Shipwreck Poetry: ‘Theodosia Burr: The Wrecker’s Story’

This bit of late nineteenth-century poetry vividly captures prevailing views of the nefarious “wreckers” who inhabited the isolated coasts of the early republic (a wonderful example of imagination trumping reality). Here you’ll find those constants of wrecker literature: false lights, murder, plunder and innocence lost. For more images check out the digitized copy of the original 1895 publication in The Century Magazine here. I’ve transcribed the full text, including the short introduction, below. This tale might be oddly familiar–it anchored the recent (and thoroughly enjoyable) novel The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker. Enjoy~

Theodosia Burr:

The Wrecker’s Story.

By the Author of “Stonewall Jackson’s Way.”

With Pictures by A. Hencke.

On December 30, 1812, Theodosia, the beautiful, accomplished, and devoted daughter of Aaron Burr, and wife of Governor Alston of South Carolina, stunned by the run of her father, and the death of her boy, took passage on the Patriot, a pilot-boat, to rejoin her father in New York. The vessel never came to port. It is known that a storm raged on the Carolina coast on New Year’s day, 1813, and the circumstantial evidence seems conclusive that the Patriot fell into the hands of “bankers.” There were wreckers and pirates who infested the long sand-bars that fence the coast outside of Currituck, Albermarle, and Pamlico sounds, and reach as far south as Cape Lookout.

It was their practice, on stormy nights, to decoy passing craft by means of a lantern swinging from the neck of an old nag, which they led up and down the beach. Thus, vessels were stranded on the banks off Kitty Hawk and Nag’s Head, and plundered, after the crews and passengers had been slain with hangers, or compelled to “walk the plank.” Long after the disappearance of the Patriot, two criminals executed at Norfolk, Virginia, confessed to having had a hand in the death of Theodosia Alston. There were, they said, members of a gang of “bankers,” who wrecked and pillaged the Patriot, forcing her people to wak the plank.

***

In revel and carousing

We gave the New Year housing,

With wreckage for our firing,

And rum to heart’s desiring,

Antigua and Jamaica,

Flagon and stoup and breaker.

*

Full cans and a ranting chorus;

Hard hearts for the bout before us:

To brave grim death’s grimaces

On dazed and starting faces.

With dirks and hangers bristling,

We for a gale went a whistling,

*

Tornado or panpero,

To swamp the host of Pharaoh;

To goad the mad Atlantic,

And drive the skipppers frantic;

To jar the deep with thunder,

And make the waste a wonder,

And plunge the coasters under,

And pile the banks with plunder.

Then the wild rack came skirling,

Ragged and crazed, and whirling

Sea-stuff and sand in breakers,

Frothing the shelvy acres,

Over the banks high-bounding,

*

Inlet and sound confounding.

Hatteras roared and rumbled,

Currituck heaved and tumbled;

And the sea-gulls screamed like witches,

And sprawled in the briny ditches.

Shelter and rest we flouted,

Jorum and pipe we scouted,

Fiddler and wench we routed.

“Fetch out the nag!” we shouted;

For a craft in the offing struggled.

“Now for a skipper juggled;

Now for a coaster stranded,

And loot in the lockers landed!”

With lantern cheerly rocking

*

On the nag’s head, we went mocking,

Lilting of tipsy blisses,

And Bonnibel’s squandered kisses.

Straight for that hell-spark steering,

Drove the doomed craft careering;

Men on her fore-deck huddled,

Sea in her wake all cruddled,

Kitty Hawk sheer before her,

And the breakers booming o’er her;

Till the rocks in their lurking stove her,

And her riven spars went over,

And she lay on her side and shivered,

And groaned to be delivered.

*

Boats through the black rift storming,

Foes on her quarter swarming;

Dirks in the torchlight flashing,

And the wicked hangers slashing;

Lips that were praying, mangled;

Throats that were screaming, strangled;

Souls in the surges tumbling,

Vainly for foothold fumbling;

Horror of staring faces,

Gruesome in death’s grimaces;

And God’s wrath overpast us,

With never a bolt to blast us!

*

By the brung of our doings daunted,

We crouched where the fore-deck slanted,

Scanning each other’s faces,

Graved with that horror’s traces.

One, peering aft, wild-staring,

Points through the torches flaring:

“Spook of the storm, or human?

Angel, or wraith, or woman?”

Havoc and wreck surveying,

Imploring not, nor praying,

Nor death nor life refusing;

Stony and still–accusing!

*

Black as our hearts the creature’s

Vesture; her matchless features

White as the dead. Oh! wonder

Of woman high heaven under!

So she moved down upon us

(though Death and the Fiend might

shun us),

And we made passage, cowering.

*

Rigid and mute and towering,

Never a frown she deigned us,

Never with curse arraigned us.

One, trembling, dropped his hanger,

And swooned at the awful clangor;

But she passed on, unharking,

Her steps our doom-strokes marking,

*

Straight to the pland, and mounted.

“One, two, three, four!” we counted;

Till she paused, o’er the flood suspended,

Poised, her lithe armes extended–

And the storm stood sill, and waited

For the stroke of the Lord, belated.

~John Williamson Palmer

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3 Comments

Filed under Along the Coast, Shipwreck culture

3 responses to “Shipwreck Poetry: ‘Theodosia Burr: The Wrecker’s Story’

  1. JC

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog! I’m a NC native and I have been diving our our coast on wrecks since I was 14.

  2. Ah, yes. I remember reading that her disappearance could’ve also been associated with the Bermuda Triangle. I think it was also a highly unlikely theory.

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