Who is The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr?
You won’t find the heroine of my new historical novel in any history books, or in any biographies of Aaron Burr, either. Some of those biographers claim she didn’t even exist. There are no official records that mention her, no portraits that preserve her face, no diaries or journals or letters that carry her words from the past to the present. All that she left as her legacy were two children, a son and a daughter, to hold fast to her memory.
Her name is Mary Emmons, or Eugénie Beauharnais; she seems to have been known by both names at different times in her life. She was born in India around 1760, brought half-way around the world to the Caribbean and the West Indies, and then to the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution. She was likely enslaved. She served in the household of Theodosia Bartow Prevost, and continued to do so after Theodosia married Colonel Aaron Burr. Mary’s daughter, Louisa Charlotte, was born around 1788, and her son, John Pierre, around 1792. Their father was Aaron Burr. Mary died in 1832 in Philadelphia, a free woman.
Legend says Burr cared so much for Mary that he wed her after Theodosia’s death.
That’s the sum of what is known of her, and it’s precious little for so rich a life. Even those few facts aren’t really facts at all, but based on family traditions and uncertain sources. In Burr’s papers and memoirs, there’s no mention of Mary or her children. That’s not surprising: the friend that Burr entrusted to create his official biography proudly stated how he destroyed any letters or documents that he found unsavory or detrimental to Burr’s reputation, especially in relation to women. It’s likely that all traces of Mary were erased as a shameful embarrassment, and purposefully, willfully forgotten.
Except that once I came across those traces of Mary Emmons, I couldn’t forget her, and she wouldn’t leave me. History might have made her disappear, but through research and fiction I could say her name, and make sure it was remembered.
To create Mary’s character, I read, and read more - not only histories and biographies, but also 18thc newspapers, documents, maps, prints, and cookbooks. I traveled to places Mary could have known. I had to determine what her role might have been during the American Revolution, and how the promise of liberty would not always have included people of color like her. Most importantly, I read narratives of other 18thc women who faced challenges similar to hers. I listened to their stories, their words, and let those women tell me what and how to write.
I also had to consider how Mary’s life must have been woven into the remarkable marriage of Theodosia and Aaron Burr. It would have been easy to make Burr a villain, especially after his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton. But there was much more to him beyond that: he was a war hero, a brilliant lawyer, a devoted father, a skilled politician who very nearly was elected president - and a complicated, manipulative charmer who relished the gamesmanship of power, no matter the cost.
Readers of my previous book, I, Eliza Hamilton, will recognize some familiar faces here. The lives of Hamilton and Burr were inextricably intertwined as friends, neighbors, professional colleagues, and rivals, and Alexander, Eliza, and their children would have been known to Mary as well.
But The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr is Mary’s story, and I wanted to do her justice. She must have been strong and smart and resourceful, and through war and heartbreak, loss and love, she still took breathtaking risks for her chance at a better life. Most of all, Mary Emmons must have been a survivor - and a woman whose story I’m honored to tell.
The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.