Heirlooms often form more of a family’s traditions and history than written documents. A teacup brought in a trunk by an immigrant, a uniform jacket worn in a long-ago battle, a silk ribbon from a wedding dress pressed into a permanent bow: these are the things that travel through the generations, their significance catalogued through carefully told (and occasionally embellished) stories. Yet without an accompanying story, the teacup, jacket, or ribbon becomes simply one more scrap of the past to be scattered, tossed, or sold on eBay.
For a man as famous - and infamous - as Aaron Burr, there are relatively few artifacts that can be confirmed as having belonged to him or his immediate family. Part of this is due to the fact that both his wife and only daughter predeceased him. Members of the immediate family often become that family’s curators and caretakers, and Burr had no one who’d treasure his one-time belongings.
Perhaps more important was Burr’s own checkered career. Over the course of his life, his financial affairs rose and fell, and things that he acquired - an English painting, a diamond watch - were sold from necessity. He was deep in debt at the time of his duel with Alexander Hamilton. Afterwards, when he was forced to flee to escape charges of murder, his creditors seized and sold everything he’d left behind against his debts.
The stigma of an object having once belonged Aaron Burr must have been a weighty one. Burr was regarded by many as both a murderer and a traitor, it’s likely that sellers consciously separated his previous ownership from an object. Something labeled as being “from the estate of a New York gentleman of taste” would probably have brought a higher price than “from the estate of the murderer of the lamented Gen. Hamilton.”
The pocket-watch shown here is one of the few objects to survive with a clear Burr connection. With a silver case and white enamel face, the watch was manufactured in France around 1790. Burr likely purchased it in New York soon afterwards, and then commissioned a local artist, now unknown, to paint the face with the likenesses of the two people in his life that he loved the most: his wife Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr, and their daughter, also named Theodosia. The only other known portraits of mother and daughter are the matching dressed portraits by Connecticut artist Mary Way, created about the same time.
While the portraits on the watch’s face are neither skilled nor sophisticated, they do show the two Theodosias stylishly dressed and coifed, and the overall effect is charming. In a 1928 privately published book devoted to Burr portraiture, Dr. John E. Stillwell - a distant relative of Theodosia - noted that Burr had given the watch to his wife as a gift around 1792, and that she had it with her at her death in 1794. After that the watch seems to have remained in Burr’s possession until 1807, when he hurriedly departed New York for exile in Europe.
During the earlier glory-days of the family’s country estate of Richmond Hill, Burr had employed a talented German chef named Anthony Bowrowson. Stillwell isn’t entirely clear as to whether Burr gave Bowrowson the watch as a memento before he sailed, or if in the general confusion, Bowrowson helped himself to it. Regardless, the watch became a keepsake prized by Bowrowson’s daughter, Theodosia Bowrowson Shelburg, who had been named after Burr’s wife. The watch remained in the Shelburg family for the next two centuries, until it was purchased by Brian Davon Hardison, a noted collector of Burr memorabilia.
And through the years, the two Theodosias continue to smile across the hands of time.
Above: Burr’s Pocket-Watch, unknown maker, c1790, collection of Brian Davon Hardison. Photograph courtesy of Brian Davon Hardison.
Right: Aaron Burr by James Sharples, c1796, Bristol Museums, Galleries, & Archives.