A fright night at the museum
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, October 12, 2012
There are a few good reasons to go on the National Building Museum’s ghost tour this month. One of those reasons is not to get totally freaked out.
“Good evening. I’d like to welcome everyone to this cold and dreary evening,” Kristen Sheldon says before leading the tour of 22 people into the beautiful and very dark building.
Part of the reason this is not the scariest of tours is because unlike the U.S. Capitol and the White House, which are littered with legendary tales of ghosts roaming the halls, the National Building Museum isn’t known for its spirits. Writers of this ghost tour had to get a little creative.
“I am Mary Surratt! I bear the distinction of being the first woman executed by the U.S. government!” says an actress jumping out of the darkness at the beginning of the tour. “It didn’t matter that I was innocent!” the “spirit” screeches.
From there, Mary Surratt leads the tour throughout the building, looking for clues that she says will prove her innocence.
Surratt died more than two decades before the building was completed, hanged for conspiring to kill President Abraham Lincoln. But the doomed woman does have a sort of connection to the old building, albeit one that probably would please only a conspiracy theorist.
James Tanner served as the stenographer at Lincoln’s deathbed and later had an office in the National Building Museum, then the Pension Building, where he served as commissioner of the Pension Bureau. The ghost of Surratt jumps out of the darkness in what was once Tanner’s office.
“Somewhere the truth of my innocence is buried here!” Surratt screams. “On the night Lincoln was assassinated, [Tanner] took notes. He knew. He hid things here. There has to be proof. . . . Help me find things that would prove my innocence!”
From there, the tour follows Surratt as she continues to moan about her innocence and tell stories about herself as she and the tour group search for clues.
The “ghost” does tell stories of other ghosts in the building, however. One is about a woman who was thrown over the third-floor balcony by her lover. Another is a tale of a young security guard who ended up at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital after he confronted the ghost of Tanner, whose eyes showed “the depths of hell,” according to the Surratt “spirit.”
All of this is fun to hear. But what is really fun is just being in the Building Museum during off hours and walking up the narrow brick staircases to the third and fourth wooden planked balconies, almost 75 feet up. The fountain water in the atrium glistens in the dark. The voice of Surratt echoes. The lanterns given out at the beginning of the tour cast shadows on the fat columns.
You’ll learn a few things about the historic building, designed by Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who took copious notes throughout construction, so much so that we know that the building is made up of 15,500,000 bricks. You’ll learn that the builders left shoes in the floorboards in order to ward off spirits, an old builders’ tradition. The National Building Museum has found more than a dozen of such single shoes -- no pairs.
After the tour, Sheldon and the actress playing Surratt, Jessica Rodgers, answer any questions about the building or Surratt.
“It’s interactive,” says Margaret Reilly, who was visiting from Pittsburgh and took the tour with her brother, Myles, niece Ireland and nephew Ian. The tour prompted Ireland, 8, to ask more about Surratt. Reilly thought this meant the evening was a success.
The drama of the night, even if it was at times more than verging on fiction, got people wondering about the history of the building, the life of Mary Surratt and the truth behind ghost stories.
“Some guards see lights go on and off,” says Sheldon, the museum’s volunteer manager. “Is this because the building is old and the wiring is old? Maybe. But you never know . . .”