Kalorama, nowadays, refers collectively to two affluent residential neighborhoods in northwest Washington, DC. In the early nineteenth century, however, Kalorama was the name of a large estate in what was then a rural area, but still within DC proper. The manor house on the site was built in 1795 and named Belair by its original owner. In 1807, the estate was purchased by the poet and diplomat Joel Barlow (1754-1812) and renamed Kalorama—Greek for “fine view”,–for the magnificent scenery it commanded.
There was a mausoleum on the Kalorama estate, but Barlow doesn’t lie there; he died in Poland in 1812 while on a diplomatic mission to Napoleon Bonaparte and was buried there. Nor does Barlow appear to have haunted his beloved home.
The earliest reports of paranormal activity at Kalorama come from the 1820s. Upon Barlow’s death, the estate was purchased by a General John Bomford. Bomford and his wife were close friends of the naval hero of the day, Commodore Stephen Decatur, and his wife Susan Wheeler Decatur. Stephen Decatur died on March 22, 1820, after being mortally wounded in a duel. The grief-stricken Susan had nowhere to bury her husband, and John Bomford stepped in, offering a place in the Kalorama mausoleum to his friend. Decatur was entombed there two days after his death, and Susan Decatur—whose grief has been described as “somewhat exaggerated even in her own day”—remained at Kalorama for some time.
Lord knows exactly when the legend got its start, but the story is told that Decatur’s spirit did not rest easy in his borrowed tomb, and that, from time to time, the marble of the Kalorama mausoleum would show reddish stains that were said to be his blood. These whispers may have led Susan Decatur eventually to have his body removed to a tomb in his native Philadelphia, near his parents. (Susan Decatur never remarried, and never returned to her home on Lafayette Square, which acquired its own reputation as a haunted house; she moved to a house on N Street NW and lived out her days as a recluse.)
By far the most significant event in Kalorama’s haunted history, however, was the fire that all but destroyed the house in 1865. Washington DC itself was for all practical purposes surrounded for most of the Civil War, and several major battles were fought in its suburbs. As in towns all over the South, many of the largest houses in the area were commandeered for hospitals, Kalorama among them. Although the war officially ended on April 9, 1865, there were, at Christmas of the same year, still a number of Union wounded and sick remaining at the house. On Christmas Eve, the hospital staff threw a party for the soldiers. It was a festive affair, but ended in disaster: a defective stovepipe caused a fire that completely destroyed the home’s east wing and badly damaged the remainder. Many soldiers, bedridden from wounds and illness, died in the blaze; the survivors were moved elsewhere. In the months after the fire, reports came in of “sinister shadows” spotted in the ruins, followed by reports of sounds of revelry and sightings of “handsome men and elegant ladies” whose fine clothes made rustling noises and who appeared in the ruined rooms, backlit by the moon shining through the collapsed roof.
The house was eventually repaired, but there were complaints from those who entered it that it never lost the damp, smoky smell that followed the fire. As late as 1905, there were reports of eerie moans and sobbing coming from Kalorama that were, so said one reporter, “enough to freeze the marrow in one’s bones”, and the few neighbors in the vicinity were struck with cold chills whenever the “howls and screeches” erupted. Some, braver than others, would walk around the old estate in the evening, and encountered “cold spots”, those strange manifestations of arctic cold that supposedly indicate the presence of spirits, that moved from place to place on the grounds.
By the 1930s, the area was beginning to be built up as DC expanded, with government officials, embassy employees and the like moving in. The house was eventually flattened when a street was widened. The immediate area where the house stood, however, still generates stories of a sickly smell of decay and damp, odd noises that seem to come from thin air, and peripatetic cold spots.
Sounds like my kind of place. 😉
I first read of the ghosts of Kalorama in John Alexander’s 1998 revised edition of GHOSTS: WASHINGTON REVISITED.