Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The single candle on the fireplace mantle flickered weakly and failed to reach the deep shadows in the dark corners of the room. Doors were locked and windows draped and shuttered. There was a footstep, a creaking board, and then a worrying sound deep within the house.
"I think that is the cleaning lady using the elevator," reported Vicki Sopher.
The ghost-watchers relax. After all would the unsubstantial shade of Stephen Decatur be using the elevator?
Tuesday night was the night that the ghost of the naval hero of the War of 1812 was due to make his annual return to his old haunts to the elegant Lafayette Square house to which he was carried mortally wounded from the duelling grounds at Baldensburg 158 years ago.
As legend has it, on the night before his duel with Commodore James Barron on March 22, 1820, a brooding Decatur had looked out the north windows of the second floor drawing room and the first floor bedroom of Decatur House. His wife, who had not been told of the duel the next day, had invited some friends for a reception. Her husband, preoccupied with the duel that he had tried to avoid, was strangely withdrawn.
A year later, as the legend goes, servants returning to the house saw the face of Decatur at a window on the first annivesary of the eve of the duel.
In eerie stillness and candlelight, ghost watchers Tuesday waited for the ghost of the Decatur legend to return. Only the cleaning lady on her nightly round made an appearance.
"We will try it again next year on the anniversary," said an undiscourage Sopher. "This is only the first time that the legend has been tested."
The vigil was hurriedly arranged this year by Earl James, administrator of Decatur House for the National Trust For Historic Preservation. Sopher is an administrative assistant at Decatur House, and most of the ghost-watchers were drawn from the staff.
"I looked up ghost in the dictationary before coming here, and the dictationary opened right to the page," said James. "Perhaps that was a signal."
If so the shade of Stephen Decatur didn't get the signal. But then said one of the ghost-watchers, perhaps his presence was there but just wasn't felt amid such distractions as 20th-century traffic on H Street NW.
"I don't believe or disbelieve in ghosts. It's like UFO's," said Diane Schrinel, a docent at Decatur House, as she sat in the shadows of the bedroom.
Decatur, who built the mansion on Lafayette Square in 1819 with money granted by Congress as a hero's reward for his exploits against the Barbary pirates, went reluctantly to the Bladensburg duelling grounds that morning in 1820. It was along a creek called Bloody Run, and more than 25 persons had died there in duels, including three members of Congress. The challenge had come from Commodore Barron, aggrieved because he felt that Decatur was responsible for blocking his restoration to rank. Decatur had presided at the court-martial that had suspended Barron from duty for five years.
The duel with pistols was at eight paces. Barron was wounded in the hip. Decatur, mortally wounded, was carried back to Decatur House where he died late in the evening on a chaise lounge in the parlor across from his first-floor bedroom.