If you happen to find yourself in the St. Paul’s Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, you might come across a strange grave. It looks like a table on six legs, and on the marble slab on top, barely legible now after years of wear and lichen, reads a strange tale:
An unknown woman, a grieving lover, a mysterious grave that has inspired rumors and legends for two centuries. It’s the perfect stuff for a legend, and quite a legend it is. In short, the story of the Female Stranger says that a mysterious woman checked into Gadsby’s Tavern and stayed in the East Bedchamber along with a man who claimed to be her husband but may not have been (scandalous!). After a period of illness, she died and was buried under this weird gravestone, and then the man disappeared, leaving only questions. At least, that’s the narrative cobbled together in newspaper articles and by word of mouth over the course of a century.
The first appearance of the Female Stranger in the public eye wasn’t until 1834, when a poem about her appeared in the March 12 edition of the Alexandria Gazette by someone with the initials “S.D.” This was later revealed to be Susan Rigby Dallam Morgan. The (very flowery and Victorian) poem describes coming across an unusual-looking tomb circled with an iron fence and small trees.
The Stranger gained more attention when a more detailed article on her appeared in 1836 by a columnist named Lucy Seymour. But the plot thickens already: “Lucy Seymour” was a pen name of none other than Susan Rigby Dallam Morgan. Maybe her poem didn’t garner enough attention the first time? This article, which cites no sources outside of hearsay, says that the Female Stranger arrived in Alexandria with “a gentleman who called himself her husband” and appeared to be under considerable emotional stress. She spoke to a local minister, presumably telling her sad story.
After her passing, her male companion departed in secret, leaving behind the mysterious monument with an epitaph written in a way “strangely calculated to awaken interest and elicit sympathy.” It doesn’t explain how he managed to purchase the plot, commission the carving, and install it while also mysteriously disappearing, though, but does mention that the subject was a popular one among the ladies of Alexandria.
By 1848, another article surfaced, this one of unclear authorship, and, as legends tend to do, elaborated even further, talking about how beautiful the Stranger was and listed her male companion as being named “Clermont.” It says he went into deep mourning after her death, commissioning the monument for $1,500 (about $26,000 today) and then vanishing. After his disappearance, the bills were found to be counterfeit, and he was later found in a New York prison, although apparently didn’t give any explanation.
From there, the story continued to expand, but, frustratingly, without any actual sources. In 1886, a Chicago paper brought up the story, saying the couple checked into a “City hotel,” later determined to be the still-standing Gadsby’s Tavern, where the woman became ill and died a few weeks later. This story also includes two French maids traveling with them, who were equally secretive, and describes the man as English.
By 1887, a Kansas City, Missouri paper added some sensationalist details: the woman was now a “voluptuous blonde,” and she died locked in a passionate kiss with the man. After her death, the man, who might have been spotted in New Orleans, returned to Alexandria in the dead of night, exhumed his dead wife’s body, and absconded with it, we can only assume for creepy purposes.