Routinely, with each change of administration, new First Families have moved into the White House over the years since it was first constructed in the late 1790s—and many of them, legend has it, have come back for visits–along with a few outsiders who have some historical association with the house. Wanna do the Haunted White House Tour with me?? 😉
George Washington and his wife Martha never lived in the Federal City or the president’s official residence, although Washington was instrumental in buying up land and planning the layout. Washington may, however have been responsible for the oldest of all the specters who have talked, walked, or otherwise spooked occupants of the venerable mansion:
David Burns. In the 1790s, when Washington and Pierre L’Enfant, the French architect who helped lay out the city, were busy with their plans, the land on which the White House now stands was owned by a Scots immigrant named David Burns. Burns was so reluctant to sell his land that Washington dubbed him “Obstinate Davy,” although Burns eventually gave in to the very persuasive amount of money he was offered. During the Truman years (1945-1953), a White House guard was startled one day to hear a voice calling, “I’m Mr. Burns. I’m Mr. Burns” from the attic above what is now the Oval Office. Thinking he was being teased by Truman’s Secretary of State, James Byrnes, the guard did a quick search, only to find out that James Byrnes was nowhere near the White House that day. Only later did he learn that the voice might have been “Obstinate Davy,” presumably letting people know he’s still peeved about losing that land, despite being well compensated.
Abigail Adams. The first occupants of the original White House were John Adams, the second president, and his wife Abigail. When they moved in only six rooms were finished, and those were, to put it bluntly, drafty and damp. The highly practical Abigail finally decided that what is now the East Room was the warmest and driest room in the house, so she strung clotheslines across it and dried the family’s laundry there. Her ghost, with her arms out as if she were carrying a basket of clothing and accompanied by a faint odor of soap, was first seen entering the East Room during the Taft years (1909-1913).
Thomas Jefferson. The widowed Jefferson, whose hostess during his administrations was the inimitable Dolley Madison, spent evenings in the private quarters relaxing by playing his violin. During the Lincoln administration (1861-1865), First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, a firm believer in spiritualism and somewhat psychic herself, apparently heard his music; she once remarked to a friend, “My, my, how that Mr. Jefferson does play that violin.” She seems, however, to have been the only one who ever heard him.
Dolley Madison. The vivacious wife of the fourth president, James Madison, made a spectacular appearance during the Wilson administration (1913-1921) when she frightened a pair of gardeners whom First Lady Edith Wilson had ordered to move Dolley’s fabled Rose Garden. Dolley appeared in front of the pair and gave them such a scolding that they left and refused to carry out the move, with the result that the Rose Garden, site of many a press conference and announcement, remains as Dolley designed it. No wonder she feels a proprietary interest; an enthusiastic gardener herself, she considered the Rose Garden her gift to the First Ladies who would follow her.
Beware! The phantom is a firebug. (Try singing that to the tune of “The Phantom of the Opera”. It works. ;)) Only one White House ghost has ever shown any malicious intent, and he’s totally anonymous–nobody knows his name. But he scared the heck out of a visiting couple once.
According to Joel Martin and William J. Birnes’s book The Haunting of the Presidents, the specter of a young British soldier was reported on the premises several times. He is believed to have been killed on the White House grounds in August 1814, the night British troops under the command of Alexander Cochrane invaded Washington DC and set the original White House afire. The contemporary occupants, James and Dolley Madison, were safe–James in what we would call “an undisclosed location”, while Dolley fled to safety at the nearby Octagon House, allegedly through an underground tunnel, taking with her, so the legend says, copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, her pet parrot and the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington.
The young British soldier may have, in 1953, merely been repeating an action he had committed before his death, but he scared the crap out of a couple visiting the Eisenhowers, who had just moved into the White House. The couple occupied a room on the second floor, and, asked the next morning if they had slept well, answered, “No!” The wife would not say anything more; her husband confided to White House staff members that his wife had kept him awake all night. She kept telling him that there was a British soldier at the foot of their bed who had a flaming torch in one hand and was TRYING TO SET THE BED AFIRE.
