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Brookgreen Gardens' Link to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

  By  Kathryn Hedgepath
Couple walking in Brookgreen Gardens with flowers

A Little Piece of Unknown History

One of the most beloved spooky stories in American literature is that of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow written by Washington Irving in the early 19th Century.  It tells of a schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who bears a striking resemblance to a scarecrow, and has a run-in with the legendary Headless Horseman.   All of the drama unfolds in the Sleepy Hollow community near Tarrytown, NY.  In fact, the fictional Sleepy Hollow was based on the actual village of North Tarrytown, but in 1996, the citizens voted to have its name changed to Sleepy Hollow. 


What links their Sleepy Hollow with our own beloved Brookgreen Gardens?  Well, that would be Washington Irving himself.  He has sort of a full-circle experience with Brookgreen.  It happens that, as a youth, Washington Irving [1783- 1859] had been a good friend of Theodosia Burr Alston [1783-1813] before she was married.  She was the young woman who was once the Mistress of The Oaks Plantation, one of the four that make up Brookgreen Gardens.   You may know her from a song, “Dear Theodosia,” from the popular Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”

Her father, Aaron Burr, whom Theodosia adored, was Vice President to Thomas Jefferson in a time when the runner-up not a running-mate held that office which began a strained relationship between Burr and Jefferson. Most notably, Burr was acquitted of murder charges in the shooting death of Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, whom Burr had challenged to a duel.  But perhaps even more scandalous than that, Burr was able to skirt charges of treason when he just might have tried to establish his own empire in Mexico and take some US territories and a few of the newer US states with him in the process.

It is said that Theodosia may have married Joseph Alston of The Oaks Plantation in order to give her father political connections in the South that he needed if he were to run for president again.  Her mother had died when she was eleven, at which time, she became her father’s hostess to many of the most influential figures of the day.  Once, when she was only thirteen and her father was away on business, she hosted a dinner party of dignitaries all by herself.  Her intelligence and poise at that tender age impressed them all.  She goes down in history as being one of the most accomplished women of her time and that reputation was all earned during her teens. 

She was married at 17 and gave birth to her son, Aaron Burr Alston, at 19.  They called him “Gampy” because that was his pronunciation of his name for his grandfather.  He brought Theodosia her greatest joy and her worst physical pain for the rest of her life.  It had been a difficult pregnancy that resulted in a condition that medical professionals at that time didn’t know how to diagnose, much less treat.  That caused her to spend the rest of her life in extreme pain with no relief, and in the constant pursuit of the remedies of the day. She had no idea that Gampy would predecease her at the age of 10 with a fever in 1812.  She was inconsolable. 

After some time had passed, her loving husband thought it might be a good idea for her to go to New York to visit her father.  Aaron Burr had just returned to the US from his self-imposed exile to Europe.  While he hadn't been charged with treason, his popularity had waned significantly, and he thought he should spend time abroad to let things blow over.

Normally, Joseph Alston would have accompanied his physically and emotionally frail wife on this journey, but he had recently been elected Governor of South Carolina.  And, legally, he couldn’t go because he was an officer in the South Carolina Militia and the country was in the throes of the War of 1812, which prohibited him from leaving the state.  So Aaron Burr asked a family friend who was a physician to go down to Murrells Inlet and escort his daughter to New York.  On New Year’s Eve, the family friend, Dr. Green, Theodosia and her maid boarded a schooner in Georgetown called The Patriot.  What happened next is the stuff of a Washington Irving legend, but more on that in just a bit.   

Washington and Theodosia both came from good families in New York and, in their teens, studied with private tutors in townhouses across the street from each other in Manhattan. They never dated.  He was just a buddy of hers and her best friend, Natalie.  If the girls needed an escort to a society dance and didn’t have a date, he would take them both.  The reason I said earlier that Irving came full circle with Brookgreen was because his early friend, Theodosia, ended up at Brookgreen and his friend later in life, Washington Allston [1779-1843], was born there.  Note that Theodosia's last name is spelled with only one "L" to distinguish that branch of the family from the others. 

Allston was one of our nation’s first major painters. When he was just old enough to comprehend what was going on, his beloved father, William Allston, Jr.,  died, leaving the young boy devastated. 

In 1784, his mother was remarried to a friend of his late father, Dr. Henry Flagg, who had been George Washington’s Surgeon General of the Continental Army.  He was a good father to Rachel’s children and to the ones they had together.  They particularly doted on the very sensitive Washington Allston who showed early signs of his later greatness.  They sent him to study in Newport and Harvard and encouraged him in his travels to Europe where he developed his skill and reputation.  He was called the American Titian, the Italian Renaissance painter from Venice.  Allston became famous and had celebrity friends including the poets, Coleridge and Longfellow, along with Washington Irving.

Despite the fame Washington Allston achieved as being one of our country’s most important Romantic painters to this day, it is his stepfather’s granddaughter who is the most widely known member of his family, locally.  She is Alice Belin Flagg.  Her fame came posthumously when generations of folks claimed to have seen her ghost as it is believed that she returns to the Murrells Inlet area to find her lost engagement ring.  Yes, the famous-in-these-parts Alice the Ghost was the  granddaughter of George Washington’s Surgeon General and the half-niece to the “American Titian.” 

That sounds like the makings of an Irving legend for sure, but the fate of his other friend, Theodosia, has been the fodder for countless articles in newspapers, magazines and a few historical novels from that time to this.  The story of her incredible life is almost overshadowed by the tales of pirates that are associated with her mysterious disappearance.  Because when Theodosia left the port of Georgetown aboard The Patriot with the other passengers, none of them were ever heard from again. 

There have been no fewer than a half-dozen deathbed and other confessions of known pirates who claimed to be part of the band who attacked The Patriot and killed everyone on board.  The confessors were usually the ones charged with having to kill Theodosia, which none wanted to do, but did rather than be killed themselves for not doing so.  In some accounts, she was taken captive for fates worse than death.  In nicer versions of the stories, her life was spared, and she was taken to the Caribbean to live out her days.  None of the accounts matched the facts that we knew for sure and offered no new credible evidence. 

What her father and husband believed to be true was that she was lost at sea along the coast of North Carolina during a gale that was reported at the time The Patriot was to have been there.  They felt, if she had survived, nothing would have prevented her from contacting them.

Kathryn Hedgepath

Myrtle Beach native, Kathryn Hedgepath, loves to share her hometown’s history with visitors and newcomers to the Grand Strand.  She is the creator and narrator of the Myrtle Beach History Trolley and Step-On Tours, and the author of the book, Myrtle Beach Movies, that tells the stories behind the motion pictures that were made or premiered in Myrtle Beach.  She has traveled in 40 countries on 6 continents and uses her experience to convey our local history through a world lens. Kathryn returned home from NYC in 2002 to marry her beloved husband, Jenks, after a career in television and publishing (and even worked in Space Shuttle Operations at NASA Headquarters in DC for a semester before starting grad school at Georgetown University).  Her first career job was as Personal Assistant to television icon and wildlife expert, Jim Fowler, of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fame. Her dad, Myrtle Beach’s first veterinarian, arranged the job interview when Jim Fowler came to Myrtle Beach for a speaking appearance at a veterinary conference in 1991.