Aaron Burr’s final days on Staten Island are the subject of a delightful new volume by Martha Smith Kakuk and Ray Swick: Aunt Abby and Aaron Burr’s Last Days: Staten Island, the Summer of 1836, and the Death of America’s Most Notorious Man.
Brought out in a limited addition by the Printing Press, Ltd. of Charleston, West Virginia, the pamphlet features the poignant reminiscences of Abby Bailey, who befriended Burr at a Port Richmond hotel during his last summer on earth. Though there has always been something shabby and seedy in the portrayal of Burr’s final months, Bailey emphasized that the inn was a pleasant one on the shore that afforded views of the steamers and other craft going by, and Burr’s room was “the pleasantest of the house.”
Burr was largely attended by a woman servant, whom he addressed as the “Irish devil,” who carried him easily; never a large man, age and decrepitude had shrunk him. Bailey describes the 80-year-old Burr as subject to many of the indignities of age, subject to pettishness when not attended to, but also still capable of “acting the finished gentleman.” The saddest part of Burr’s situation, as Baley writes, was that he had no surviving family to be with him during his final days.
Though Bailey’s reminiscence is relatively brief, it provides a view into a period in Burr’s life that was largely a blank. History writing involves putting together lots of small pieces like this, and I’m grateful to Kakuk and Swick for making this one available.
I offer a final note about Swick, the historian of West Virginia State Parks. He has produced several volumes that preserve fascinating moments in history, including: a book on Blennerhassett Island in the Ohio River, where Burr’s Western expedition formally began; and a terrific first-person account of a journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 1803, A Journey Through the West. I’m glad to have the opportunity to thank him for his work, and pay tribute to it.