What I know about Washington, DC’s geography can literally be written on the head of a pin. According to author John Alexander, who tells the story of John Van Ness’s six white horses in his 1998 book Ghosts: Washington Revisited, the Pan American Union Building now stands on the site of the Van Ness Mansion, in its day one of the most notoriously haunted houses in DC. His burial place is in Oak Hill Cemetery, off the Rock Creek Parkway–and there, his six white horses still run.
John Van Ness came to Washington as a young congressional representative from New York in 1799. An enthusiastic and extroverted man by nature, he was a protege of Aaron Burr’s in those heady days before Burr lost his bid for the presidency, killed his rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and had to flee the city.
Van Ness scarcely noticed. He had fallen in love with a beautiful young heiress named Marcia Burns, the daughter of the man George Washington had ruefully called “Obstinate Davy” because the old Scotsman had driven such a hard bargain in selling to the government the land on which the White House and several other buildings now stand. Van Ness’s constituents back home, miffed that he spent more time in DC than he did consulting them back home (in those days, Congress worked about eighteen weeks a year–and arguably accomplished more, but I’m telling a ghost story here, not fulminating on congressional iniquities), voted him out of office in 1803. Van Ness promptly married Marcia Burns and settled down to managing her considerable fortune, throwing parties for Washington society, and doting on his only child, a daughter named Ann.
In 1812 or thereabout, Van Ness began building a mansion for his wife and daughter, leaving behind the log house his frugal father-in-law had left them. Designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the house was one of the showplaces of early Washington. It was a fine setting for his daughter’s wedding when she married a South Carolinian named Arthur Middleton, around 1821.
A year later, John Van Ness’s world began to fall apart. The first blow came when his beloved daughter died giving birth to a stillborn baby.
He tried to keep up his old joie de vivre. By now he had been elected mayor of the city, and he continued to throw parties and talk politics as energetically as ever. Marcia, however, always a shy and retiring woman, retreated deeper into the comforts of religion and good works, particularly with the children in a nearby orphanage, who seemed, in a way, to replace the grandchildren she would never have. Within a few years, her health failed, and she died.
Van Ness became obsessed with building a mausoleum for his wife, daughter, grandchild and himself. He spent half as much on his house for the dead, on a knoll in Oak Hill Cemetery, as he had on the one he had built for the living, and moved their bodies into it.
In his great grief he became a virtual recluse. Stories began making the rounds that he was having trouble keeping servants because the great house was haunted. Some rooms, the servants refused to enter at all; the atmosphere in those rooms terrified them. Footsteps were heard in areas where no one living walked; laughter that turned into screams of agony was heard in the room where his daughter and her baby had died; and a full-fledged apparition of Marcia Van Ness materialized in the upstairs hallway, wandering about aimlessly before disappearing as silently as she came.
By the time of Van Ness’s own death in 1846. the grand house was falling into heartbreaking disrepair. On the day of his funeral, hundreds of people who remembered him as he had been before tragedy overwhelmed him lined the route as a bier drawn by six white horses–the only creatures he still cherished in his long decline–carried his coffin to the mausoleum.
During the funeral, the white horses quietly grazed on grass around the mausoleum. At one point, all six of their shining white heads were hidden behind a particularly grassy mound, and one of the mourners was heard to murmur: “They’ve buried their heads with their master.”
That murmur would be remembered in years to come.
During the settlement of Van Ness’s estate, the horses were sold, and the house, now sadly dilapidated, became a bone of contention between those who wanted to restore it as a memorial to Van Ness and those who found it an eyesore and thought it should be demolished. Moreover, the reports of hauntings in the mansion not only continued; the phenomena intensified, if the reports were to be believed.
The house was last privately owned during the Civil War by a couple named Green, who were arrested in the wake of the Lincoln assassination when rumors made the rounds that they had been involved in Booth’s original plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him captive for a few days in the mansion’s wine cellar before spiriting him into Confederate territory. The Greens were found to be innocent of the infamous charges made against them and released, but they left the city, and the house, behind.
The Van Ness mansion was finally torn down some fifty years after the Greens’ tenure. A newspaper retrospective at that time collected many of the ghost stories, including several about people who claimed to have seen, late at night, six headless white horses galloping around the ruined mansion and, later, around the Pan American Union Building, their coats shining like quicksilver in the moonlight.
It was then that people recalled the story of how, at Van Ness’s funeral. those six white horses’ heads had briefly been lowered behind a grassy mound, prompting one mourner to say they’ve buried their heads with their master.
And, as recently as the 1980s, a motorist on the Rock Creek Parkway, which passes Oak Hill Cemetery, ran his car out of the road one night. He reported to police that he had been distracted by the sight of six headless white horses up on the hill by the Van Ness Mausoleum.
The police were not ghost-seers themselves. They ticketed the man for being just a little bit tipsy. 😉