If This Mahogany Desk Could Talk: A Colorful Tale of Aaron Burr and His Wives

Burr desk

Secretary desk, ca. 1833. New York. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, tulip poplar, and white pine. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Lent by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. This desk belonged to Aaron Burr toward the end of his life.

An unpretentious mahogany desk from the 1830s might easily go unnoticed in Bartow-Pell’s upstairs parlor. Although this ordinary piece is of little interest to connoisseurs of fine furniture, the fact that it belonged to the tempestuous patriot Aaron Burr definitely deserves our attention. But why is Burr’s desk at BPMM? And how does that relate to his two wives?

8817, 1968.50.1

John Vanderlyn (1775–1852). Aaron Burr, ca. 1802–3. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Oliver Burr Jennings, B.A. 1917, in memory of Miss Annie Burr Jennings. Aaron Burr commissioned portraits of himself and his daughter from Vanderlyn, and the artist even stayed with the family at Richmond Hill, the Burr estate in lower Manhattan near today’s Varick Street.

Our story starts during the Revolutionary War, when Aaron Burr (1756–1836) was a young officer in the Continental army. It was during this time that he was introduced to Theodosia Bartow Prevost (1746–1794), the brainy and sophisticated wife of a British officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Marcus Prevost (1736–1781). Despite her intelligence, wit, and charm, Theodosia was no beauty, and she was about ten years older than Burr, who was in his early twenties when they met. She was also the mother of five children. Burr had a reputation as a womanizer, but he was also a protofeminist, and the pair secretly formed a romantic attachment even though Theodosia was still married to her Loyalist husband. In 1782, not long after Lieutenant Colonel Prevost died of yellow fever in Jamaica, the newly widowed Theodosia wed Aaron Burr. The couple’s affectionate union was one of intellectual equality, candid friendship, and physical passion. Sadly, only one their two children—named Theodosia after her mother—survived to adulthood.

Theodosia Prevost Burr née Bartow was born in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and was the only child and namesake of Theodosius Bartow (1712–1746)—who died shortly before she was born—and Ann Stillwell (who had several more children with her second husband, Philip de Visme). John Bartow (1740–1816) was Theodosia’s first cousin. (His grandson Robert built the stone dwelling that we now know as the Bartow-Pell mansion.) According to family genealogist Evelyn Bartow, John “lived at Pelham, in the old Manor House of his grandfather, Lord Pell.”

At the old manorial residence of his ancestors, Mr. Bartow kept open house to all his relatives and friends; and his home was the centre of attraction in the society of the county from the hearty welcome they always received. Col. Burr, who had married his first cousin, was an intimate friend and frequent visitor at the house. It was at Mr. Bartow’s house, after his removal to New York City, that Burr was kindly received after his return from exile.”

Theodosia received a far more rigorous education than most girls of her time. Since her father died before she was born, it is likely that the girl’s mother played a key role in nurturing the natural intellectual abilities of her clever daughter. Aaron Burr’s biographer Nancy Isenberg describes the future Mrs. Burr’s education: “Tutored at home, she had been exposed to a cosmopolitan education that was unusual among colonial Americans.” Theodosia read Plutarch and other classical writers and spoke fluent French.

Theodosia Bartow married James Marcus Prevost on July 28, 1763, at Trinity Church in Manhattan. The Prevosts lived at the Hermitage, their home in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, which was remodeled in the Gothic-Revival style by subsequent owners and is now a museum. While her husband was away at war, the household consisted of Theodosia, “her sister Miss de Vismes, and their mother Mrs. de Vismes, and the two little sons of Mrs. Prevost,” recounted Evelyn Bartow. “The ladies were accomplished and intelligent; for a long time their house had been the centre of the most elegant society of the vicinity . . . The Hermitage, where Mrs. Prevost now resided, had a considerable library of French books. The lady was not beautiful. Besides being past her prime, she was slightly disfigured by a scar on her forehead.”

During the American Revolution, despite her marriage to a Loyalist, Theodosia adroitly presided over a social circle that included high-ranking patriots such as George Washington, who even used the Hermitage as his headquarters in 1778. Meanwhile, she was able to maintain a friendly relationship with the British. According to Nancy Isenberg, “Her home was a kind of war-free zone and sanctuary.” It was during this period that Theodosia met Aaron Burr.

Mary Wollstonecraft

John Opie (1761–1807). Mary Wollstonecraft, ca. 1797. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Bequeathed by Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899 © National Portrait Gallery, London. In February 1793, Burr wrote a letter to Theodosia in which he praised A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by the English writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). “It is, in my opinion, a work of genius. She has successfully adopted the style of Rousseau’s Emilius [sic]; and her comment on that work, especially what relates to female education, contains more good sense than all the other criticisms upon him which I have seen. . . . I promise myself much pleasure in reading it to you.”

Theodosia and Aaron Burr had a deep intellectual and emotional connection. It was the period of the Enlightenment, and husband and wife enjoyed reading and discussing works by modern thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. Burr was also a mentor to Theodosia’s two sons, Augustine James Frederick Prevost (1765­–1842) and John Bartow Prevost (1766–1825), who were teenagers when Burr married their mother. Frederick Prevost later lived in Pelham at the Shrubbery, an estate near that of his mother’s cousin John Bartow. (For more on the Shrubbery, see Pelham Town Historian Blake Bell’s blog.) On July 23, 1791, Theodosia wrote to Burr: “Do return home as soon as possible; or, rather, come to Pelham; try quiet, and the good air, and the attention and friendship of those who love you. You may command Bartow’s attendance here whenever it suits you, and you have a faithful envoy in Frederick.”