Uh–ahem. Yes, I can think of any number of naughty quips to accompany that line. But the woman was badly frightened by the whole experience, and, from what I understand, the couple never visited the Eisenhowers at the White House again.
Curiously, since the night he apparently tried to re-enact what may have been his actions on the last night of his life, the soldier’s ghost has never been reported again.
However, I would insist on having a fire extinguisher nearby, should I stay in that room. Just in case.
Andrew Jackson. The ornery Ol’ Hickory, the seventh president (1829-1837), was believed by Mary Todd Lincoln to have returned to assure her that he was caring for her young son Willie (see below) in the afterlife. Jackson also frightened a White House seamstress named Lillian Rogers Parks during the Eisenhower years (1953-1961). She experienced a peculiar feeling of being watched while sewing a bed coverlet in the Rose Room; the bed in that room was the one Jackson had slept in as president. Others have reported raucous laughter and swearing coming from that otherwise unoccupied room; they unanimously declared it to be Ol’ Hickory.
William Henry Harrison. Harrison, the ninth president and the first to die as a result of the so-called “curse of the Shawnee Prophet”, was elected in 1840, inaugurated in March 1841, and dead of pneumonia he caught on Inauguration Day within a month. Some years after his death, noises in the third-floor attic sent servants looking through the accumulation of objects there. Someone finally saw an apparition, it was reported, that looked like the distinctively horsefaced Harrison. What he is looking for, no one has ever discovered.
John Tyler. After the tenth president’s death in 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln reported hearing his voice coming from the Oval Office, repeating his impassioned proposal of marriage to Julia Gardner, the much-younger woman who became Tyler’s second wife. Again, Mrs. Lincoln was the only one ever to report this phenomenon.
Willie Lincoln. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s third son, William Wallace Lincoln, died in the White House, probably of typhoid fever, in 1862, at the age of eleven. His mother reported frequently seeing him at the foot of her bed, occasionally in the company of his older brother Eddie, who died at the age of four before Willie was born, back in Illinois. However, Liz Carpenter, who served as Lady Bird Johnson’s spokesperson during the LBJ administration (1963-1969), once remarked that the Johnsons’ daughter, Lynda, was “very much aware” that the room she slept in at the White House was the one in which Willie Lincoln died—but left it at that.
Which of course brings us to the most ubiquitous of all White House ghosts:
Abraham Lincoln. The first person to report feeling (and, perhaps, seeing) the presence of the sixteenth president was, strangely enough, the Rough Rider himself, Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in the White House from 1901 to 1909. Others who have reported seeing or sensing him include First Lady Grace Coolidge (who saw him at the window in the Oval Office that overlooks the old Civil War battlefields across the Potomac), First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, President Harry S. Truman (who declared, with characteristic candor, “Damned place is haunted, sure as shootin’!”), President Dwight D. Eisenhower, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, First Daughter Maureen Reagan, and First Brother Roger Clinton. There is also the curious case of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who moved in the middle of the night from the Lincoln Bedroom to one across the hall, and, although he never would say why, always thereafter chose to sleep in that room. And President Reagan thought that his dog, Rex, was aware of Lincoln’s presence; Rex would frequently bark at one particular area where Lincoln’s spirit had been reported.
And the last of our presidents alleged to have returned as a ghost:
Lyndon B. Johnson. Although the senior Bushes (1989-1993) denied, through their dog Millie’s “memoirs” Millie’s Book (“as told to Barbara Bush”), ever having seen ghosts in the White House, reports persist that during the First Gulf War, LBJ, whose presidency came to grief over the Vietnam War, made appearances at the White House. He was heard laughing, and Father Bush (who said later he was joking) reported hearing footsteps and seeing “a tall, gruff, big-eared ghost resembling LBJ.” Wonder if LBJ still wanders the halls now, as the war in Afghanistan drags on.
There are a number of books containing material about ghosts at the White House, but the ones I would recommend in particular are:
The Haunting of the Presidents: A Paranormal History of the U. S. Presidency, by Joel Martin and William J. Birnes (2003)
and Washington Revisited: The Ghostlore of the Nation’s Capital, by John Alexander (revised edition, 1998).