Some of America's most famous citizens are now reported among its most famous ghosts. Abraham Lincoln, John and Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison and Andrew Jackson are among the spririts purportedly still lingering in the White House. Other tales of ghostly apparitions from unmanned ships to haunted paintings persist through history.
More to Explore
This Day in History
On this day in 1815, President James Madison (1809-1817) presents to Congress a trade agreement with Great Britain that would regulate commerce between…
Ever since ancient times, the folklore of many cultures around the world has been rife with ghost stories, some featuring notable historical figures.
One of the most famous haunted houses in America may be the White House.
Get the facts on Halloween history and traditions, including its ancient roots and today's candy craze.
Jack-o'-lanterns have been a part of Halloween celebrations for centuries.
Did You Know?
The ghost of Abigail Adams has reportedly been seen hurrying toward the East Room of the White House, which is where she used to hang her laundry.
Portrait of Theodosia Burr
On December 31, 1812, the beautiful and vivacious Theodosia Burr, wife of wealthy Governor Joseph Alston of South Carolina, left her husband's plantation and sailed north on the Patriot to visit her beloved father, the famous Aaron Burr, in New York City. In early January the vessel was accosted off Cape Hatteras by ships of Great Britain, then at war with the United States, but was permitted to proceed on its journey. The Patriot was never seen again nor, with any certainty, was Theodosia. An angry storm that very night swept the coast of North Carolina. Some say that during the gale pirates boarded the Patriot, removed all valuables, forced passengers and crew to walk the plank, then sank the ship. But legend persists that Theodosia survived, that she was cast ashore in a small boat onto the Outer Banks, bereft of all possessions except a portrait of herself, and that, with her sanity completely gone, she was thereafter cared for by a Banker fisherman and his wife.
The years went by. In 1869 the strange woman became ill, and a doctor from Elizabeth City was called in to attend her. He did what he could, but it was clear that she had not long to live. As he was leaving the sick room, the poor fisherman's wife told the doctor that, as she had no money, he would have to choose something from the house for his pay. When he replied that he would like to have the handsome portrait hanging on the wall, the afflicted old woman sprang from her bed. "It is mine! You shall not have it! I am on my way to visit my father in New York, and I am taking this picture of his darling Theodosia!" With that, she grabbed the canvas, rushed through the door, ran down the surf, and walked into the ocean.. The next day, the portrait washed up on the beach. It is fact, not legend, that the doctor took the picture from Nags Head to his home in Elizabeth City, that a descendent sold it an art dealer who in turn sold it to a member of the Burr family, and that it exists today.
Ghosts of the USS Constellation
Sitting proudly at rest in Baltimore Harbor, the USS Constellation emits an aura of peace of and security. Where once men died under the hail of grapeshot, children now walk. During her 175-year history, much blood has flowed over her wooden beams. So what or who, among the countless who have met death on her deck, was the ghostly apparition that was photographed in the forecastle in 1955? Lt. Cmdr. Allen Ross Brougham, USN, the man who snapped the photo, believes it is a captain returning to inspect his ship. Hans Holzer, a professional ghost hunter and author, says it could be any one of three spirits "haunting the old ship." To a Catholic priest who came face to face with the ghost, it is an old salt, unwilling to leave the beloved sea. Legends of ghosts and other strange occurrences have long been told about the United States Navy's first ship. But the first indication that they were more than the reminiscences of old sea dogs came at 8 bells on a cold December night in 1955.
Commander Brougham had his camera set. Waiting patiently, he allegedly caught the ghost forever on film. At 11:59:47 P.M., to be exact, the Navy officer "detected a faint scent in the air-a certain something not unlike gunpowder." Then before him, he said, appeared a "phosphorescently glowing, translucent ectoplasmic manifestation of a late Eighteenth Century or early Nineteenth Century sailor, complete with gold stripe trouser, cocked hat and sword." He barely had time to snap the shutter before the eerie figure vanished, he said. A few years later, repairmen heard strange moans and cries coming from below the decks, but every time they went to investigate they found nothing.
