IN THE DEPTHS of the night, when even the moon hides in fright behind the darkest of clouds, a phantom haze rises from Tiber Creek, long since buried many feet below tht ground. Washington may well be the most haunted town in the United States, for every house has a story, and history hangs heavy over the walls. Here the shadows of violent and epoch-making events play again, like a long-running film. The very bricks and stones are soaked with the memory of the past.
Why should it be strange if, on certain nights, when all things come together to make a spider web pattern, statesmen long dead rise from their tomb to demand "how goes the Union," melancholy maidens throw themselves down staircases and ogres too mean to die thump their way across an upstairs floor?
On this All Hallows Day, when respect is paid to the dead, and some say a window is opened between life and death, present and past, it is wise to recall a few of the phantoms who haunt our houses.
THE MOST recent mysterious happening came during the Reagan inaugural festivities. In late December, just before Christmas, Robert Gray, co-chairman of the inauguration, came home to find his house on North Court House Road in Arlington burned down.
"The house was on seven levels, going down the hill," Gray said the other day. "When I first bought it, about 20 years ago, I had a call from a foreign service officer who'd had an option to buy the house from Clifton Daniels, who had owned it at one time. They said he'd told them the house had a secret passage, and he'd show it to them if they bought it, Well, they didn't, but they wondered if I'd let them come see it. I hadn't heard about the passageway.
"But not long afterward, I had a dinner party, I told the story about the passageway, and everybody wanted to find it. Some of them went up to the library, and they soon called down to say they'd found the secret door. A panel, if pressed just the right way, swung open, to show a room inside. But a concrete wall had been put in it, to wall off the passage.
"The neighbors told me they were suspicious of one previous owner, whose wife had disappeared after several evenings of raucous fights. So I called the police. They came and looked at the concrete wall and said it was at least 15 years old, so we gave up on that.
"Not so long after, Marilyn McCormick left her dog with me when she took off to Europe. The dog woke us up barking at the wall in the middle of the night."
Another time, a guest said he didn't believe in ghosts -- and a strong wind blew through the room, picking up the rug and floating it down the room. One time, a woman's overpowering perfume filled a room. In the middle of another night, the Steinway grand player piano began to play, all on its own, "Moonlight and Roses."
Ruth Montgomery, an author and then a newspaper columnist with an interest in the occult, wrote a story about the house, which attracted the notice of Hans Holzer, a writer of ghost stories, and Sybil Leek, a medium who sometimes investigated for him.
"I was rather surprised at them calling a press conference before they came to the house," Gray said, "but I thought it was a good excuse for a party." About 30 people made a circle in the living room, around the two chairs saved for Holzer and Leek. The two were the last to arrive. "I was rather dubious about them," Gray said. "She went into a trance. Someone took over and said she had been killed in the house in 1931 by the admiral. Well, I pointed out that the house had been built in 1933 and no admiral had ever had anything to do with it.
"Arthur Ford, who had been an assistant to Houdini was also there that night. And he saw a man in a white uniform standing there while Leek was in her trance.
"In Holzer's book, "The Ghosts That Walk in Washington," he provides a transcript of the seance in which the murdered woman goes on about secret papers.
About a month after the seance, the architect who designed the house called and wanted to come see it. Gray told him about Leek. The architect told him, "Well, there was an older house on this site before this one, but it burned. And it did belong to a man with naval intelligence.
"He also told me," Gray said, "that the closed-off passage in the house went down to the maid's room. He said the owner collected art glass and wanted a hiding place for it when he was abroad. He didn't know why the passage had been blocked up."
When the house burned last December, the only thing left was the library and its secret concrete wall. The medieval banners hanging on the panel in front of that wall were not even singed. THE WHISTLE
OLD HOUSES, along with skittery mice, peeling paint and leaking roofs, traditionally come equipped with ghosts. The caretakers of historic houses, when giving the grand tour, tend to skip the ghosts because such stories are hard to document and "we must be professional about what we tell the visitors."
The staffs of several old houses in the area have held ghost watches, to no avail. But if you're lucky, and promise not to tell who told you, some will tell you tales to curl your history book.
Woodrow Wilson's house at 2340 S St. is one of the most authentic historical houses in town because his second wife, Edith Bowling Wilson, left all the furniture and decorations with the house. Her dresses hang in the closet. His books are in the library. The games including a Ouija board, they played during his long convalescence, are still in the attic.
One late afternoon, just a year or two ago, a staff member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation was working late at the Wilson House.
"I was working at my desk," she said, "when I heard loud, cheerful, happy whistling from the fourth floor, the servants' and laundry rooms. I thought it very strange, but I didn't say anything about it. A month or two later, I heard whistling again, but this was rather pathetic whistling, from the library. I was so frightened, I almost ran out of the house.
"But I still didn't say anything about it. The next day, I'd asked another staff member to come in earlier to open up for a repairman. When I came in, she was very upset and unhappy. I couldn't imagine why she'd be disturbed at just coming in early. Finally, she told me she had heard the whistling that morning and was so terrified she almost left.
