A Voyage With No End

Written By Kevin Ward

Like any true history nerd, I could not bring myself to discuss the ghost story of Theodosia Burr before explaining a bit about the island’s history. Long before you could take a ferry across the water and spend a day basking in the beauty of Bald Head Island, Native Americans were using it as a supplemental location for food. In the early sixteen hundreds, the island had a wild pig population to hunt and an impressive amount of shellfish for the taking.

About the same time European settlers were starting to make themselves at home and explore the area we now call the Outer Banks, Bald Head was given its name. People piloting boats out of the Cape Fear noticed the lack of vegetation on the island and merely thought “it looked like a bald guy.”

During the years 1716-1718, the island was frequently used as a safe harbor for infamous and formidable pirates like Blackbeard and (the less intimidating) Stede Bonnet. Both placing their names in the history books – Black Beard for being one of the most terrifying pirates, and Bonnet for being well, around Black Beard. Between the two of them, we can safely assume that a large number of ships traveling near the island in those days would not make it to port with their cargo (if they made it at all).

Apart from the occasional nuisance of pirate attacks, Frying Pan Shoals, caused many more ships to sink. With these unfriendly sandbars so close to the island, it was essential to build a lighthouse on the island, which they did in 1794. Sadly, that first lighthouse was short lived as it was built too close to the shore and had to be abandoned. Replacing the original safety beacon, a second lighthouse was constructed in 1817 in a safer spot on the island. It is now the oldest continually standing tower in North Carolina, known as Old Baldy. Although it remains as a beautiful historic site it is no longer required for the safety of passing ships.

During this era, a few years before Old Baldy would be up and running, one of the island’s most persistent legends came into being.

The central figure of this tale was a 29-year-old woman known as Theodosia Burr; the last name may ring a bell as it belongs to one of America’s most intriguing historical figures. Aaron Burr, was at one point the Vice President of the United States, but after this prestigious high point, his life took a decidedly downhill turn. Most notably he killed Alexander Hamilton in an illustrious duel, and then committed treason by attempting to form his empire in the New Louisiana Purchase – so not the stuff that gets your face on currency. In 1808 after his trial, he was acquitted of all charges against him, and Burr did what any innocent man would do, he fled on a ship bound for Europe. In his rush to get on his extended European “vacation,” he left behind many things, including his beloved daughter, Theodosia.

Her father did eventually return to America in July 1812, but he made port in New York and set-up residency there. Theodosia at that time lived in South Carolina with her husband Joseph Alston, and she would have under normal circumstances headed to see him as soon as possible, but tragedy befell her family when her ten-year-old son died from Malaria in June of that year.

It wasn’t until December that she was in a fair enough state to travel to see her father and the quickest way was by sea. Her husband had recently been sworn in as South Carolina’s governor, which meant he would also be in charge of the state militia. With the War of 1812 having started a few months before, he could not leave his command to join her.

Theodosia and a trusted family friend booked passage on the Schooner Patriot, which was bound for New York on December 31, 1812. Wishfully, I could say the voyage was a success and a young woman was reunited with her somewhat mentally unbalanced father, but that is not what happened 205 years ago. The Patriot, never made its intended destination and all those onboard were recorded lost at sea. The possibilities of what happened are pretty extensive, with the combination of lousy weather and Frying Pan Shoals among some of the theories, but there are other, even darker ideas out there. At the time of the disappearance, some very contemptible men had a monstrous scheme that operated off the coast.

On stormy nights they would walk a donkey with a lantern on its neck back and forth on the shore and to ships, in fear of a storm it would appear to be a fellow vessel safely in dock bobbing back and forth, in reality, it was a lethal trap. The unfortunate ship would crash into the sandbars and become stranded, at which time the men on shore would swarm the vessel, robbing the ship, all with the intent of no survivors. If this is indeed what happened to Theodosia, it may explain why her ghost is reported to haunt the shore of Bald Head Island.

Picture yourself on the beach on Bald Head, the moon is shining off the crashing waves, and you are probably feeling at ease. You see in the distance what appears to be a young woman walking in your direction. It’s an odd site, but you prepare to say a neighborly hello to the approaching stranger. You notice a peculiar fact; she appears to be wearing a long dress that seems to be of another time. Understandably, you’re wondering why someone would be so finely dressed at this hour for a stroll by the shore, but you figure “each to their own.”  

As you get closer to her, you realize with a healthy amount of fear that the approaching woman seems to be transparent, Then in rapid succession, you notice that she is making no footprints in the sand, and she is giving off an ethereal glow. Like most, you would take a moment to let out a welcoming scream, and quickly run in the opposite direction.

This is what countless residents and tourists have claimed as their experience on the beach of Bald Head Island. Stories vary slightly, as some see her being chased by three other specters, believed to be the men who killed her. In this particular sighting, her pace is understandably much faster, as she could be reliving her attempt to flee for her life.

If this ghost is, in fact, Theodosia, she has never spoken to anyone to tell them why she has not moved on to be reunited with father and family in the hereafter. Popular modern opinions surmise that these entities are unwilling or cannot move on, because of unfinished business here on the mortal plane. Theodosia died on a journey to see her father after many years of his absence, no doubt this was something she was desperately hoping to do. If what we are told by popular culture is right, she may be unaware of her passing; she is continuously stuck in the year 1813,  thinking her father is waiting for her in New York.

Does the restless soul of this poor woman walk the shores or is she just a local folklore that is fun to tell around campfires and tours? I have no definite conclusion, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. If you want to see a specter you may find yourself walking the shores in the hope of seeing this lonely and lost woman. If not then you will no doubt enjoy it for the story and respect the fact that she is a beloved piece of local legend here on Bald Head Island.