not without its share of ghost stories and tall tales.
"Of all the legends and tales of old Alexandria, the most poignant is the mysterious story of the Female Stranger," wrote local historian Ruth Lincoln Kaye in her book, "Legends and Folk Tales of Old Alexandria Virginia." "It's the greatest mystery of them all."
<b>THE MYSTERY STARTED</b> in the autumn of 1816. That's when a handsome Englishman arrived from the West Indies and docked at the port of Alexandria. He was with a beautiful woman, but she was sick with typhoid fever. She was taken to Gadsby's Tavern to convalesce.
The man hired a prominent local doctor — Samuel Richards — to attend to the woman. But he was not able to help her. Mrs. John Wise and Ms. James Stuart also attended to the woman. But, every day, the woman grew closer to death.
She died on Oct. 14. He decided to bury her in Alexandria, borrowing a considerable sum of money from local merchant Lawrence Hill. In exchange, the man gave Hill a note from the Bank of England — dishonored when it was discovered to be a forgery. The grave is one of the most intricate in the cemetery, with stately columns supporting a tabletop stone with an elaborately engraved 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 was place here by her disconsolate husband, in whose arms she signed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold, dead ear of death."
This inscription is followed by a quote from the 10th chapter of Acts. The monument was originally surrounded by an iron railing, later scavenged during World War I. According to Miller, the cost of the burial and the grave was $1,500.
"After receiving the sympathy of his friends, the sorrowful widower departed Alexandria without paying his bills and was never seen again," Miller wrote. "A few years later, however, Alexandrian Lawrence Hill went to New York to enter into a business relationship with his uncle, Robert McCrea, formerly a merchant of Alexandria. While in New York, Hill had occasion to visit Sing Sing prison and was accosted by the same English widower who had previously borrowed money from him in Alexandria."
The man, whose last name was Clermont, had been imprisoned for forgery. He had a shaved head and was employed making shoes for the other inmates. But his polished British demeanor had not been tarnished by prison life. According an Oct. 12, 1861 story in the Alexandria Gazette, Hill confronted Clermont at the prison.
"Mr. Clermont, the bills which you gave me were all returned protested and your conduct is most inexplicable," Hill said, according to the newspaper account.
"Ah, indeed," came Clermont's reply. "Well, it was probably owing to some informality, and it will give me the pleasure to furnish you with others in their stead."
Hill then came back to Alexandria "absorbed in the contemplation of the adroit and skillful roguery of the polished Mr. Clermont."
<b>THE FEMALE STRANGER'S</b> ghost is said to haunt Gadsby's Tavern. The room where she died, Room 8, has been the scene of many sightings. In the "Ghosts of Virginia," L.B. Taylor reports that she did not go to Sing Sing with Clermont.
"Visitors have reported seeing her at a bedroom window holding a candle and looking out," Taylor wrote. "Others have sighted her walking the halls, or standing by her tombstone nearby."
For years, tourists have strained their necks to look into the window of Room 8 — hoping to see the light from a candle. Others have visited her grave in the St. Paul's Cemetery.