SKELETONS RATTLE in political closets all over Washington, so it's not surprising that Our Town has more than its share of supernatural beings. So many specters--ghastly, pitiful or benign--have been seen hereabouts that there's hardly a neighborhood in the city that cannot boast a ghost.
Our vaunted haunted precincts include the White House and Lafayette Square, the Capitol, Georgetown and just about every other famous place in Washington except, oddly, the Smithsonian Institution.
Abraham Lincoln's shade still wanders the corridors of the White House, as he dreamed in the days before his assassination. Keeping him company is beloved son Willie, whose death at age 11 helped unhinge Mary Todd Lincoln. Abigail Adams carries baskets of laundry to the East Room. Outside, Dolley Madison eternally oversees the Rose Garden, except when she's in residence at the Octagon House, to which the Madisons moved after the British burned the Executive Mansion. Across the Potomac, George Washington rides forever over the grounds of Mount Vernon, with side trips to Gettysburg, Yorktown and other battlefields.
The Federal City's ghosts go back to before there was a Washington. The earliest recorded tale comes from Captain John Smith, who sailed up the Potomac in 1607. Smith noted in his diary that he heard mysterious moans and sobs in the area of the Three Sisters Islands, the three rocky outcrops just upstream of Key Bridge. Or so says author John Alexander in "Washington's Most Famous Ghost Stories," from which much of what follows has been freely cribbed.
It turned out that the mournful sounds were attributable to the spirits of three Powhatan Indian maidens who had drowned whilst crossing the river to seek vengeance for the slaying of their lovers by Susquehannocks. As they went under, the lasses laid a curse on the Potomac; and their spirits, transformed to stone, abide in the river to enforce the malediction. One crosses there at one's peril, 'tis said, and when the beginnings of a bridge were built on the bank nearby, the wrathful sisters raised the river and washed the structure away.
This alleged flood damage could be verified or disproved through journalistic diligence, but some stories are just too good to check out. Serious-minded readers should skip on over to the editorial page, because this entire essay is essentially an exercise in playful plagiarism, rampant rumor-mongering and excessive alliteration. Hey, it's Halloween.
Francis Scott Key and his son Philip Barton Key are--sorry--key figures in local lore. The author of the Star-Spangled Banner (whose eponymous bridge is also known as the Car-Strangled Spanner) is said to stump the streets of Georgetown, grumping ceaselessly over the fact that the site of his house now is but a bridge abutment abutting a tiny public park. Son Philip walks his beat in Lafayette Square, where in 1859 he was shot and killed in broad daylight by New York congressman Daniel Sickles. A future Union general, Sickles was being cuckolded by young Key, a federal attorney and a notorious rake, who was keeping jig time with Sickles's child bride, Teresa.
Sickles beat the murder rap with what's said to be this country's first successful temporary insanity plea. He went on to raise a Union Army regiment in the Civil War and at Gettysburg did his damndest to lose the battle by disobeying orders and pushing his troops into an exposed and unsupported salient, where they were slaughtered. Sickles did manage to lose his right leg to a cannonball. The severed limb was pickled and packed off to the Army Medical Museum on the Mall, where Sickles was wont to take guests to see it. The colorful and cantankerous old soldier is said to have kept visiting his leg long after he died, but his ghost seemed to lose track of it when the museum was renominated the National Museum of Health and Medicine and moved to the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Philip Key, however, still roams the square, where perhaps he passes the time of night with Commodore Stephen Decatur, who died in his home there after an 1820 encounter with Commodore James Barron on the bloody Bladensburg dueling ground. Perhaps Key and Decatur are joined by Teresa Sickles and Susan Wheeler Decatur, both said to be sometimes heard round the square, weeping o'er their lost loves.
Additional sighs may be supplied by the shade of Marian "Clover" Adams, an accomplished early photographer and the wife of author Henry Adams. The mistress of one of Washington's most celebrated salons, she was said to have committed suicide by cyanide in 1885 in their house, where the Hay-Adams Hotel now stands. However, it's suspected by some that she was done in by her autocratic husband, who never even mentioned her in his famous autobiography. Clover's shadow's not as active as in earlier days, but she's still said to hang at the hotel. Some also get eerie emanations from the famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens's cowled bronze figure that Henry Adams commissioned for Clover's otherwise anonymous grave in Rock Creek Cemetery.
Another grave matter is overseen by Mary Surratt, whose ghost long has hung around Fort McNair, where she was hanged for harboring John Wilkes Booth and sundry other co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. She may from time to time confront the ectoplasmic essence of Judge Advocate General Henry Holt, who presided over her trial and sentencing. The "taciturn, vindictive and ill-mannered" Holt is said to have later developed doubts about Surratt's guilt; he became a recluse and seems to have been sentenced to spend eternity reading and rereading the trial transcripts.
Like the rest of us, civil servants always die, but some never fade away. The Capitol building is apparently the eternal home of several workmen and maintenance men and divers dear departed staffers. In the 1890s, according to a guard, Statuary Hall hosted a full phantom session of the 1840 House of Representatives, the last to meet in that chamber. Over the years others have reported seeing John Quincy Adams, who served nine terms in Congress after serving as president, and who in January 1848 collapsed and died while haranguing the House for honoring our victorious generals in "a most unrighteous war with Mexico." There's nothing particularly unusual about Adams's persistent presence; former congressmen are notoriously reluctant to leave Washington.
There are said to be ineradicable bloodstains on the marble steps leading to the House press gallery where in 1890 former Kentucky congressman William Taulbee was shot and killed by reporter Charles Kincaid, to whose articles Taulbee had taken vociferous exception. It is further asserted that Taulbee's resentful spirit frequently makes news people stumble on those stairs; some observers, however, attribute such clumsiness to other spirits.
While the accounts of Washington apparitions are almost infinite, our space is not. We close with the sightings of the small, seedy figure of Pierre L'Enfant, who is sometimes seen roaming the bowels of the Capitol with his grand plan for the Federal City rolled up under one arm. He's plainly still miffed about being stiffed by Congress for the $91,700 he feels is owed him. L'Enfant, who was fired for feistiness, died penniless in 1825 and was buried in a pauper's grave. He seems unmollified by the fact that in 1909 his body was reinterred with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, in a prominent spot overlooking the capital city he conceived. Surely none will deny that L'Enfant's spirit still is with us.
Want to find out more about local ghosts? These tours offer the chance to explore further the area's haunted history:
CAPITAL HAUNTINGS -- Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. McPherson Square Metro station (White House exit). No reservation necessary. (Large groups should call ahead.) $10 per person, $5 for children 12 and under. Cash only. Sponsored by Washington Walks 202/484-1565. Web site: www.washingtonwalks.com/tours.html.
ALEXANDRIA GHOST AND GRAVEYARD TOUR -- Meets at Ramsay House Visitors Center, King and Fairfax streets, Alexandria. 703/548-0100. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., through November. $6, $4 ages 7-12 (under 7 free). Web site: www.cais.com/webweave/ghost.htm.