Aaron Burr's Final Scandal
Embroils our Old Dutch Church
June 1835, Peter Van Pelt's glorious ministry ended in scandal,
yet, to this day, he remains central to the continuing
national conversation about Aaron Burr.
The Rev. Van Pelt was accused of adultery with a member of the North Church. The Consistory ordered the Pastor to " . . . desist from preaching and performing ministerial duties in the churches." and ordered those responsible for the churches "to close and keep closed, the door of said church against said member in order to prevent him from performing ministerial duties." After a few days Van Pelt send a "communication . . . through the sexton, containing his resignation."
"After more than 33 years of service, Van Pelt was cast out in a manner wholly consistent with the Reformed Church's insistence on proper conduct by all members. For the "peace and harmony of the Church . . . " The woman in question was also requested to absent herself from "the communion of this church for the present . . . "
Most of the Consistory resigned. Even the Consistory minutes suffered; for the next three years, the minutes are nearly illegible.
He was the pastor of the Fordham church in the Bronx from 1836-1847. He died on 20 Jan 1861.
Our Disgraced Minister Comforted Aaron Burr on His Deathbed
and Officiated at his Funeral
Aaron Burr painted in 1802 as Vice-President, two years before his duel with Hamilton.
Painting by William J. Weaver
Duel, July 11, 1804
In the early 19th century, Port Richmond was an overnight coach stop between New York City and Philadelphia.
The prominent St. James Hotel stood just up the street from the ferry,
on Richmond Terrace one building in from the corner of present day Port Richmond Avenue.
Former Vice President Aaron Burr, killer of Alexander Hamilton,
spend his last days there at the invitation of the owner, our Congregant, Gozen Ryerss.
Demolished 1949 Staten Island Historical Society
Commemorative plaque on contemporary building
Ryerss had been the British Quartermaster. But after the Revolution he made peace with his Patriot fellow Congregants and assumed many important positions in the new nation.
Burr was a man of many talents; he was a soldier, a lawyer and a vice president under Thomas Jefferson. But his ruthless ambition was almost his undoing. Burr and Hamilton were political rivals and had engaged in an intense spate of mudslinging, which eventually lead to the fatal duel. Burr’s contemporaries saw him as callous for his attitude toward Hamilton’s family after the duel.
After his wife of 12 years died, Burr became known as quite the womanizer. He shamelessly seduced multiple women, writing proudly about it later. This seems to corroborate the rumors of his charming nature and handsome features.
We can only imagine that the adulterer Van Pelt might have seen something of himself in Burr.
Van Pelt is still at the Center of National Controversy over Aaron Burr
A letter to Rev. Van Pelt
Washington, Dec. 15th 1855
Very Reverend and Dear Sir.
I had the great gratification of receiving your highly valued note, this morning, giving me the particulars of the last moments of Col. Aaron Burr. I feel very grateful to you for it, because it has made me very happy in being able to vindicate the character of one whom I have ever been taught to respect since my youth, and I will now detail to you the incident that led me to write you my note. In company with Governor Wise, of Va, some weeks ago, he said Mathew L. Davis, had told him, that Col. Burr died cursing his God, and that he was an Atheist.-
Last Sabbath night, I went to hear the Rev. Mr. Cummings, and Episcopalian Minister, deliver a sermon to young men. He held up Aaron Burr as an example of infamy to be shunned, and said that Col. B. had taught his daughter to blaspheme, and that he frequently made her exhibit her blasphemy before company! And that Aaron Burr, died blaspheming, saying that if the prayers of his parents could not save him, there was no use in praying! Remembering the conversation had with you, I determined the next day to write you. – Today I called on the Rev. Mr. Cummings, and asked him to gratify my curiosity, and give me his authority for the declaration he had made of Col. Burr? He said he took it from a newspaper. ! then read him your note. It surprised him, & seemed to affect him very much. He said he was exceedingly sorry for what he had said, & wished that he had known this before! He then said, to make atonement he would read your note from the Pulpit tomorrow night (Sunday [12/16/1855]) and make all amends to the memory of Aaron Burr, which I have consented to.
I propose, afterwards, to publish your letter, with your permission, in order, as I said before, that posterity shall have the benefit of your testimony.
You may imagine, then, My Dear Sir, how happy I feel in having been the instrument to render justice to the dead, but for which, the fact and the truth might have departed with you in silence for ever.
God grant that many long and happy years may yet be allotted to you, & yours, and that you may continue to enjoy the blessings of this life. I shall always be delighted to hear from you, & on my return to New York in Jany, or sooner shall do myself the honor & gratification to call on you. May I ask you to indulge me by telling me your age?
With highest esteem, your friend & obt. Svt.
C. Reid, Jr.
Rev. Dr. Van Pelt.
In showing your note to Col Russel, of Ala. An admirer of Col. Burr, he said your note was one of the most remarkable and interesting that he ever read, remarkable for its beauty of language and the cooper-plate style in which it is written – And, said he, were it mine, as a relic to preserve I would not take $10,000 for it! –
Van Pelt’s note, to which his friend Reid refers, is still cited in the twenty-first century.
A January 28, 2016 internet post by The Saturday Evening Post notes that, for killing Alexander Hamilton and all the other scandals that dogged Burr his entire life, the most enduring one was - Did he believe in God? Burr was unusual in his day for being a freethinker willing to publicly question the existence of a higher power.
The following article “Aaron Burr – His Death Bed” from the Post archives, dated January 18, 1868, is an eyewitness account by . . . Van Pelt, alleging that Burr accepted God in his very last moments:
There has been an impression that Aaron Burr refused to converse upon the subject of religion during his last illness. But this is an error. The writer has received from the daughter of the late venerable Doctor Van Pelt, the following account of Burr’s death, related by her father, who visited him when dying:—Colonel Burr died at the present Port Richmond Hotel, Staten Island, where Dr. Van Pelt frequently visited him during his protracted illness. The time spent with him was chiefly employed in religious conversation, concluding with prayer. Asked as to his views of the Holy Scriptures, Colonel Burr replied — “They were the most perfect system of truth the world had ever seen.” Two hours before his death, Dr. Van Pelt informed him that he could not survive much longer, when he replied — “I am aware of it."
Dr. Van Pelt thus describes his last moments:
Aaron Burr's Death Mask
New York Historical Society
“With his usual cordial concurrence and manifest desire, we kneeled in prayer before the throne of Heavenly Grace, imploring God’s mercy and blessing. He turned in his bed and put himself in an humble, devotional posture, and seemed deeply engaged in the religious service; thanking me, as usual, for the prayer made for him. Calm and composed, I recommended him to the mercy of God and to the Word of His Grace, with a last farewell. At about two o’clock, P. M., without a groan or struggle, he breathed his last.
His death was easy and gentle as a taper in its socket, or a summer’s wave that dies upon the shore.
Thus died Colonel Aaron Burr.