In spite of a characteristic lack of gloomy castles, bloody towers and dank dungeons, America, too, has its share of historic haunts and ghostly legends -- and Washington is no exception. Here are a few of the eerie tales of haunted heroes and patriotic spirits found lurking around the nation's capital.
Washington's most haunting hostess
Dolley Madison, the charming wife of President James Madison, is said to be one of the busiest ghosts in Washington. According to tales that have been circulating for almost 150 years, the specter of the delightful first lady has been sighted in at least three locations in our nation's capital.
During the War of 1812, British soldiers attacked and torched the presidential residence. While the White House was being rebuilt, President and Mrs. Madison moved into Octagon House, a handsome example of American Federal architecture at New York Avenue and 18th Street Northwest. Known for her hospitality and warm, friendly parties, the gracious Dolley Madison has been seen there, in ghostly form, on many occasions.
Years after her death, stories began appearing in local newspapers of ghostly apparitions of footmen in full-dress uniform still hailing carriages for Dolley's guests. People were quoted as saying they had heard unseen wheels rumbling over gravel roads, the opening and closing of carriage doors, and the fading sounds of carriages rolling into the night. One newspaper account described "the wispy form of the turbaned hostess" seen dancing merrily through the doorway.
Also associated with Dolley's spirit is the faint fragrance of lilacs, the perfume she always wore. In recent years, visitors at Octagon Museum, now occupied by the American Architectural Foundation, have mentioned walking into unexpected cold pockets of lilac-scented air.
Perhaps the most celebrated sighting of Dolley Madison's wandering essence was reported by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. When Edith Wilson instructed White House gardeners to move Dolley's beloved rose garden, the ghost of President Madison's feisty wife supposedly marched right up to the busy gardeners and scolded them. Work ceased immediately, and the White House Rose Garden remained as it was when Dolley planted it.
After James Madison's death in 1836, Dolley left their Virginia home and moved back to Washington, where she was once again the center of Washington society. Some say her spunky spirit can still be seen rocking on the porch of her house on Lafayette Square.
The phantom of Wilson House
Woodrow Wilson House is one of the most historically authentic homes in Washington. All the original furnishings are there. The dresses of President Wilson's second wife, Edith, still hang in the closets. An interesting collection of walking canes Wilson acquired after suffering a stroke in 1919 are on display. Favorite books wait patiently on library shelves. The red brick Georgian Revival town house stands almost exactly as it was on that cold February night in 1924 when President Woodrow Wilson died there in his sleep. Some say his spirit lingers.
Over the years, strange tales have surfaced concerning mysterious noises heard at Wilson House. One such account allegedly involved a staff member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She was working alone one night in the dignified old building when she heard loud whistling coming from the direction of the fourth floor. A couple of months later, she heard the eerie whistling again. But this time it seemed different, sad and rather pitiful. The staff member said she was so frightened it was all she could do to keep from running out of the building. The next morning, another staff worker, who had come in early to meet a repairman, became upset when she, too, heard the mournful whistling.
There have been numerous bewildering reports of a man's sorrowful sobbing and of a strange tapping sound, as though someone were walking with the help of a cane. Some speculate that it is the woeful spirit of Woodrow Wilson, the only president buried in our nation's capital, still grieving over the political defeat of his dream for the League of Nations.
The corridors of the Capitol
Almost from the beginning, when George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793, the Capitol building, with its massive marble walls, dimly lighted corridors and 580 rooms, has been surrounded by eerie tales of spectral visions and supernatural phenomena.
One particularly grisly tale originated during the construction of the Capitol's magnificent rotunda. According to early stories, a stonemason got into an argument with a hot-tempered carpenter, who ultimately murdered him with a brick, and used the stonemason's own tools to entomb him behind one of the walls. Rumor has it that the ghost of the unfortunate workman still roams the Capitol corridors and has been seen passing through a wall in the basement on the Senate side of the building.
The most distinguished Capitol ghost is that of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States and nine-times-elected congressman. Adams, who was known among his colleagues as "Old Man Eloquent," gave many a silver-tongued speech against slavery and the war with Mexico. But the speech he was delivering on February 23, 1848, was interrupted when he suffered a stroke and fell unconscious onto the floor of the House of Representatives (in what is now Statuary Hall). Because Adams was too ill to be moved from the building, he was carried to the Speaker's Room, where he died two days later.
Several years after his death, rumors began circulating among Capitol workers about people who claimed to have seen Adams' ghost. Newspaper accounts quoted eyewitnesses as saying they had seen a "figure that appeared to be delivering a speech" on the exact spot where "Old Man Eloquent" had been stricken.
Perhaps the most sinister apparition seen prowling the halls of the Capitol is that of the dreaded "demon cat." During the 1800s, cats were kept in the Capitol to keep down the rat population. As the rodent problem diminished, so did the need for cats. Some were taken home as pets; others simply wandered away. The Capitol cats gradually dwindled down to nothing, except for one fiendish feline who stubbornly stayed.
The "demon cat," which was said to make its home in the basement crypt originally intended as a burial chamber for President Washington, soon became the terror of the nighttime protection service. According to one shaken Capitol watchman, one night while making his rounds, he saw a small, black cat padding its way toward him down a darkened hallway. As it came closer, the cat appeared to grow larger and larger until it reached the gigantic proportions of a tremendous tiger. The creature's eyes glowed with an evil brilliance, and gentle purring changed to a fierce, reverberating roar. With claws extended, the huge black beast let out a blood-chilling howl and leaped in the direction of the terrified man. Gun shots echoed through the marble halls. The guard screamed and covered his face with his arms, but nothing happened. "Demon cat" had vanished into thin air.
Legend has it that the infamous cat only makes an appearance before a national tragedy or on the eve of the changing of a presidential administration.
White House ghosts
President Lincoln isn't the only ghost in the White House. Many restless spirits haunt those historic halls.
When John and Abigail Adams, the first White House occupants, moved into the mansion, it was unfinished and standing alone in the middle of a dismal, muddy swampland. Because Mrs. Adams considered the East Room the driest room in the mansion, she decided the huge, unfinished ballroom on the first floor was the best place to hang up the family wash.
Over the years since her death, several White House residents have claimed to have seen Abigail's industrious spirit, arms outstretched as though carrying a basket of wet clothes, passing through the locked doors of the East Room. Her ghostly presence is said to be accompanied by the faint, fresh scent of soap and drying laundry.
During the Truman administration, a White House guard told a reporter that he had heard a voice calling out to him from the attic above the Yellow Oval Room. He said it whispered over and over again, "I'm Mr. Burns, I'm Mr. Burns." The reporter didn't think much about the man's claim until a week or so later when he happened to run across an article about the purchase of the land for the White House. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and his flesh tingled as he remembered the guard's story. The name of the man who owned the land in 1790 was David Burns. He had been nicknamed "Obstinate Davy" by President Washington because he had not wanted to sell his land.
One U.S. president who did believe in the White House ghosts was Harry S. Truman. In letters written to his daughter, Margaret, President Truman admitted that the "old place cracks and pops all night long," and that he wouldn't be the least bit upset "if any of the old coots in the pictures out in the hall want to come out of their frames for a friendly chat."
If you go . . .
The Octagon Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NW, Washington 20006. Open weekdays except Mondays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. Closed on major holidays. Admission charge. For information, call (202) 638-3105.
U.S. Capitol tours. Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Free admission. (202) 224-3121.
White House tours. Tours given Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to noon. Free admission. Call (202) 456-7041 about tickets.
Woodrow Wilson House Museum, 2340 S St. NW, Washington 20008. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission charge. (202) 387-4062.