After Killing Hamilton, Aaron Burr Fled to Cincinnati and Plotted Treason

Ohio’s first senator, John Smith, got caught up in Aaron Burr’s shenanigans.

Now that everyone has watched Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, it might be appropriate to propose a sequel that follows Aaron Burr to Cincinnati to plot against the United States, because that’s pretty much what he did.

Portrait of Aaron Burr

Image digitized by Library of Congress

Politically ruined as the murderer of Alexander Hamilton, Burr hatched a plot to restore his reputation and his fortune by snatching the Louisiana Purchase away from the U.S., grabbing most of the northern Mexico territory and creating an empire, with himself as emperor. His plan was to magnify some minor border disputes between the U.S. and Spain into a full-blown revolution against Spanish occupation, with Burr playing the George Washington role.

In his efforts to put this scheme in motion while not arousing suspicion, Burr made multiple trips up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers between 1805 and 1807. His financial backer was a disgraced Anglo-Irish lawyer named Harman Blennerhassett, who owned a large plantation on an Ohio River island near Marietta. Chief among Burr’s co-conspirators was General James Wilkinson. In a lifetime of poor choices, befriending Wilkinson was among Burr’s worst mistakes. Although he was Senior Officer of the U.S. Army, Wilkinson was also a traitor on the payroll of the Spanish Viceroy. It came out later that Spanish bribes dwarfed Wilkinson’s legal army salary.

Historians still debate how tainted Senator John Smith of Ohio was in the whole treasonous conspiracy. Was he an innocent friend Burr manipulated? Or was he a willing accomplice who kept up a smokescreen to hide his nefarious involvement?

Drawing of the “Elder Smith House” in Terrace Park

Image extracted by microfilm by Greg Hand

It’s a matter of record that Burr passed through Cincinnati several times as he knitted together the disparate threads of his plot, and spent most of those visits at Smith’s home in Terrace Park, then known as Round Bottom Mills. Elder Smith, as he was known, was a Baptist preacher who arrived providentially in the Ohio River town of Columbia right after the minister who founded the pioneer Baptist congregation there returned east. Smith led the little church while building up a lucrative business selling provisions to the army, first at Fort Washington in Cincinnati and then throughout Kentucky and the Northwest Territory.

When Ohio was carved out of the Northwest Territory to become the 17th state in 1803, Elder Smith was appointed to represent the new state in the U.S. Senate. The Vice President at the time was Aaron Burr, who in that role served as President of the Senate. Smith and Burr got along famously, and Smith continued to support Burr even after the fatal duel with Hamilton.

It is known that Burr entrusted Smith with large sums of conspiratorial cash, which Smith dispersed on Burr’s instructions to active participants in the conspiracy. It is known that Smith knew Burr’s whereabouts and kept this intelligence confidential.

On the other hand, Smith, in apparent innocence, wrote to Burr asking if the rumors of traitorous conspiracy were true. Burr responded by fiercely denying the allegations. Nevertheless, after Burr’s plot imploded, John Quincy Adams introduced a resolution recommending Smith’s expulsion from the Senate because of his association with Burr. The measure failed to gather enough votes, but Smith knew his clout had evaporated and resigned from the Senate.

Cincinnati author William Henry Venable published, in 1901, a novel based on Burr’s empire conspiracy titled Dream of Empire, or The House of Blennerhassett. That novel includes a (probably) invented romance between Burr and a woman with the unlikely name of Salome Rosemary, who was staying with the Smiths in Terrace Park when Burr visited.

It’s possible that Salome Rosemary was based on a real person, because it was well known that Burr was an incorrigible womanizer and he likely chased some skirts on his travels through Cincinnati. Venable also records a piece of possibly accurate legend about Elder Smith’s house. According to the novelist, Burr scratched something into a glass window pane of Smith’s house.

“Sitting on the porch in the Sabbath twilight beside Salome, Burr softly intoned his regret that in the morning he must part from her. Sportfully he drew from her finger a diamond ring. ‘Do you want it back after all these years?’ she murmured. ‘No, dear, you shall have it again in a moment.’ He turned to a window, and with the sparkling stylus incised some delicate characters upon a pane of glass. Then he returned the ring to its owner, who, after perusing the inscription, looked round into his face, her own radiant with happiness. The window-pane remained unbroken for nearly a century, and the writing on it was always shown to strangers visiting the old historic homestead. The cutting diamond traced two names upon the glass, those of Senator Smith’s transitory guests. Many a sentimental girl, pausing over the double inscription and mildly condemning Burr, has wondered whatever became of Salome Rosemary.”

Elder Smith’s house still stands. It has been owned by various members of the Lindell family for more than 80 years now. As long as they have owned the house, no window displayed Aaron Burr’s scratching. But village historians insist that, throughout the 1800s, visitors were privileged to see the inscription. At least one such visitor, a Mr. A.G. Walter of New Orleans, told The Cincinnati Enquirer [June 9, 1902] that he had seen Burr’s signature—and only Burr’s signature—on that window pane:

“I visited a friend on his farm in Clermont County [sic], some years ago, and there was shown the autograph of Aaron Burr scratched on a window pane of an old house, by the great conspirator. Tradition has it that the old house on the farm was once occupied by Burr and his friends during the progress of the Blennerhassett Island conspiracy, and that Burr wrote his name on the glass during a discussion of ways and means of carrying out the plot. The nature of the tradition may be doubted, but the autograph is certainly genuine.”

Senator John Smith is all but forgotten, except for two Cincinnati streets. Today there is only a nubbin left of Smith Street, running west of the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge ramp; John Street, from Court north to York in the West End, is barely noticed these days. Both of these once-proud streets were named for Ohio’s first and disgraced Senator, John Smith, the host of traitor Aaron Burr.

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