Sunday, April 7, 2019

Paranormal on the Potomoc: Ghosts of Washington DC

Officially established in July 1790, Washington D.C. (The District of Columbia) has served as the heart of the United States of America, home to the nation's movers and shakers. However, the city isn't all gleaming white and star-spangled; there are darker corners to explore along its well-ordered streets. Let's take a look at some of the many spooky tales surrounding this legendary city.

The nation's lawmaking center, the US Capitol Building, is reputedly haunted by many spirits, among which we find a worker who fell to his death during construction of the dome that reaches 160' above the floor of the Rotunda. The worker has been seen floating about the dome, tools in hand, as still trying to do his job. A stone worker was crushed to death beneath a collapsing wall. He, too, is equally dedicated to his tasks and can be seen throughout the oldest sections of the building. A host of politicians wander the staid, marbled halls like Hogwartian apparitions: Rep Joseph Cannon, Rep Champ Clark, Sen and Rep Thomas Hart Benton, and Rep Wilbur Mills. Even the architect of DC himself, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, has been witnessed sulking at his dismissal and unrealized vision. Former presidents like John Quincy Adams and James A. Garfield also call the Capitol Building home in the afterlife. One can find tales of a phantom feline dubbed the "Demon Cat" that can be seen before national tragedies or the arrival of a new President (one in the same for many, I'm sure). Several unknown soldiers make appearances from time to time, one Revolutionary and another from World War I.

The White House and Lafayette Park
The White House is haunted by more than tarnished reputations. The presidential home was first occupied by John Adams and his wife, and many claim they still call the place home. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler all lay claims to this timeshare of terror. While he didn't die here, Abraham Lincoln is nonetheless a fixture at the house. The Lincoln bedroom is among the most haunted rooms at the White House. Many important, sober-minded individuals have claimed to sense his presence or hear his footsteps. Several have heard him knocking at the door to the bedroom. First Lady Grace Coolidge claimed to see the apparition of Lincoln staring out the Yellow Oval Room toward the Potomac. Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands, and Maureen Reagan claimed sightings as well.  Unfortunately, the most recent sighting dates back to the 1980s. Lincoln's not alone. His young son, Willie, joins him in the afterlife at the White House. Many non-residents also strangely call the White House home. David Burns owned the land upon which it was built still hangs about, as does a British Soldier from the War of 1812. Anna Surrat, the daughter of Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Mary Surrat, stalks the halls still. She barged into the home prior to her mother's execution in a vain attempt to beg for reprieve. Every July 6, some say, she comes banging on the doors of the White House, demanding to be let in to again plea for her mother's life.

Due west of the White House lies an expansive French Second Empire style chateau crowned with a delicate mansard roof known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Employees at this "wedding cake" of an office building speak of apparitions who roam its corridors at night.

Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, is haunted by the ghost of Philip Barton Key (son the famous Francis Scott Key) who was shot in the park by his friend Daniel Sickles when Sickles learned of his wife's affair with Key.

St. John's Episcopal Church, across the street from Lafayette Park, was built in 1816 and contains a bell made by Paul Revere's foundry that was installed in 1822. Legend says when the bell is rung in honor of a notable death, six white-robed specters appear along the "President's Pew" at midnight and then suddenly vanish. Why this occurs or who these men are isn't clear.

Across from both Lafayette Square and St. John's is the highly haunted hotel known as the Hay-Adams. The hotel was built in 1927 when developer Harry Wardman razed the historic homes of John Hay and Henry Adams to build his 138 room residential hotel. Later, hotelier Julius Manger purchased the property and converted it into the more traditional hotel we see today. In 1885, when Henry Adams still had a home on the site, his wife Marian (a photographic enthusiast nicknamed "Clover) committed suicide and many believe she still haunts the corridors and rooms of her old home--they just happen to exist within a hotel now. Her presence is often detected by the scent of almonds, the same aroma as potassium cyanide--the darkroom chemical she ingested to end her life. Others have heard the soft keening of a weeping woman or a female voice asking softly, "What do you want?" There are doors that open and close of their own accord and housekeeping staff who claim to have received phantom hugs. Much of the activity peaks in December around the anniversary of Marian's death.

