The Troublesome Tombstone

The most famous grave in Alexandria is also its most mysterious.

The inscription on the tombstone bears no name, no hint as to who may have been buried beneath underneath its ornate tabletop memorial. The name has not been erased from centuries of wind and rain. It was never there at all. Instead, the elaborate epitaph is dedicated to the memory of a "Female Stranger," an inexplicable monument to an unknown woman.

"This is Alexandria's JonBenet Ramsey case," said city historian Michael Miller. "I suppose it's sort of like a crossword puzzle. You don't want to leave it until you've solved the puzzle."

The pieces of the puzzle date back to the early 19th century, when a mysterious couple arrived at the port of Alexandria. Although there are many theories — and several interesting clues — no one is sure about who they were or why they came here or what was the purpose of their ambiguity. What is known, however, is that they left behind this mysterious monument in the Old St. Paul's Cemetery, one that brings visitors from all over the world. People speak of its mysteries and conjecture as to its origins.

"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."

THE MYSTERY STARTED 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 Samuel Richards, a prominent local doctor, to attend to the woman. But he was not able to help her. Mrs. John Wise and Mrs. 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 Lawrence Hill, a local merchant, to do so. In exchange, the man gave Hill a note from the Bank of England. a note that was later dishonored when it was discovered to be a forgery. The tombstone has one of the most elaborately engraved inscriptions in the city:

"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 sighed 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, a passage in which the apostle Peter preaches about the divinity of Jesus: "To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins."

The monument was originally surrounded by an iron railing, later scavenged during the dark days of World War I. According to Miller, who spent years researching the topic, 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," wrote Miller in a 1983 Alexandria Port Packet article about the mystery.

But the story did not end there. A few years later, the merchant 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 English 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 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."

THE FEMALE STRANGER'S ghost is said to haunt Gadsby's Tavern. Room 8, where she died, has supposedly been the scene of many sightings. Ghost researcher L.B. Taylor documented the hauntings in the first installment of his "Ghosts of Virginia" series.

"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 St. Paul's Cemetery. But nobody has been able to solve the mystery, one that continues to intrigue Alexandria. Many people have speculated about her identity, wondering if she might have been the daughter of Aaron Burr, or a Napoleonic princess fleeing the political turmoil of Europe, or perhaps even a well-to-do unmarried woman who found herself unexpectedly in the family way.

"Maybe some day, we'll find a new piece of evidence and solve the mystery," Miller said. "Until then, we can only speculate."