In Hans Holzer's book, Portal to the Past, reference is made to the experience of a Catholic priest who visited the Constellation in 1964. When the priest arrived, there was no member of the Maryland Naval Militia to take him aboard for a tour. So he went below by himself. While wandering beneath the deck, he said, he was startled by an old sailor who volunteered much information about history of the ship and the proper names for the equipment. After thanking his guide, the priest went above deck where he met several of the regular tour guides. He congratulated them for having such a knowledgeable man as the one who led him around. The real guides were horrified. "We have no one below," they protested. In haste, the guides and the priest rushed down the narrow stairway, but the old guide had vanished into the air.
Sybil Leek, the famous English witch, once paid a visit to the stately ship. She claimed she picked up vibrations from three spirits; a captain, a sailor and an apprentice seaman, who had all died violently. Which one of these denizens of the spirit world was the one photographed, if any, is unknown.
Ghost ships, in the mythology of the sea, are almost as plentiful as barnacles on a rock. One of the most celebrated is the phantom schooner of Harpswell which was seen by many people, usually in the late afternoon, fully rigged and under sail; a breathtaking sight, though apt to vanish without warning in a shimmer of light or a sudden rising of fog. This vision has been immortalized in the poem The Dead Ship of Harpswell, by John Greenleaf Whittier, whose opening lines are as follows: What flecks the outer gray beyond The sundown's golden trail? The white flash of a sea-bird's wing, Or gleam of slanting sail?
The period around 1812 was a splendid time for industrious young men to make a legitimate fortune on the high seas. A couple of boys barely into their twenties could prosper trading cod and lumber for the rum, molasses and coffee of the Indies, which was precisely the career George Leverett and Charles Jose envisioned when they set out from Portland, Maine. Their destination was the Soule Boatyard in South Freeport and their mission was to arrange for the building of their own new vessel. However, shortly after arriving in South Freeport they met the lovely Sarah Soule, fell violently in love with her, and out of sorts with each other. Perhaps because of his Portuguese blood, Jose pursued her more hotly, though in the end it was George Leverett she preferred. After a bitter argument, during which Charles tried to hurl George into the Royal River, the friendship between the two men ended. Charles disappeared and George proceeded with construction of the ship. When she was finished, he appropriately named her Sarah and prepared for his wedding to Sarah Soule.
Ill fortune arose on every side. At first there were strange obstacles in the wedding preparations. Then Captain Leverett found it oddly difficult to line up a crew. Still, he was a determined young man and, at last, with his bride in his house and a crew on his ship, Leverett sailed into Portland harbor to take on cargo for the West Indies. At the same time, there arrived a curious black craft which flew no flag and was outfitted with cannon. The ship was the Don Pedro Salazar and her captain was none other than Leverett's former partner and romantic rival, Charles Jose.
Much like a storm cloud on the horizon, the Don Pedro trailed the Sarah south. As the voyage progressed the Sarah's crew grew more and more uneasy and petitioned Captain Leverett to head for Nassau to report the menacing pursuer to the British Admiralty. He never reached the harbor. As soon as the Don Pedro saw what course Leverett was taking, she opened fire, killing all but Leverett and severely damaging, though through some miracle, not sinking the unarmed Sarah. Still blinded by jealousy and seeking murderous revenge, Jose could have tortured the survivor in a variety of traditional methods. However, Jose, after looting the ship, chose only to tie Leverett to the foot of the Sarah's mainmast and head him out to sea. It was then that Leverett experienced an extraordinary phenomenon. Helpless as he was and facing certain death and destruction on an unmanned and shattered vessel, he still was possessed by a strange notion that the ship was under control. Indeed the dead crew began to rise up and take their posts one by one. Sails were set and the ship's course was turned toward home. Captain Leverett, at this point, understandably lost consciousness.