Theodosia Bartow Burr Alston

Unidentified artist. Theodosia Bartow Burr Alston, copy after John Vanderlyn, ca. 1850–1900. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The daughter of Aaron Burr and Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr married Joseph Alston, who was governor of South Carolina at the time of his wife’s death at sea in 1813. Theodosia’s likeness was also drawn by profile portraitist Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin.

Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr died of what was probably cancer in 1794 at the age of 48, only twelve years after she married Aaron Burr. After her death, he ardently devoted himself to the education and well-being of his cherished and highly intelligent daughter, and the two were extremely close. In 1801, Theodosia Burr (1783–1813) married a wealthy Southern planter and politician, Joseph Alston, who later became the governor of South Carolina. Tragically, the couple’s only child, Aaron Burr Alston, died in 1812 when he was only eleven years old. Meanwhile, Aaron Burr’s stormy life resembled a giant roller coaster, with numerous twists and turns that careened from his role as Vice President of the United States to the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton to charges of treason that linked him to a separatist conspiracy and plans for an empire in the western United States. Although cleared of treason, Burr subsequently spent several years in self-imposed exile. Not long after his return to America, his daughter set sail in 1813 from South Carolina on the schooner Patriot for a reunion with her adoring father. The ship was lost at sea off the coast of the Carolinas en route to New York, and Theodosia was presumed dead at the age of 29.

Eliza Jumel

Alcide Carlo Ercole (dates unknown). Eliza Jumel and Her Grandchildren, 1854. Oil on canvas. Morris-Jumel Mansion, Jumel Collection, 1980.429.1.91

This brings us to the second Mrs. Burr. Eliza (“Madame”) Jumel (1775–1865) was a wealthy widow when she met the former vice president in 1832, and the pair married on July 1, 1833. The bride was 58; the groom was 77. Like Burr, Eliza had a colorful history. Nancy Isenberg writes: “One archivist summed up her life this way: ‘. . . in youth a prostitute, in middle age a social climber, died an eccentric.’” The marriage lasted a mere six months before the couple separated. Eliza claimed that Burr was squandering her fortune. He accused her of being abusive and controlling. In order to get a divorce, she bribed a servant to fabricate fanciful stories of adulterous behavior by Burr. Meanwhile, Burr’s health was declining, and a stroke paralyzed his legs. He began living in boarding houses and died on September 14, 1836, the day his divorce became final.

Morris-Jumel Mansion

George Hayward (b. ca. 1800), lithographer. Col. Roger Morris’ House, Washington’s Head Quarters Sept. 1776, Now Known as Madame Jumel’s Res., for D. T. Valentine’s Manual, 1854. The New York Public Library. Madame Jumel and her first husband purchased the former Morris estate in 1810, which George Washington had used as his headquarters in the fall of 1776. (Washington also stayed at the home of Aaron Burr’s first wife, Theodosia Prevost.) Eliza Jumel still owned the home at the time of her marriage to Aaron Burr in 1833, and she continued to live in it until her death in 1865.

Burr DeskNow, let’s circle back to Aaron Burr’s desk, which is on long-term loan to Bartow-Pell from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. This two-part secretary desk has numerous cabinets and drawers, which provide ample space for organizing papers, books, and documents. Burr was an attorney, and this desk would have been useful for legal work as well as for managing his day-to-day affairs. The desk is dated about 1833, so Burr would have owned it for only a few years before his death in 1836, including the period of his short-lived marriage to Eliza Jumel. The desk is made of mahogany and mahogany veneer with secondary woods of tulip poplar and white pine. According to decorative arts expert and BPMM Curatorial Committee Co-Chair Carswell Rush Berlin, the door and cabinet pulls have been replaced, and it seems likely that there was a wood or marble cornice that is now missing. The drawer locks bear the impression “Cowis McKee & Co., Terryville, Ct.,” a lock-making company that was established in Watertown, Connecticut, in 1832 and sold after Eli Terry II, the firm’s president, died in 1841.

Our records say that a private collector acquired the desk from a “sale of Burr’s furniture after his death.” It was given to the City of New York in 1924 and was on view at the Morris-Jumel Mansion until 2001; then it was moved to the Hermitage, the former Prevost estate in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. The Burr desk has been on loan to Bartow-Pell since 2007.

Although Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr never saw this desk, and Madame Jumel probably paid it scant attention, it tells a riveting tale filled with scandal, tragedy, romance, and drama. And wasn’t that the story of Aaron Burr’s life?

Margaret Highland, Historian

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3 Responses to If This Mahogany Desk Could Talk: A Colorful Tale of Aaron Burr and His Wives

  1. Leah Lenney says:

    What a marvelous story! The six-degrees-of-separation caveat has always been a feature of Eastern New York life and it is engaging to find it repeated so often. As I was reading your fascinating blog I wondered if the stone house in Pelham might be the Bolton Priory and not
    our mansion since its location is referred to simply as “Pelham’. I don’t know when the division between the Bronx and Westchester became a reality, not just a geographic delineation.

    Have you ever explored the large group of New Yorkers who traveled between the seasons from
    Westchester Square, the environs of St. Peters in Mount Vernon, and the two churches in Pelham? I remember that they were all dominated in faith and life by Samuel Seabury, and
    I would love to inderstand those connections in acmore scholarly fashion.

    Best, Leah

  2. Pingback: Index | mansion musings

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