From president to servant and soldier, hosts of haunts have found The Nation's Capital a happy haunting ground.
The White House has given people the creeps for years. Any number of ghostly visitors have been reported: James Garfield claimed he was visited there by his long-dead father. Others have heard "ribald laughter" coming from what was Andrew Jackson's bed. The ghost of a British soldier from the War of 1812 is said to frequent the grounds, carrying a torch.
Abraham Lincoln's ghost pays the most regular visits. Admittedly interested in the occult, Lincoln even in life had spiritual powers that were noteworthy. He told of dreaming he heard people weeping in the East Room. Leaving his bedroom in search of the source of the noise, he saw a room full of people dressed in black. In the middle of the room, a bier was covered with the American flag. Asking who had died, he was told, "The assassinated president." A few nights later, he had a recurring dream about sailing on a bark. This time, his bark had reached a distant shore. He told his Cabinet both dreams the afternoon before he was shot at Ford's Theater.
Lincoln does not rest. According to sources including Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Winston Churchill (both of whom reported seeing Lincoln at the White House), he walks the long hallway on the second floor, sometimes stopping to knock on doors. Storytellers note that Churchill saw Lincoln late one night after one of his secret World War II meetings with FDR; he avoided sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom ever after.
The Capitol building, too, is crowded with shades of the past. Several witnesses have sworn to seeing the figures in Statuary Hall climb down off their pedestals to shake hands or dance. (James Ketchum, Capitol curator for 12 years, likes to imagine Frances Willard, founding member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, being asked to waltz by Dr. John Gorrie, inventor of the ice-making machine, just a statue away.)
The Capitol's phantom feline puts any other black-cat story to shame. Ketchum calls the tale his favorite: In Statuary Hall, in the hours between primetime and wee, guards say they've seen a small shadowy black cat approaching. As they get closer, it grows geometrically, swelling to giant tiger-size. As it reaches the frightened observer, it pounces, then disappears.
Then there's "Bishop" Simms of the Senate barbershop, who sidelined as a man of the cloth. He was known for singing as he worked, often late in the evening. Reports of ghostly late-night song echo years after Simms' death. "I'm not sure whether he went with the barbershop into the new Russell Building," says Ketchum.
The Capitol's eerie sound effects are legendary. Henry Wilson, vice president under Grant, was known to enjoy the bathtubs in the lower Senate wing. He apparently suffered a cold, possibly pleurisy, and died in 1875. Years later, guards and police claimed to hear loud sneezes and coughing, particularly in the corridor leading to the vice president's office.
"Most of these good friends haven't been seen or heard in recent years," Ketchum sayd sadly, mourning today's lack of imagination. "Should we blame it on television?"
"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 . . ." -- an account by Col. Benjamin Tayloe's granddaughter, in George McCue's "The Octagon."
Only the White House and the Capitol sport more spooks than Octagon House, built around the turn of the 18th century down the street from the White House by George Washington's friend Col. Tayloe. Most of the stories are set on the imposing staircase: reports of footsteps on the empty stairs, a cold spot at the bottom where a ghostly body seems to lie crumpled on the floor, lights turning on and off with no earthly help.
According to persistent tales, the spirits of the Tayloe daughters float down the staircase. The Colonel is said to have forbidden his eldest daughter's beloved British soldier from visiting the house because of anti-British feeling at the time. McCue tells the story:
"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 stormy nights . . . with sounds of shrieks and sickening thuds."
Another daughter is said to have displeased her father by falling in love with a man beneath her station. In one version, she returned after eloping to ask forgiveness. "Another argument on the stairs, another tumble, another ghost," McCue writes. Then there's the story of a slave girl who, McCue says, jumped from the stairwell to escape the attentions of a British officer. The officer jumped too, and both were killed. Another version says the slave girl was killed by the soldier who walled up her body in the house.
A newspaper account in 1965 noted that Velma May, then curator of the house, witnessed the chandelier that hangs down the stairwell swinging of its own volition. She also found "tiptoeing tracks of human feet in the undisturbed dust on the top floor landing."
"We try to discourage these myths," says current Octagon curator Joanna H. Wos. "It's a nice, not true story. All the Tayloe daughters were accounted for, and none died at the Octagon during the Colonel's lifetime." Staff members are told to dismiss the subject when asked by visitors, she says, and to stick to the house's mundane history.
On a recent classically stormy night, the wind howled like a sound effect from a bad movie through four floors of Woodrow Wilson's town house. Wilson's bathrobe lay tossed across his rocker and the tea service, dumbwaiter, well-stocked kitchen and mementos looked as they did when he died in the house in 1924. The spirit of the former president, though not his ghost, was much in evidence.
According to legend, the elegant house at 2340 S Street NW is visited by its former resident. Workers often hear him whistling in the back stairway. "In the summer we run to the window to see if people are whistling outside," says one staff member. Usually they're not. Word has it Wilson can be heard climbing the stairs; in 1969 a caretaker said the "slow shuffle" sounded like someone walking with a cane. (Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919.)
