This is the final part of a Washington ghost story, “The Haunting of Halcyon House.” To read Part 1, visit washingtonpost.
The cab crossed over Rock Creek Park on the Buffalo Bridge. On the parkway below, motorists could look up at the 56 carved Indian heads gazing down from the ramparts. I was looking at a different visage: a man huddled at the other end of the taxi’s rear seat. He had forced his way inside, eager — it seemed to me — to flee Georgetown by any means.
His story — that for a year he had rented a room in Halcyon House, a grand if shabby mansion at 34th and Prospect — seemed to have no point. But then he came to it.
“This morning I found a note in my mailbox from a lawyer. ‘Your assistance is needed in a procedure,’ it read. My landlord was dead. Or seemed to be.”
I snorted. “ ‘Or seemed to be’? What does that mean?”
He ignored my question. "You must remember that I didn't really know my landlord, Albert Adsit Clemons."
" 'Clemens'?" I said. "As in 'Samuel'? Like Mark Twain?"
“I’d heard those rumors, but I don’t think he was related. He spelled his surname differently, and when I glanced around his jumbled office before signing the lease for my flat, I saw no books by Twain, no prints or busts of the author. It was clear that A.A. Clemons was wealthy, though he was also . . . well, I don’t know the right word for it. Distracted. Erratic. There was no rhyme or reason to what he had filled his house with or how he had chosen to display it.”
“The Peruvian pottery, African gourds and Indian baskets you mentioned,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “All was crammed side by side. There were expensive antiques and ancient artifacts — fine clocks, needlepoint samplers — but also what you’d call junk: brass headlamps from an old flivver, for example.
“He would move objects from room to room as he worked on the house. ‘Renovation,’ he called it, but it was more like plastic surgery. This wasn’t just taking down walls, it was putting them up. It was carving new hallways, sealing off rooms. Before I’d moved in he’d added an entire three-story edifice, enlarging the house to no purpose that I could discern. I kept mostly to my room, but occasionally I’d venture into the heart of the house and find it bearing no resemblance to what I’d encountered only the week before.
“And always there was the sound: the hammering, chiseling, sawing and nailing. It came to be like a pulse throbbing through the house.”
The cab had become very quiet. “And then?” I said.
"And then last night the sound stopped. The sudden sepulchral chill was so strange. When I found the note in my mailbox this morning, I went around to the front door of Halcyon House. A man opened it and introduced himself as George H. Paltridge , attorney at law. He ushered me into the ballroom-cum-office to which a new artifact had been added: A.A. Clemons himself, laid out on a butcher block table, his shirt open to the sternum.
“Standing nearby was a second man, in dungarees stained with plaster dust. ‘He thought he’d live forever,’ this man said.
“I took in the strange scene, then asked the obvious question: ‘Why am I here?’
"The lawyer spoke: 'We need another witness as a provision of the will is carried out,' he said. 'This is Melvin Alpress, builder.'
“ ‘I expect you’ve heard me,’ Alpress said. ‘Mr. Clemons and I have been renovating Halcyon House for decades. He used to say, “As long as it’s under construction, nothing can stop me.” ’ ”
I smiled. “He wouldn’t be the first rich man who thought he could cheat death with frantic industry or the accumulation of possessions,” I said.
The man continued: “Paltridge pulled a sheaf of documents from a briefcase and began to read aloud. ‘I, Albert Adsit Clemons . . . being of sound and disposing mind and memory, etc. etc.’ He skipped ahead: ‘First: I direct that upon my death having been definitively determined, the attending physician shall thereafter pierce or puncture my heart sufficiently for the purpose of absolute certainty of death. . . .’
“I recoiled. ‘You can’t mean it,’ I said. ‘There’s no doctor!’
“Alpress spoke up. ‘I suppose I’ve pounded enough nails in my time,’ he said. In one hand he held a hammer, in the other a nail, though at nearly a foot long it was more railroad spike than nail. He rested the point between two ribs and brought the hammer down!
“I couldn’t look. I stared at the ceiling as the blows rang out. And that’s when I saw it.”
“Saw what?” the cabdriver said.
“A spike! It came cracking through the molding that ran along the wall. With each blow, it intruded more into the room. And from the end dripped blood, which fell in thick and viscous drops onto the artifacts below.
“I tore from the house and jumped in the first cab I could find. Yours.”
We let him out at Union Station. He said he would not be returning to Halcyon House.
Rest (of the story) in peace
Save for the gothic ending, the details in this story are true, the people real. A.A. Clemons — 1872-1938 — was an eccentric who spent years modifying Halcyon House, giving rise to many rumors. Items from his collection are in museums up and down the East Coast. It is unclear whether the macabre stipulation of his will was carried out. He is buried in Palmyra, N.Y.
In 2016, 3400 Prospect St. NW was purchased by pharmaceutical millionaires Ryuji Ueno and Sachiko Kuno. Today it houses Kuno’s nonprofit, Halcyon, a foundation that, its website says, is devoted to “the potential of human creativity, and its power to create a better world for us all.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.