After more than 200 years, the mystery of the ‘Female Stranger’ continues to fascinate visitors to this Alexandria, Virginia landmark. Some say her ghost never left.
Alexandria, Virginia is an old town filled with historic buildings, populated by ghosts and legends. No less than 49 sites in Alexandria are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps the most legendary is Gadsby’s Tavern at the corner of Cameron and Royal streets. Its mysterious tale of the “Female Stranger” has confounded local historians and folklorists for over 200 years.
In the late 1700s, Alexandria was the social center of northern Virginia. Charles and Anne Mason first recognized the potential for a tavern and opened a business at the corner of Royal and Cameron streets. With the end of the Revolutionary War, an entrepreneur named John Wise built a new tavern in 1785 and a hotel in 1792, red brick buildings which still exist to this day. John Gadsby leased and operated the establishments from 1796 to 1808, when Alexandria became part of the new Federal District of Washington, DC.
In those early years, Gadsby’s Tavern hosted travelers from all over the colonies, including prominent men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette. It was considered a premier establishment, hosting parties and balls in its large hall. It was during this heyday when the legend of the mysterious “Female Stranger” took root.
In the fall of 1816, a husband and wife disembarked from a ship in Alexandria harbor and checked into the City Hotel attached to Gadsby’s Tavern. Neither gave a name. The man’s wife was seriously ill, and died after a few days. Her grieving husband commissioned a table-like tombstone that read:
To the memory of a Female Stranger. This stone is 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…
He then vanished from history.
These are the facts. We know an anonymous young woman, 23 years old, died of typhoid fever in the City Hotel on October 14, 1816. She was buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria. Much of her story has been lost in the mists of time, mostly legend with a kernel of truth. Efforts to determine her name and origin have been highly speculative.
William F. Carne published an account of her life in 1883, as did Charles T. Johnson, Jr., in 1912. Both accounts are wildly different, but share the common thread of forbidden love. Some say she was the daughter of Aaron Burr, others that she was an orphan who accidentally married her own brother. Still others say she was taken to America by her employer, who jealously shot and killed her lover. Since no one knows who she was, readers fill in the blanks with whatever story they like best.
By the twentieth century, Gadsby’s Tavern, now known as the City Hotel and Tavern, was selling elements from its historic interior to stay afloat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased its ballroom, including the mantelpieces and door frames, and reassembled it in New York City. Shops occupied the ground floor, and the building slowly deteriorated. In the 1930s, a man named F. Clinton Knight worked with the American Legion to preserve the historic tavern and hotel and restore it to its eighteenth century appearance.
It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The 1970s saw a renewed interest in local government taking an active role in preserving buildings from Alexandria’s past. Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, owned and operated by the City of Alexandria with support from Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society, was born.
Since opening to the public, visitors have reported encounters with the ghost of the “Female Stranger.” According to L.B. Taylor, Jr., author of The Ghosts of Virginia (1993), passersby have witnessed her standing in a bedroom window, holding a candle. Another patron followed her spectral form from the ballroom to her former bedroom, where she vanished. The museum has restored her room to its early nineteenth century appearance–perhaps this is why she lingers?
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, at 134 N. Royal Street in Alexandria, Virginia, is open seasonally April to October, Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00am to 5:00pm and Sunday and Monday, 1:00pm to 5:00pm; and November to March, Wednesday through Saturday, 11:00am to 4:00pm and Sunday, 1:00pm to 4:00pm, closed Monday and Tuesday. Self-guided tours are available anytime, but guided tours are offered at select times. Call (703) 746-4242 in advance. Metered street parking is available.
St. Paul’s Cemetery is located at the end of Hamilton Avenue near GPS coordinates 38.799771, -77.056703 in Alexandria, Virginia.
- L.B. Taylor, Jr., The Ghosts of Virginia (Lynchburg: Progress Printing Co., Inc, 1993).
- Ellen Earnhardt Morrison, Lady of Legend: The Mystery of the Female Stranger of Gadsby’s Tavern (Alexandria: Newell-Cole, 1971).
- Liz Williams, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum: History and Guide Book (Alexandria: Office of Historic Alexandria, 2018).
- Michael Lee Pope, Ghosts of Alexandria (Charleston, SC: Haunted America, 2010).