"Both of us, and a good many other people, have heard footsteps on the bedroom floor and felt a presence. The story goes that one maintenance man who lived on the fourth floor once heard footsteps in Wilson's bedroom. The man ran up the cast-iron staircase to the fourth floor, and the ghostly footsteps followed him. Another time, he was in the tub. He felt someone staring at him. Then there were mysterious thumps on the tub. He and his wife soon moved out.
"The climbing lady once said she actually saw Wilson sitting in the chair in his bedroom, looking at her." The Staircase
OCTAGON HOUSE was built around the turn of the 18th century, down the street from the White House, by Col. Benjamin Tayloe, a friend of George Washington. It has been called "the most haunted house in Washington." Staff members have heard footsteps on the stair. Visitors have reported being forced to walk around a place at the foot of the stair, where a ghostly body seems to be crumpled on the floor. The lights turn off and on at strange times. Not long ago, Richard Timothy Conroy, photographing the house for Antiques World, produced a photograph that showed a blur on the house's concealed staircase.
The excellent history "The Octagon," by George McCue, quotes the account by Rayloe's granddaughter.
"The bells rang for a long time after my Grandfather Tayloe's death, and everyone said that the house was haunted; the wires were cut and still they rang . . . Our dining room servant would come upstairs in the evening to ask if anyone rang the bell, and no one had.
"Soon after my dear old grandmother, Mrs. Tayloe, died in her 83rd year, we left the Octagon . . . The breakup . . . was very sad, but as I was a child, I enjoyed the change and was glad to get away from the haunted house and its ghostlike marble statues which often frightened me."
The most persistent legends about the Octagon say the two Tayloe daughters, frustated in love, float down the beautiful staircase and crumple at its bottom.
McCue tells the story:
"One account has it that the eldest daughter loved a British officer, to whom her father had forbidden the house because of anti-British feeling. After a loud argument on the stairway, she stomped to the top floor with her candle; there was a scream, and her body plunged down the stairwell. A flickering light is still to be seen on the stairway on stormy nights, according to this story, with sounds of shrieks and sickening thuds."
Another daughter was said to have fallen in love with a man beneath her station. McCue writes: "Another argument on the stairs, another tumble and another ghost." Unfortunately for the legend, McCue and the family can't turn up a daughter who dies at the Octagon during Col. Tayloe's lifetime.
A slave girl is also part of the legend. In one story, McCue says, the tragic girl fleeing the unwelcome attentions of a British officer jumped from the stairwell. In remorse, or perhaps hot pursuit, the officer also jumped, and both were killed. Another version says the poor girl was murdered by a British soldier who walled up the body in the house.
For years, people speculated about the basement room that seemed to be a walled-up tunnel. Some say it went to the harbor, others that it was a secret escape route for the White House. Sad to say, Jeanne Butler Hodges, head of the American Institute of Architects Foundation (owner of the house), found evidence that says the room was a coal cellar. The Window
DECATUR HOUSE, on Lafayette Square, is acknowledged to be one of the most tragic houses in Washington. Commodore Stephen Decatur, a naval hero of the Revoluntionary War, lived just a short time in the great mansion he built with prize money from his naval enterprises. A disgruntled and disgraced naval officer, James Barron, who had reason to believe Decatur had prevented his promotion, challenged Decatur to a duel.
Decatur tried to avoid fighting, but in those days a duel was considered an affair of honor, and the way to solve differences between gentlemen. His young wife pleaded against the duel. The night before, Decatur stood in the upstairs drawing room for a long time, staring out the window but determined to go through with it. The next morning he left before dawn, his dueling pistols under one arm, for the infamous Bladensburg dueling ground. He was mortally wounded.
Some say the window where he meditated the night before was bricked up because passers-by persisted in seeing Decatur still peering out, but architectural historians think it more likely that the window was always a make-believe window, for formal balance's sake.
Not long ago, a staff member at Decatur House saw a gentleman in early 19th-century clothes leave by the back door, a case of dueling pistols under his arm. The Horseman
WOODLAWN Plantation, a gift by George Washington to his niece and nephew, has several ghosts, according to Margaret Davis, a longtime staff member.
"Some say George Washington, who died before the house was built, rides around the boxwood circle, to be sure it was done right. John Mason, a later owner, who had a peg leg, is believed to clump up and down the stairs. During our needlework seminars, Hope Hanley, a needlework expert, stayed in a bedroom in the south wing. She said there was a presence that hovers there." The Bones
THE SMITHSONIAN Castle, the oldest of the Mall complex, was built in 1849 to the design of James Renwick. The money to establish the Smithsonian came in a bequest from James Smithson, the bastard son of the duke of Northumberland.
Smithson was not a well-documented person. But he was known to have died in Genoa. According to James Goode, the historian of the castle, he was buried in Genoa in 1829. "In 1904, an English cemetery was uprooted to excavate for marble for the sea wall, Smithson's bones were offered the Smithsonian. Alexander Graham Bell went to get them (as reported a few years ago in The National Geographic.) They were installed in a room, once a guard's room, just inside the door of the castle."
