To begin at the very beginning, it’s not an octagon; it’s actually hexagonal in shape, and has three round rooms in its interior. Designed by Dr. William Thornton, architect of the Capitol, to accommodate an oddly-shaped corner lot, Octagon House (misnamed almost from the beginning) was built in the years 1798-1800 as a townhouse for Colonel John Tayloe, Virginia planter and close friend of George Washington.
Octagon House has seen nearly as much history as the White House in its two centuries. In the War of 1812, the cagey Colonel Tayloe saved it from destruction by British troops by offering it to the French ambassador for his official Washington residence; the equally cagey ambassador flew the flag of France—temporarily not at war with the British crown (with Waterloo still some time in the future)—over the house, proclaiming its ambassadorial status, and thus the house was saved. After the burning of the White House in August 1814, President James Madison and his vivacious wife Dolley occupied the house for some time, at Colonel Tayloe’s invitation, while the White House was being rebuilt. The Tayloe family owned the house until 1855, after which it was at various times owned by a notorious gambler, a girls’ school, the United States Hydrographic Office, and, from 1899, the American Institute of Architects, which did extensive restoration of the by-then dilapidated building. Currently, the house is headquarters to the American Architectural Foundation, with the AIA in a large building behind Octagon House.
Most of the hauntings, however, date to events that allegedly occurred in the house’s early years. A number of the stories center around the interior’s most distinctive feature, a dizzyingly serpentine staircase that rises three stories to the top of the house.
So let’s begin with the Ghosts on the Stairs.
Colonel Tayloe’s eldest daughter. Legend says that around the time of the War of 1812, the oldest of Tayloe’s daughters (he and his wife had fifteen children) fell in love with a British army officer. Forbidden by her father to see the young man, she continued to do so anyway. Her father inevitably found out, leading to a quarrel between him and the spirited girl. She flounced off, only to crash to her death on the floor below after—whether accidentally or deliberately—falling from the second-story landing. This daughter has been seen on the staircase ever since.
The Quadroon Girl and the British Soldier. Two versions of the death of this young female slave figure into Octagon ghostlore. One version says that a British army officer, a friend of Tayloe’s, made advances to her and, when she resisted, killed her, after which her body was hidden in a closet and the British officer flung himself from the staircase. Another says that yes, the Brit indeed killed her, but her body was hidden behind a wall panel, and one of Colonel Tayloe’s sons killed the officer in retaliation. Either way, both the slave girl’s and the British soldier’s ghosts have been reported on the staircase.
A second Tayloe daughter. Another of Colonel Tayloe’s daughters is said to have fallen in love with an unsuitable young man, but this one eloped with the scoundrel, only to find that her father was right and her husband was a wrong ‘un. She returned to ask her father’s forgiveness for her indiscretion and—although you’d think she would have known better—confronted him on the staircase. It’s said that the unforgiving Colonel brushed past her, knocking her off balance, whereupon she tumbled headlong down the stairs to die of a broken neck at the bottom. Although both she and her older sister are said to scream periodically as they reenact their deaths, this one rarely manifests in ghostly form; instead, she has left the proverbial “cold spot” at the foot of the stairs.
The man on the stairs. Variously reported as having occurred in the 1940s or 1950s, this haunting is said to have been experienced by a doctor who made a house call to tend the sick wife of the contemporary caretaker of Octagon House. While making his way up the infamous staircase, he saw a man dressed in 1800s military gear. Puzzled, he asked the caretaker if there was a costume ball going on, but was assured there was not. This revenant could be the British soldier who killed the Quadroon Girl, but others have suggested it was in fact President James Madison, on his way to one of Dolley’s parties.
Which brings us to the woman who is no doubt the most famous of the Octagon ghosts:
First Lady Dolley Madison. Dolley Madison was famed for her outgoing personality and her well-attended parties. She gave many parties and dinners during her time at Octagon House, and is said to walk again in a downstairs reception room, recognizable by her lovely gowns, her turbans (which she wore to make herself look taller—an endearing bit of vanity), and by the smell of lilacs, both her favorite flower and perfume. Dolley may also be reponsible for the sounds of revelry in the dining room and for a number of times when caretakers who lived off premises arrived in the morning to find lights blazing and doors wide open—though all lights had been out, and all doors locked, the night before.
The legends say that Colonel Tayloe, guilt-ridden over the deaths of his two daughters, died a premature death in 1828. (It should also be pointed out that, while two of his daughters did die young, one was an eight-month-old and the other, although certainly old enough at eighteen to be one of the ghosts on the stairs, died at the family plantation at Mt. Airy, Virginia. But given the choice between the genealogy and the ghost stories, I’ll take the ghost stories.) His widow and surviving family continued to live at Octagon House off and on until 1855. During the years after his death, however, the Tayloes themselves were harassed by poltergeist activity, in the form of
The Bells. A granddaughter, Virginia Tayloe Lewis, wrote in a memoir that after the colonel’s death, the family was bothered for many years by a continuous ringing of the bells used to summon servants in large houses. At one point the bell wires were cut and rerouted, but the phenomena continued until the Tayloes left the house after Mrs. Tayloe’s death in 1855. Virginia herself is said to have found the house spooky, and was glad to leave it for good; she found the marble statues displayed in those days in niches on the first stair landing “ghostlike.”
A corollary to the bell-ringing story attributes it to
Deceased slaves warning the family that they had come back to visit.
Bells are also associated with the fate of
The Gambler. According to this legend, the house was owned in the 1880s by a notorious Washington gambler. He shared the house with a number of women (which sounds as if he was running a brothel as well as a gambling den), but he was alone in an upstairs room one night when a local farmer, whose money he had won by cheating at cards, got into the house, made his way upstairs and shot the gambler, who as he lay dying rang the bells to summon help. He was dead before help came.
And, no doubt, if bells are still heard in the house, they must be linked to his fate, not to the original outbreak that plagued the Tayloes.
There is one last chilling story associated with Octagon House that doesn’t seem to have left ghostly residue, but is sickening nonetheless:
The whipping. Sometime in the early 1800s, a visitor of Colonel Tayloe’s was said to have whipped a slave to death on the premises. Allegedly, the slave was a jockey riding the visitor’s horse. The horse lost, and, convinced the slave had deliberately thrown the race, his owner killed him. Take this story with a grain of salt; it appears in a single source (at least, that I’ve found).
It’s said that, when the house was open for tours, guides preferred to concentrate on the house’s “real” history and routinely denied that ghosts were ever seen. However, a number of them have told stories after leaving employment there that make you wonder. . .
For more information about the Octagon House and its ghosts, I’d recommend the following books:
The Ghostly Register, by Arthur Myers (1986). Myers, incidentally, uses a good deal of information from an unpublished 1952 manuscript on Octagon House written by a young woman named Jacqueline Bouvier—better remembered by her later name and status: First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Haunted Houses USA, by Dolores Riccio and Joan Bingham (1989). Riccio, who wrote the chapter on Octagon House, actually experienced the cold spot at the foot of the staircase where the second Tayloe daughter allegedly died.
The Haunting of the Presidents: A Paranormal History of the U. S. Presidency, by Joel Martin and William J. Birnes (2003). This book gives information about the Madison hauntings at Octagon House, and also mentions the legend of the tunnel through which Dolley Madison is said to have escaped when she fled the White House just ahead of the British in 1814.