Director Earl James says he's the only staff member who has never seen or heard anything ghostly, adding that he desperately wants to.
Staffer Nancy McCoy says often an alarm goes off at night when there's a storm or high winds. "It's usually explainable . . . What leads people to feel a presence is the fact that the house is a home," she says. "You can feel that the Wilsons have just stepped out and are coming back."
The Smithsonian Castle building, built in 1849, has had its share of ghostly happenings. Mary Lynn McElroy, administrative assistant to Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, says "I'm trying to scotch the rumor that I've personally seen a ghost. I've heard the stories." In the Woodrow Wilson Library, she says, "people see books moving out from the case and being replaced. There are supposed to be strange drafts." A year ago, McElroy was quoted as seeing a flag in Ripley's office standing "straight out, as though someone were holding it up at the free corner. There was not even a breeze in the room." This year, she downplays the occurence.
Guards say the tower's elevator is haunted by one Edward Meeks, a worker who died before it was installed. Says Louise Platt, Wilson Center special events coordinator, there have been "any number of sightings" of James Smithson, the man who left the money to build the Castle when he died in 1829. Often he's seen carrying what looks like a mountain climbing pick. His bones were left to the Smithsonian and installed just inside the Castle. Guards reported seeing Smithson "rock in his cradle" until several years ago when the sarcophagus was opened. It was empty; the bones were jumbled in a small tin box in the base. They were studied by the Museum of Natural History, put back together and the crypt hasn't rocked since.
But, according to Platt, workers in the office directly above the vault often feel a presence and have to dash out into the Rotunda until the room is cleared. (From the bone study, scientists were able to determine Smithson was a fencer; the pick was probably a foil, Platt adds.)
Carl Wright, a nightwatchman, says he and a co-worker once heard "something walking, like a woman, pat-pat up the stairs. We listened for 10 minutes," knowing no one was in the building. Sometimes he's turned off lights and found them on again and locked doors only to find them open -- especially "the north door right over the crypt . . . It's sometimes real weird."
The Pension Building is no place to be alone during a dark drizzle. Drafts and residual sounds in the cavernous interior, echo spots and leaks from the roof plunking into buckets -- not to mention the rodents on the top floor -- would be eerie enough without the building's history of ghostly sightings. Imagine when it was gas-lit, and before the simulated onyx columns were painted over.
General Montgomery Meigs, architect of the mammoth red brick building, wanted onyx to support his 15-story structure. Due to the cost, he settled for a painted Sienna- marble look. It's said guards saw changing configurations in the veins of eight central Corinthian columns: the forms of an Indian and a buffalo head appeared one night in 1917, on the eve of Buffalo Bill Cody's death. (He'd been among the celebs at the first of several inaugural balls there.) In the Twenties, guards were still seeing malevolent skulls following them pillar to pillar. The columns were finally covered with government-beige paint in the Fifties.
Curiously, Meigs' records indicate 14 hollow columns hold various government documents, some in lead boxes. Staff members have located one, which indeed holds a stack of papers. Their contents remain a mystery.
A transparent rider on horseback also has been reported. But the figure in a white suit caused a bigger stir. A watchman who came unglued after the encounter told authorities he'd witnessed a man with no eyes in his head, the fires of hell and the stench of death.
Some speculate the figure was that of first pension commissioner James Tanner, who took witnesses' accounts on the night of the Lincoln assassination. It's rumored that the papers secreted in the building are the testimonies taken that night. Believers point out that Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War in the 1880s, approved the plans for the Pension Building, (100 years ago, the day after Halloween); they suggest that Meigs envisioned his columns standing for centuries and speculate that Lincoln preferred to store his documents for the ages rather than destroy them. Conspiracy theorists conclude that Tanner haunts the building searching for evidence.
The specter of Stephen Decatur, fatally wounded in a duel, was spotted so frequently in the window of the naval hero's home on Lafayette Square that the windows had to be bricked up. Cynical historians believe they were always fake windows, for visual balance. But at Decatur House, at National Theater, at Halcyon House in Georgetown, at the Dolley Madison and Mary Surratt houses, around Three Sisters Rocks . . . history lives in the wraiths of statesmen, socialites and despairing lovers. Many of the tales are told in John Alexander's "Ghosts, Washington's Most Famous Ghost Stories," published by Washingtonian Books.
Personal experience is harder to come by. Capitol curator James Ketchum describes his first-hand encounter with a ghost this way: "One time at the White House, in the Lincoln bedroom," he says, "it was springtime, an overcast afternoon. We heard a strange sound, 'ahh-hahhiah, ahh-hahhh,' (deep inhale-exhale) which seemed to be coming from the corner. We ran and gathered some colleagues to listen. Finally, we pulled back the curtain, and there saw a park service employee in a tree with a handsaw."