In 1973, when the third floor of the castle was divided horizontally to make an extra floor for the Woodrow Wilson Center, the guards reported that Smithson "rocked in his cradle." Some were so scared they asked to be assigned elsewhere. An administrative assistant who had the office above would often be so convinced of an unseen presence, she would have to leave the room.
Goode thought it time to investigate the tomb. When I opened up the sarcophagus, there was nothing there. We were all very puzzled. So I had workmen drill into the base and open it up. And there in a tin box were Smithson's bones, all jumbled together with scraps of his original coffin, which had his name worked in brass tacks. I took them over to Dr. Larry Angel in Natural History for study, and he put them back together in a proper order. I wrote a report, and we packaged it all back together and re-installed it in the crypt. We've had no further trouble."
Mary Lynn McElroy, administrative assistant to S. Dillon Ripley, the Smithsonian secretary, said that one day when she was in his offices (originally the secretary's living quarters), "I looked through into his office and noticed the flag was flying staright out, as though someone were holding it up at the free corner. There was not even a breeze in the room. We often feel as though someone unseen is there."
Louise Platt, Woodrow Wilson Center special events coordinator, is often in the building late. "I love the stories the guards tell me. Some are sure the elevator into a tower is haunted by a man called Edward Meeks, who died in the tower before the elevator was installed. It often jams. One night the guards heard the alarm bell from the cab. They worked their way in and opened up the roof to free the passenger. No one was there.
"One of the cleaning women told me that a woman ghost screams in the rotunda area. The cleaner asked to be changed to a different floor.
"Once I was with a woman whose necklace was pulled back and snapped, when no one was standing near."
One Smithsonian guard claimed he came into the Woodrow Wilson library severaly times to find books pulled out and left all over the floor, though no one was supposed to be there at the time. The Knocking
THE MOST famous of all Washington ghost stories comes from the most haunted house in Washington: the White House. The story was originally told by the man who became Washington's favorite ghost: Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was admittedly interested in spirits. When his young son died in the White House, he and his wife were inconsolable, and they tried through seances to reach the lost boy. He was also much concerned about the other boys, from north and south, who were dying on the battlefields of the War for Southern Independence, as it was called south of Washington.
On certain nights, he once told his Cabinet, he dreamed he was on a bark sailing to a distant shore. The next day, after these dreams, great battles would actually take place, always Northern victories.
One night he dreamed that he heard sobbing in the house. He got up and followed the sobs, wondering what great tragedy would cause such agonizing weeping. He left his room and followed the sounds to the great East Room, the largest room of the White House.
The room was full of people. Men and women alike sobbed into large squares of linen or lacy dabs. In the middle of the room stood a bier, draped in black, spread with the flag of the United States.
"Tell me, dear lady," the president asked, "for whom do these people weep, with sounds so terrible they shake the happiness of this house?"
"Oh, do you not know, sire? It is the president, stricken down by the assassin's bullet," she said.
A few days later, the president dreamed again, this time that his bark had reached that distant shore. He told his Cabinet about the dreams. That night, he was shot down at Ford's Theatre.
By all accounts, Lincoln, though he died in a house across the street from Ford's, has unfinished business at the White House. They say he walks the long cross hall on the second floor. Every so often he stops, and knocks.
One night, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands was staying in the Queen's Bedroom, in the northeast corner of the house. She heard a knock on her door, so she walked briskly over and open it. There she saw Abraham Lincoln. The queen fainted.
Another time, Winston Churchill was staying in the White House during one of his secret World War II trips to confer with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was lodged in what was then the northwest bedroom. Late one night, his mystery meetings were over. He'd poured his glass of Scotch and lit up his big cigar. As usual, when he was alone, he'd taken off all his clothes.
His lack of clothing didn't keep him from answering the knock on the door. Standing in his doorway was Abraham Lincoln. Churchill ran out into the hall and refused to go back into his room, even for his clothes. The servants had to make up a bed for him down the hall.
None of these stories, unfortunately, goes on to say why Lincoln knocked, or what his intentions were except to greet the visitors as the ghost host of the house.
Anyway, no one sleeps in the northwest room any more. It's now the president's private dining room, converted by Jacqueline Kennedy.
Just before the Jimmy Carter family left the White House, Amy Carter and her friends tried a Ouija board in what is now called the Lincoln Bedroom. The Ouija only conjured up Rosalynn Carter, who made them quit.
WASHINGTON has other ghost stories told on those nights when the moon is pierced by the Washington Monument, pierced by the Washington Monument, as though by a dagger, and the shadows of the past fall like cold hands on the living. Halcyon House and Prospect House in Georgetown, the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square, the Capitol itself, the Mary Surratt house, the National Theatre -- all have their own specters that stalk the ramparts. Some of those other stories are told in the definitive book "Ghosts, Washington's Most Famous Ghost Stores," by John Alexander, published by Washingtonian Books.
But All Hallows Day dawns: The cock crows, the spirits depart, the vampires close the lids on their coffins against the sunlight -- and the problems of the living are frightening enough.