November 27, 2017

    Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and the Mystery
of Theodosia Burr Back in the Spotlight


The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and director Joseph Schwarzer will appear in an episode of “Mysteries At The Museum” on Thursday, November 30, at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel.

This is the fourth time that the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has made an appearance on the show, and the upcoming segment will focus on the centuries-old mystery of Theodosia Burr Alston, and the famed “Nags Head Portrait.”

Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr and the husband of Joseph Alston, the then-governor of South Carolina from 1812 until 1814.

In late 1812, Theodosia planned a visit to her father Aaron Burr in New York from her home in Charleston, S.C. Her young son had just died, and her husband and father thought the trip and the change in environment would be good for her.
Theodosia boarded the Patriot, (a schooner ship and former privateer vessel during the War of 1812), bringing along a present for her farther – a portrait of herself on an oak panel.

“She left the docks of Charleston,” says Joseph Schwarzer, “and neither she nor the ship was ever seen again. No one knows what happened to Theodosia Burr.”

This could have been the end of Theodosia Burr’s story, but the tale took a twist that has left historians, researchers, and storytellers pondering the mystery of Theodosia Burr’s fate ever since.

Theodosia and the ship completely disappeared, but her painting survived, and somehow landed in Nags Head. 

It rose to regional fame some 50 years later, when a doctor from Elizabeth City paid a visit to a woman in Nags Head who didn’t have enough money to pay him for his services. Instead, she gave him the portrait, which was displayed in her home, and the doctor made the connection that the subject of the painting was in fact Theodosia Burr Alston.

The story of Theodosia, and how her painting ended up in Nags head, has been the subject of multiple magazine articles, books, and now the upcoming episode of “Mysteries At The Museum.”

Stories and rumors linger that Theodosia was stranded on the Outer Banks, or that her ship was attacked by pirates – an unlikely outcome, according to Schwarzer.

“There was a 60 knot gale blowing at the time, and nobody in their right minds tries to go pirating in a 60 knot gale,” says Schwarzer. “It’s much more likely that the Patriot was hit by rogue wave, or encountered something that sank it almost immediately… but for whatever reason, this painting survived, and it showed up in Nags Head.”

There are also theories that the painting is a forgery or fake, although experts note that the skill involved in creating the portrait may debunk this theory. “It was certainly done by a professional hand,” says Schwarzer.

Today, the original painting is displayed at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University, although an exact copy of the painting - complete with the oak panel canvas - will be on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.  “If you had [the two paintings] side by side, you would be hard pressed to tell which is which,” says Schwarzer. “And this way, people will be able to see exactly what the painting looks like.”

The episode and the story of Theodosia Burr certainly isn’t the first time the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has been in the spotlight, but it does give history fans another opportunity to explore Hatteras Island in mysterious detail.

“It’s nice to have the museum be the focus of these things, because it does encourage people to come and visit,” says Schwarzer. “This is a mystery that has endured, and which still remains unsolved.”

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