The Loves of Aaron Burr:
Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
Leonora Sansay (1773-?)
In a plot worthy of Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal, the gifted, pregnant daughter
of a Philadelphia tavern keeper, Leonora Hassal is entrusted by her mortally
ill fiancé to Senator Aaron Burr for her care. As the relationship progresses,
Burr facilitates her Secret History by making her, in grand harlequin style,
his courtesan and informant. Burr arranges sometime in the late 1790s an introduction and marriage to Louis Sansay, the wealthy owner of the Saint-Domingue plantation serving as residence to Toussaint L’Ouverture. This plantation serves as the setting for Leonora’s epistolary novel, The Secret History, The Horrors of Santo Domingo.
This novel is one of the twelve first hand accounts we have of the Haitian Revolution, one critic writes, “No other writer recording those apocalyptic days provides as intense or so narrowly focused a representation as Hassal… We see the glint of silver, hear the clatter of china and the sighs of courtship amidst the cruelty of the French, the devouring pestilence and contagion.”
Burr’s predilection for ladies with literary talent is exemplified in their enduring affections, but Leonora is the only mistress provided for in his last will and testament. Save for his letters (hers lost at sea with Theodosia), what we know about Leonora from fiction is a true portrait. She accompanies the husband, she doesn’t love, into the heart of a bloody racial revolution and reports, in intimate detail to her lover, the Vice President of the United States.
Sansay, having sold his plantation to Toussaint L’Ouverture, escapes the Revolution and arrives in New York about the same time as Stephen Jumel, the two are both affluent refugees meeting Leonora and Eliza, both suspected intimates of Burr. By 1802, as the Sansay marriage is deteriorating, Leonora’s relationship to her mentor deepens. Ostensibly to obtain passports for their return to Hayti, she visits Burr long enough that her husband, feeling the cuckold, is reduced to imploring the Vice-President to return his wife. When she does, it is to spy.
Hugo’s novel is loosely based on the early stages of L’Ouverture’s black revolution but As a character in Hugo’s novel she’d have become the title character’s mistress. Leonora’s writing begins with Toussaint’s being tricked into surrender to Le Clerc and his ruin. The Sansay’s are given front row
seats to Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol under the direction of the young Rochambeau. (not to be confused with his father, the American revolution’s hero).
Beyond being an object of desire, to Burr she’s a winking operative, chronicling Rochambeau’s flamboyant defeat by Jean-Jacques Dessaline. Unlike his nemesis, Jefferson and Hamilton, Burr was pro-Dessaline, Haitian, and Black Independence. While seemingly a race for Western real estate, what is popularly known as the Burr Conspiracy has aims the North, Central and South American worlds and towards establishing democracies. Leonora remains supportive of Burr’s cause, her observations useful beyond President Jefferson’s diversionary accusations of treason and his contrary vision of enslaving the country’s manifest destiny through the Louisiana Purchase .
Leonora and Aaron shared opinions on the rights of women, marriage and divorce. In her fictions, she explores the affinities of the Haitian revolution to that of America. In The Secret History she chronicles a Romantic struggle, contrasting the French manners and mores to that of Philadelphia. In Laura she romanticizes the struggle between the sexes, in Zelica, the Creole she creolizes herself into L’Ouverture’s mistress. Her lost novel’s title, A Stranger
in Mexico, hints at Burr’s Southwestern filibustering ambitions about which she inquires more than once in surviving letters.
Their relationship with literature and affection for one another survived his trial for treason and his four year exile in Europe. Many more of their letters were likely lost at sea with Theodosia Alston in 1813. Her novels found no more sales than his politics found votes. He returned from his Byronic escapades
in Europe to resume his law practice in Manhattan. She turned from author
to entrepreneur, partnering with Burr’s New Orleans agent in a silk flower business in Philadelphia and success.
Leonora’s corset binds her correspondence, sewn in signatures representing the “body of work” we now attribute to her as an author. The letters, several pages cross-written onto one page, are mixed with ephemera representing her later life. My concept’s kaleidoscopic mirrors mounted on an armature, allow for views above and below, is executed in collaboration with Lucia del Sanchez.
Kurt Thometz & Camilla Huey
The Secret History, or, The Horrors of Santo Domingo in a series of Letters written by a Lady at Cape François to Colonel Burr, Late Vice President of the United States. Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1808.
Laura. Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1809.
Zelica, the Creole. London, A.K. Newman, 1821.
The Scarlet Handkerchief, 1823.
A Stranger in Mexico. Lost.
The Loves Of Aaron Burr:
Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
Drawing connections between her own interpretive work
and the historic corsets exhibited in
Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette
Camilla Huey will speak on the changing architectural, structural, and functional forms
of corsets, corset-making, materials, and methodologies. The artist employs these
forms in her unique approach to analyzing portraits of nine 18th- and 19th-century women. Through ephemera, fetishism, material culture, and texts, the artist
invites the audience to follow both design and historic research as she explores biographical narrative. She will bring selected works from her exhibition,
The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
Preview May 7, 6pm Bard Graduate Center
38 West 86th Street, New York City 10024
$25 RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org
The Premiere of
The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding Film
with select works from the exhibition at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Manhattan's oldest house the very place where the lives of these women, filming and exhibition took place.
A reception and screening with discussion to follow.
View the works of Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Colonial Arrangements before.
Premiere May 14, 6pm Morris-Jumel Mansion
65 Jumel Terrace, New York City 10032
$25 RSVP email@example.com
Camilla Huey (artist/couturière) has exhibited artwork at the Bard Graduate Center
and the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Her exhibit, The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding, paid homage to the women who surrounded and influenced this controversial founding father.