On a bleak November day people on Potts' Point saw a fully rigged yet tragic wreck sailing with uncanny accuracy along the unmarked channel. Suddenly the ship came to a full stop without benefit of an anchor. A pale and silent crew lowered an apparently unconscious man into a boat, rowed him ashore and laid him on a rock, his log book beside him. Without even the squeak of an oar-lock, the ghostly sailors returned to the ship just as a heavy fog suddenly blanketed the harbor. When it had lifted the ship was gone. The unconscious man was soon recognized as George Leverett and it is said that he recovered at least enough to relate this tale, though he surely never went out to sea again.
The last sighting of the Sarah was in the 1880s on a crystaline summer afternoon. A guest seated on the piazza of Harpswell House looked seaward toward the horizon in time to see a wondrous vision. A great schooner, under full sail, her canvas gilded in the sun, was heading slowly for the harbor. He summoned a friend, but when they looked again the ship had vanished. Believers say that the magnificent wreck and her ghostly crew, weary from wandering, had reached home port for the last time.
Dorothy "Dolley" Madison was the wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. She is known as the woman who turned the new nation's capital at Washington, D. C. from a dull swamp into a high-society social scene. Dolley served as the official White House hostess while her husband served as Secretary of State. Dorothea Paine "Dolley" Madison was one of the most popular first ladies to have presided in the White House. She was born in 1768 and became the wife and the young widow of John Todd, a Quaker lawyer of Philadelphia. 1794, at the age of twenty-six, she married James Madison, who became, in 1809, fourth president of the United States.
Dolley's wit and charm and her ability to remember faces endeared her to everyone. But she never liked to be crossed, as the legend of her ghost bears out. When the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House, she ordered gardeners to dig up the familiar Rose Garden. They never turned a spade. Dolley Madison had planned and built the garden! Her ghost arrived in all her nineteenth century to upbraid the workmen for what they were about to do. The men fled. Not a flower was disturbed and Dolley's garden continues to bloom today as it has for nearly two centuries.
Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson
The Rose Room is believed to be one of the most haunted spots in the White House. It contains Andrew Jackson's bed, and if we are to believe testimony of those who have felt his presence, "Old Hickory" himself still dwells in his former bed chamber. And well he might. In 1824 Jackson ran for president against John Quincy Adams and two other candidates, garnering the most popular and electoral votes, but not a clear majority; the election was decided by the House of Representatives, which chose Adams. In 1828 Jackson finally won the presidency, but he never forgot nor forgave his enemies. Bitterly resentful over his earlier defeat, he removed two thousand former office-holders, replacing them with his own appointments.
Twenty years after Jackson's death, Mary Todd Lincoln, a devout believer in the spirit world, told friends that she'd heard him stomping through the White House corridors and swearing. Still settling old scores?
John and Abigail Adams
President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, were the first occupants of the White House. During Adams' presidency (1797-1801), the capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, a struggling hamlet built mostly in a swamp. Pennsylvania Avenue was unpaved, and frequent rains turned it into a quagmire. Although the White House itself was only half finished, Mrs. Adams cheerfully tolerated the noise and confusion of workmen coming and going. She was as fond of pomp and ceremony as Martha Washington had been, and, in spite of the inconveniences, held memorable receptions and dinner parties. Indeed, her invitations were highly coveted. But one immediate problem presented itself-where to hang the family wash. The White House was inadequately heated, and a number of rooms were cold and damp. Mrs. Adams finally decided that the East Room was the warmest and driest place in her august home, and that's where the clothesline was strung. The first lady has never forgotten. The ghost of Abigail Adams is seen hurrying toward the East Room, with arms out stretched at if carrying a load of laundry. She can be recognized by the cap and lace shawl she favored in life.
Although Abigail Adams is the "oldest" ghost ever to have been encountered at the White House, she is by no means the only former occupant to occasionally wander its halls and great rooms. The home of the American chief executive has been the site of so much intense life it seems only appropriate that from within its walls come stories and legends of presidents and first ladies who linger...after life.
From Classic American Ghost Stories edited by Deborah Downer. Copyright 1990 by Deborah Downer. Available for direct purchase from August House Publishers. Contact 1-800-284-8784 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
Find Ancient Aliens & Related DVDs & Books at the History Shop!
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up