With Halloween just a few days away, I thought I would share my favorite real-life ghost story, which was actually the inspiration for my YA time travel novella, 1816 Candles. This novella is a mash-up of a famous ghost story in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, as well as Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol.
Alexandria, a picturesque town on the shores of the Potomac River older than our nation’s democracy itself, is full of ghost stories. The most enduring of Old Town’s ghost stories has even been featured on History Channel’s Haunted History — The Legend of the Female Stranger.
This is what is known of the story:
In September 1816, a ship (believed to have originated in the West Indies) docked in Alexandria, which was a neighborhood of Washington, DC at the time. This was not unusual in and of itself, as Alexandria was a bustling seaport in those days. But no ship was expected at that time, so all the townspeople paid close attention.
A man and woman emerged from the ship and made their way up Cameron Street to the City Hotel, which at the time was owned by John Wise. (Today we know this building as Gadsby’s Tavern, which was famous in American history as the site of George Washington’s last two Birthnight Balls. Other prominent historical figures known to frequent the tavern include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Madison, and the Marquis de la Fayette.)
The presumed husband and wife were shown to Room 8, and it was soon discovered that the woman was ill. Her condition continued to deteriorate until finally the husband summoned the doctor, hotel staff, and even the owner’s wife to Room 8 to ask a very unusual request: everyone present must swear an oath never to reveal their identities. Those in attendance agreed, which in turn began rampant speculation amongst the townspeople about who the strangers might be.
The mysterious woman in Room 8 died a month later, and the man with her commissioned an elaborate tombstone, which still sits in St. Paul’s Church Cemetery just outside of Old Town. It 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 was 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
Shortly after the female stranger’s death, Alexandria’s merchants went to collect the debt from her “husband.” The tombstone and funeral cost $1500 (worth roughly $25,000 in today’s money), plus the strangers had racked up a month’s worth of room and board at Gadsby’s, as well as medical expenses. Extending a large amount of credit to a refined gentleman was not unusual, but despite the seeming distasteful nature of inquiring about money in the wake of grief, the merchants were now owed a significant sum.
When the merchants arrived at Room 8 to collect, they discovered that the male stranger had disappeared. He’d left town without paying his debts, and was never heard from again. It would be human nature at this point to forget about the supposed “oath” never to reveal the identities of the strangers and to seek justice, but the Alexandria townspeople kept their word. The hotel register was scrubbed clean and all that remained of the event was the anonymous tombstone in St. Paul’s Cemetery and local lore.
Throughout the years, speculation about the Female Stranger’s identity has remained a favorite pastime in Alexandria. Some believe she was Theodosia Burr Alston, the distraught daughter of disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr. Alston was believed to have drowned at sea almost four years before the events unfolded in Alexandria, but of course the gossips said she had faked her own death to leave her husband in order to run away with her lover.
Others believed that the Female Stranger was a kidnapped European princess or possibly even Napoleonin drag. Those who believed the latter story point out that he had been exiled from France in 1815, and that the “23 years, 8 months” on her headstone would date her supposed birth in February 1793, which was the month in which the diminutive French general declared war on England. This theory posits that Napoleon, disguised as the “female stranger,” faked his death and used the burial as a hiding place for treasure stolen from the aristocracy during the French Revolution.
Still others believe the entire situation was an elaborate scam devised by con men, and that both the Male and Female Strangers escaped from the town with a large amount of money, laughing all the way to the bank. The “oath of secrecy” may have been devised by the townspeople themselves to cover up for being duped.
Or then there’s my husband’s favorite explanation — aliens.
Who knows? It all happened nearly two hundred years ago, so perhaps “ancient aliens” would be a more accurate description. Besides, the only people who were ever privy to the events are long dead, so we’ll never know.
Local lore claims that the Female Stranger is known to haunt the hotel to this day. She — or at least a woman in Regency era clothing — is occasionally seen in the upstairs window of Room 8, holding a lit candle. Docents at the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum say they have heard the sound of someone walking around upstairs, only to find there is no one there.
The historic ballroom at Gadsby’s Tavern was the setting of many “public assemblies” in its day, and today remains an important part of “living history.” Playing on the popularity of Jane Austen among young women, the Gadsby’s Tavern Society and the Living History Foundation host frequent costume balls in which attendees dress in period attire and do the famous dances of the time. (Doesn’t everyone want to meet their own Mr. Darcy?)
I first heard the story of the Female Stranger while attending an Alexandria Colonial Tours “Ghosts and Graveyards” tour during a stop in front of Gadsby’s, where I’d already been taking English Country Dance lessons for nearly a year under the tutelage of dancing master Corky Palmer.
After explaining the background events from 1816, the tour guide told us that one evening during a dance that was held there, a young man spotted a woman across the room flirting with him. The reenactment year for the dance was 1799, but she was wearing a dress from about a decade and a half later than that, which struck him as odd. He looked again, but she was not there. But he was intrigued, and walked right down the middle of a longway set, disturbing the dancers in his quest to find her. There was only one place she could have gone that quickly, and that was a nearby bedroom, which happened to be the same one in which the famous Female Stranger had died.
As the man entered the room, he spotted a lit candle on the night stand. Thinking it was a bad idea to have a candle lit in an unattended room, he went downstairs to complain to the hotel manager. After the two returned to the room, they found the candle as if it had never been lit, the wick still white with wax.
I became intrigued by this story, and when I decided that I needed a novella to kick off my new time travel series (although 1816 Candlesoccurs first chronologically and will be published first, I’d actually written Julie’s story, Party Like It’s 1899, five years earlier), the Female Stranger seemed perfect for exploration. Who was she? Why did her “husband” disappear? Whereas my husband likes to say “maybe it’s aliens,” I tend towards saying “maybe they were time travelers.”
As for combining it with A Christmas Carol, well, you know, ghosts and the past. Besides Dickens’ Victorian morality tale is awesome.
And thus 1816 Candles was born!
Oh, and pssst…the girl and guy inside the snow globe on the cover of 1816 Candles? That’s me and Mr. Brice, when we attended the Jane Austen Ball at Gadsby’s Tavern a few years ago.
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