The Octagon House was built in 1801 by Colonel John Tayloe III, a member of a prestigious and storied colonial family. After the burning of Washington, President Madison lived there for a time and even signed the Treaty of Ghent at the house. But the home he had constructed at 1799 New York Ave NW is a darker legacy as well. Legend says in its yard, a slave market once operated and that mistreatment saturates the ground like blood. Two of the Tayloe daughters haunt the home; both young women fell from staircase. Either or both can sometimes manifest as a flickering light that drifts up the stairs like a mote caught in a breeze. Phantom bells are rung by the disquiet spirits of slaves forever chained to the home and its hardships. Dolley Madison (who already gets around the city like an Uber driver) also haunts the home, as does the ghost of a British soldier from the War of 1812 (maybe it's the same one as from the Capitol), and a gambler who had been shot on the 3rd floor in the late 1800s joins in on the fun as well.

Peterson House
Ford's Theater

Ford's theater, which many will be surprised to learn is almost entirely a reconstruction inside, is most famous as the site of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination at the hands of an actor and Southern conspirator, John Wilkes Booth. While mortally wounded in the presidential box, Lincoln was taken across the street to the Peterson House where he died some hours later. Within even the rebuilt theater, witnesses have reported hearing the discarnate sounds are reported reliving the events of that tragic night: The rush of footsteps, a sudden gunshot, and screams. The anguished ghost of Mary Todd been spotted in the President's box. Some say John Wilkes Booth still stalks the theaters backstage. A frequent cold spot manifests at stage left, making some feel ill. There are those who have reported Booth's ghost racing across the stage. And while Lincoln himself has been spotted here, his ghost more often manifests across the street at the Peterson house where he died.

EXORCIST STEPS: While definitely cool with its association to the seminal film, The Exorcist, there is nothing actually paranormal about this steep set of stairs that leads pedestrians up a precipitous hillside in DC's Georgetown neighborhood from one street to the next. Still, if you're looking to up your cardio game...

Also in Georgetown, we find The Old Stone House, which was built in 1765 by Christopher Layman. It's considered the oldest extant home in the DC area. Not surprisingly that through all those years, the home would accumulate a ghostly patina. A woman in a brown dress is sometimes seen near the fireplace. Another, heavy-set woman is spotted by the stairs and in the kitchen. Some have spotted a man in a blue jacket with long blond hair, as well as several other disparate, colonial-era men. There is a little boy who runs down the third floor hallway. We also find reports of a woman in a rocking chair, a slave boy, a German worker, the laughter of children, phantom cooks working in the kitchen... The list goes on. The Old Stone House might well be among the most haunted in DC--if not the country. This is quite a statement, given how small it actually is.

The Smithsonian museum--founded in 1846--is actually many large and small museums spread throughout DC, although most are concentrated on the Mall between The Capitol and the Washington Monument. Among the disparate edifices associated with this storied institution of science, art, and history lies the red sandstone castle that was the Smithsonian's original incarnation. Here, the Smithsonian Institution's founder, James Smithson, has been spotted.  Paleontologist Fielding B. Meek who died in 1876 while living at the castle is also believed to haunt the place.

An article from a 1900 Washington Post article recounts that the spirit of a stuffed bird specimen would fly about the original museum (now the Arts an Industries Building) at night. The article goes on to tell of other strange occurrences witnessed by night watchmen, such as the shuffling of phantom feet, objects that seem to move on their own, or disembodied voices. Among the chief suspects for these spectral shenanigans are the museum's first curator, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry--both of which have been witnessed by night watchmen and other late working staff.

In the Natural History Museum, which boasts an amazing collection of fossil, mineral, and gem specimens, we find the legendary Hope Diamond, which many believe is cursed. While it's true that tragedy had followed the enormous, 45 carat blue diamond its entire life, no actual curse adheres to the gem. In fact, according to the Smithsonian itself, it was famed jeweler Pierre Cartier who created the legend as a romantic way to entice Washington DC socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean to purchase the stone. However, it's a matter of record that darkness followed her purchase. Her husband left her for another woman before dying in a sanitarium; her son and daughter died of drug overdoses. Recalling Cartier's tale, McLean had the diamond subjected to an exorcism, in hopes of ridding the diamond of its curse. After McLean died, jeweler Harry Winston took possession of the diamond and then donated it to the Natural History Museum. The postal worker who delivered the package broke his leg and then endured the death of both his wife and his dog--all within a year of his delivery. While a contentious acquisition at first, the fact remains that millions of visitors have come into the sphere of the Hope Diamond over the past half-century with no discernible pattern of disaster. Whether the curse is real or not, the legend and legacy of this amazing stone is undeniable.