Samuel Engle Burr Jr., president general and executive director of the Aaron Burr Association, stared intently at the gravestone tablet of the unnamed "Female Stranger" of Alexandria, who, rumor has it, may have been the lost daughter of his notorious ancestor.
Suddenly, Burr fell to his knees and buried his head in his hands, overcome with emotion. For a moment it seemed that this 81-year-old man was himself the heartstricken Aaron, mourning his own flesh.
The solemn visit to the graveside culminated a weekend of wistful remembrances of Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States, a man whose name and actions have not been treated kindly by this country's historians, despite periodic attempts to rehabilitate him.
From as far away as Texas and Toronto they came, some 55 loyal defenders of the Burr name. Many bore his surname; others his blood. They gathered at a high-rise hotel near the Beltway in Alexandria, where the rooms they met in were named in honor of two of Burr's great antagonists -- Washington and Jefferson.
The defenders included Hale Burr, an Air Force colonel who blamed "poor old" Aaron's lot on what he called "bad p.r." If Burr were living today, he said, "I think the media would've treated him a little differently." And there was Kitty Jackson, a Burr from Charles Town, W. Va., who exclaimed upon seeing a new book's cover picture of Burr at age 36: "Oh, I didn't realize he was so handsome!
And there was Robert Francis Dyer, 8 years old and no relation, who said of Aaron Burr, "I think he's nice."
In his own time and to this day, however, there have been many who do not share such assessments of Aaron Burr, viewed instead as ambitious and opportunistic to a fault.
His duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804 led to a murder indictment while Burr still held the nation's second highest office. His subsequent Western ventures, in which he allegedly conspired with British and Spanish agents to restore their lost empires, led to a celebrated treason trial in 1807. Burr was acquitted, but not in the public eye. To his own and later generations, Burr's name was mud.
"The kids used to call me traitor when I was in grammar school," said Alfred Burr, a retired engineer for a Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm who has followed his cousin Sam into the ranks of the revisionists.
Similar childhood indignities sparked the crusade to which Samuel Burr, former head of the American University education department, has given so much.
Determined to remove the stigma, Burr and two other collateral descendants -- Aaron left no known direct descendants, although speculation about illegitimate offspring abounds -- formed the Aaron Burr Association in 1946.
Far from being a scoundrel, Samuel Burr will tell you, Aaron was a brilliant, misunderstood man who championed antislavery and women's rights. Burr, he says, set high standards of fairness as presiding officer of the Senate, and was intensely devoted to his first wife Theodosia and to the daughter they named for her.
But it has been painful struggle to get this message across. Samuel Burr had to pay a publisher to print his book. Another firm in Texas that printed his pamphlets went bankrupt, halting for a time the distribution of Aaron's side of the story. The state chapters that Samuel Burr envisioned for his association never materialized.
The most devastating blow, however, was a fire last year that burned his home near Front Royal to the ground, taking the life of his wife -- whose loss he has compared to Aaron's loss of Theodosia in 1794 -- and destroying his mailing lists and library.
It was the Aaron Burr Association, more than anything, friends say, that kept him going.
"He's sort of the grand old man," said Stuart F. Johnson, a Washington lawyer who is a vice president of the group and a Burr on his mother's side. "There is sort of a hard-core interested in the organization, and they are very devoted to Dr. Burr."
During the social hour before lunch, the Burr devotees renewed old acquaintances and cursed the name of Hamilton, whose mocking face seemed to smirk at them from the $10 bill they cashed at the bar. "He has an evil and pernicious smile," remarked Doug Fetherling, a Toronto Burrite.
During the meeting, they heard about Dr. Burr's latest letter-writing effort to refute "a single abusive paragraph" about Aaron in the October Saturday Evening Post. They discussed holding next year's gathering in New York, where Burr re-established a successful law practice after four years in exile.
It was on Burr's return from Europe that he learned of the death of his ten-year old grandson in Charleston, S.C. and invited his grieving daughter Theodosia north for a visit. She never made it.
She was, most Burr buffs think, lost at sea off the North Carolina coast. But a legend persists that she and a male companion came to Alexandria three years later where, sick and demented, she died and is buried in a grave inscribed "to the memory of a female stranger . . . ."