Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Haunted Crime Scenes

Hamilton's Revenge

Just past Kill-Devil-Hills at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina is the largest sand dune on the Atlantic coast — Jockey's Ridge. By day, it's a Mecca for hang-gliders. Yet there was a time when it was a rather sinister place during the night.

Theodosia Burr portrait
Theodosia Burr portrait

It was Alexander Hamilton who instigated building the first lighthouse on the treacherous Cape Hatteras, and his action eventually spelled disaster to countless ships traveling further north. Early settlers in the area now known as Nag's Head included former pirates, who discovered a means to continue their theft without going to sea. They knew how easy it was for ships carrying wealthy cargo to lose direction, so they devised a trick to lure those ships onto the shoals. On a dark night, bands of cutthroats would affix a lantern to the neck of an old nag and lead it up on Jockey's Ridge. They then tied a weight to the horse's foot to make it limp, which resulted in forcing its head to bob up and down. The lantern then deceived commanders of targeted ships to alter their course. Once trapped on the shoals, those ships were easy pickings for the pirates, who boarded them and murdered everyone. On starless nights, some folks say you can still hear the agonized shrieks of those tormented souls who died so mercilessly.

There was one passenger, however, who was spared: Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr, Hamilton's political enemy. Their intense animosity ended in a duel that killed Hamilton, considered an outright murder, and Burr was forced to hide out. He was indicted in New Jersey but never arrested. Eventually he moved to New York.

Beach where Theodosia Burr appears
Beach where Theodosia Burr appears

Theodosia had married a South Carolina politician. She had a son, who grew ill and died. Prostrate with grief, she decided to visit her father, so she boarded an ill-fated ship named The Patriot. When the pirates took the ship, they began to kill everyone. Theodosia's maid was tossed overboard before her eyes, and as one pirate was about to run Theodosia through with his sword, she lost her mind. Superstitious about insanity, the pirates took her to shore and left her in the care of local citizens. No one knew who she was, although she carried a hand-painted portrait of herself — a gift for her father. She grew old and ill, and one day walked out into the ocean, leaving only tracks behind in the sand. Her portrait was given to a physician, who used it to discover her identity. The portrait is now in New York, but Theodosia remains on the Outer Banks. Along with the ghost crabs that skitter over the beach, she walks the sand when the sky is gray and the wind is high. She's most often seen by hardy residents who stay year-round between Christmas and New Year's.

It was an irony that had Burr not shot him; Hamilton would have lived to install proper lights along the coastline, preventing the sort of wreck that stole Burr's daughter away from him. Burr himself haunts Wall Street (and possibly New Hope, PA), while his last wife disturbs the air in New York's Morris-Jumel mansion.

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