Ghosts of the White House

White House at Night. White House photo by Paul Morse

White House at Night. White House photo by Paul Morse

The stresses and pressures of the presidency are so huge, it is not surprising that an emotional mark has been left on the executive mansion.  A variety of ghost stories exist about the White House, and not all of them are the spirits of past presidents.  Let’s take a look at some of the supernatural stories that surround this famous address.

Before the White House was the the executive mansion, the land belong to David Burns.  His ghost is reported to be in the Yellow Oval Room.  He has been seen by both a valet to Franklin D Roosevelt and a guard of Harry S. Truman.  Both times, he is reported to have said, “I’m Mr. Burns.”  Perhaps he was talking to Thomas Jefferson, who has been sighted playing his violin in the same room.

The first family to live in the White House was John and Abigail Adams, and even then the house was not complete.  Because most of Washington DC had been built on a swamp, it was damp and dank.  Abigail Adams had a heck of a time finding a place dry enough to hang the family laundry.  Finally, she settled on the half finished East Room.  There have been reports of her ghost being seen on the way to the East Room in a cap and lace shawl carrying a basket of laundry, the scent of laundry soap and lavender in her wake.  President Taft is the first to have reported seeing the First Lady.  

Abigail Adams is not the only First Lady to return to her former home.  The famous White House Rose Garden was planted and zealously tended to by Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison.  The beautiful garden was her pride and joy.  A hundred years later, First Lady Ellen Wilson instructed the gardeners to dig up the garden.  The gardeners were working on moving the plants when the spectre of Dolley Madison came streaking towards them, mad as hell.  Needless to say, the gardeners quit their work immediately and the roses stayed.

Probably the creepiest ghost story about the White House is that of the demon cat.  Supposedly, in the basement of the White House is a cat which appears as a warning of great national disaster.  At first, the cat seems small like a kitten then grows to be a large phantom beast.  The cat has been seen both before the stock market crash of 1929 and right before President Kennedy’s assassination.

The Rose Room or Queen’s Bedroom is said to be haunted by President Andrew Jackson because it was his bedchamber while he lived there.  Mary Todd Lincoln held seances to contact the spirits of her sons was said to have claimed to have heard Jackson “stomping and swearing” through the halls of the White House.  Numerous employees, including seamstress Lillian Parks, report hearing raucous laughter and and violent swearing attributed to Jackson.  There is also supposedly a cold spot where the president’s canopy bed lay.  Other bedrooms are haunted as well.  Guests in the White House have reported seeing an unnamed British Soldier from the War of 1812 trying to light their bed on fire.

This brings us to the White House’s most famous ghost, Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln himself had a supernatural experience while in the White House.  He dreamed that he approached the East Room and there was a lot of crying and wailing that got louder the closer he got.  Soldiers stood guard around a covered coffin.  Lincoln asked who had died, and one of the soldier said, “The president. He was killed by an assassin.”  Later presidents and first families have reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost along with his son Willie, who died while Lincoln was in office.    Grace Coolidge reported seeing the figure of Lincoln looking out the window of the Oval Office across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields.  Sightings of Lincoln increased during the administration of Franklin D Roosevelt, as the country was going through the Great Depression and World War II.  Churchill claimed he came out of the bath smoking a cigar to find Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room.

One last ghost haunts the North Portico, and is a sad story.  In the hysteria after Lincoln’s assassination, conspirators to John Wilkes Booth were swept up and imprisoned and tried in a military court.  Mary Surratt owned the tavern where the conspirators met and her son was a member.  She was charmed by Booth, but there is questionable evidence as to how much she knew and when.  She was arrested and tried and was the first woman executed by the United States federal government.  The ghost on the North Portico is Mary’s daughter, Anna, banging on the doors of the White House, pleading to see President Andrew Johnson to beg for a pardon.  She was turned away.

ER  

Sources available on request