Awhile back I was watching an episode of the late lamented History Channel series HAUNTED HISTORY, about ghosts of Washington, DC and environs. It had the usual appearances in the White House–Abraham Lincoln, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison–; the sad tale of Stephen Decatur, the naval hero who died in a duel and sightings of whose ghost caused a window in his former home to be blocked up; and Octagon House, the misnamed former home of the Tayloe family, which has nearly as many ghosts as the White House itself.
My favorite of all DC stories actually comes from the city of Alexandria, Virginia, founded in the late seventeenth century and annexed by President George Washington in the 1790s when the federal city was being planned. After half a century as part of the District, Alexandria was returned to the state of Virginia in 1846 and now is home to the Department of Defense and many government officials and media people who work inside the Beltway.
In 1816, though, when this story takes place, Alexandria was still part of DC. A popular tavern and inn, Gadsby’s, was already a favorite spot in the area. It was there that the Female Stranger died, and there she still haunts.
The young woman and her husband arrived in Alexandria in the autumn of 1816 and rented a room at Gadsby’s Tavern. The lady was already gravely ill when she checked in, but the tavern’s staff took tender care of her, sending for a doctor and helping her frantic husband with nursing duties. When it became apparent that she could not live, the couple made a strange request of the staff: that never, under any circumstances, would they reveal her name, or that of her husband.
The staff agreed. Legend has it that they even went so far as to alter the guest register to conceal the identities of their guests.
Two days after the curious request for eternal anonymity, the woman died. As her husband was indigent, but promised to make remission for any funds expended by the generous locals, she was buried at the expense of the tavernkeeper and others.
The husband, as you have probably already guessed, vanished the day after the funeral and was never heard from again. The locals, however, went so far as to provide the young woman with a tombstone. It’s flat, and has a long inscription, said to have been written by her husband before his precipitous departure. The inscription 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”
It’s said that the Female Stranger still haunts the room at Gadsby’s Tavern where she died, and also the cemetery where she has lain in her nameless, but nonetheless marked, grave for nearly two centuries.
The staff of Gadsby’s Tavern, who cared for her in her last days, took the secret of her name to their graves. To this day, no one has any idea who she was, or why she laid this strange charge on her benefactors.