As with other cultures, tales of spooky visitors from the grave abound throughout American history. Some famous anecdotes relate the sighting of dead shipmen and another involves the portrait of a forgotten beauty, but many of the enduring ghost stories are about the famous men and women who have passed through the White House. With reports of Dolley Madison scaring Rose Garden workers, Andrew Jackson haunting his bed in the Rose Room and Abraham Lincoln’s lingering presence, the White House may be home to more than the incumbent president and his family.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org more information.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States (1861-1865), is remembered for his vital role as the leader in preserving the Union during the Civil War and beginning the process that led to the end of slavery in the United States. He is also remembered for his character, his speeches and letters, and as a man of humble origins whose determination and perseverance led him to the nation’s highest office.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Although the last Rebel troops would not surrender until May, the Civil War was effectively over. The Union had held. But, a weary President Abraham Lincoln would not live to see the triumphant march of the Army of the Potomac through the streets of Washington. Just five days later, on April 14, 1865, he was shot by a Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, in Ford’s Theater. He died the next day.
Psychics believe that President Lincoln has never left the White House, that his spirit remains to complete the business of his abbreviated second term and to be available in times of crisis. For seventy years, presidents, first ladies, guests, and members of the White House staff have claimed to have either seen Lincoln or felt his presence. The melancholy bearing of Lincoln himself, and several instances of eerie prescience on his part, only add to the legends of the Great Emancipator’s ghost. The lanky president had paid fanatical attention to even the most minute details concerning the Civil War and felt personally responsible for its outcome. His background was Southern, leading some critics to accuse him of traitorous acts. Mary Todd Lincoln had brothers who fought for the Southern cause.
By the time of his 1864 reelection, deep lines etched his face and heavy black circles underlined his eyes. During his five years as commander in chief, he had slept little and taken no vacations. There may have been more to his sadness than even he would admit. Lincoln dreamed of his own death. Ward Hill Lamon, a close friend of the president’s, wrote down what Lincoln told him on an evening in early 1865: “About ten days ago I retired very late…,” the president told Lamon. “I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. “There, the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room. No living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed alone…I was puzzled and alarmed. Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face covered, others weeping pitifully. “‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer. ‘He was killed by an assassin.'” It was not the first time Lincoln “saw” his own death. Soon after his election in 1860,he’d seen a double image of his face reflected in a mirror in his Springfield, Illinois, home. One was his “real” face, the other a pale imitation. Lincoln’s superstitious wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, did not se the mirror images, but was deeply troubled by her husband’s account of the incident. She prophesied that the sharper image indicated that he would serve out his first term. The faint, ghostlike image was a sign, she said, that he would be renominated for a second term, but would not live to complete it. President Lincoln’s morose acceptance of his own mortality was never more apparent than on the morning of his tragic visit to Ford’s Theater. He summoned the Cabinet to the Council Chamber. The president’s face was grave. “Gentleman,” he began “before long you will have important news.” The Cabinet members pressed him to reveal what information he had, but Lincoln demurred. “I…I have no news, but you will hear tomorrow.” He hesitated, his chin cupped in his bony hands. “I have had a dream, the same dream that I have had three times before. I am in a boat, alone on an ocean. I have no oars, no rudder. I am in helpless. Adrift.” The president seemed to be speaking as out of reverie. He scanned the questioning faces before him, then stood up and shambled out of the room. It was possibly the strangest Cabinet meeting ever called by a president of the United States. That night President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head with a single bullet fired from a derringer as he watched Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. He died at 7:22 the next morning, April 15, 1865.
A train bore Lincoln’s body home to Springfield. That solemn procession has given rise to another president legend surrounding Lincoln. Each year, on the anniversary of that journey, so the story goes, two ghost trains slowly travel the rails between Washington and Illinois. Aboard the first train a military band plays a funeral dirge. Before the smoke of the locomotive clears, a second steam engine follows silently behind, pulling a coach bearing a coffin containing the body of President Lincoln. The ghost trains never reach Springfield. The shock felt by the nation upon the death of its sixteenth president took years to wear off. Children, too young to have understood the implications of the tumultuous years of the Civil War, saw their parents’ bereavement and wanted to learn more about the man from Illinois. Newspapers responded to this need by reprinting numerous stories about Abraham Lincoln’s early years. Most were true. Others contained more fable than fact.
It is true that tragedy had stalked Lincoln long before his first presidential term. His beloved mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died when her son was nine. When Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge, died of typhoid fever, he lapsed into a melancholy that may have led to his emotional breakdown a few years later. In 1842, at the age of thirty-three, Lincoln married Mary Todd, but the union was not a particularly happy one. Mary had a mercurial temperament and a strong belief in the supernatural. It was her influence that led to her husband’s interest in spiritualism, though he always regarded it with some skepticism. The Lincolns had three sons, but only Robert Todd lived to adulthood. Edward died at age four and young Willie succumbed to a fever during his father’s first term as president. Lincoln was shattered by Willie’s death and often visited the crypt where the child was buried. He would sit for hours, weeping copiously. At Mrs. Lincoln’s urging, seances were held at the White House with the hope of communicating with their dead sons. The results of these seances were not entirely satisfying, and it’s believed that Lincoln attended only two of them.
During the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, however, a member of the household staff claimed to have seen Willie and to have conversed with his spirit. In the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency (1963-69), Lynda Johnson Robb occupied the room where Willie had died, and later, where the autopsy on Abraham Lincoln had been performed. This was also the room in which President Truman’s mother died. Mrs. Robb wrote to the authors of this book that, although she’d never seen a ghost in the White House, “I did live in a room where lots of sad things took place!”
Liz Carpenter, press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, told author John Alexander that Mrs. Johnson believed she’d felt Lincoln’s presence one spring evening while watching a television program about his death. She noticed a plaque she’d never seen before hanging over the fireplace. It mentioned Lincoln’s importance in that room in some way. Mrs Johnson admitted feeling a strange coldness and a decided sense of unease. This disquieting apprehension has been felt by others. Grace Coolidge, wife of Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president, was the first person to report having actually seen the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. She said he stood at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back, gazing out over the Potomac, perhaps still seeing the bloody battlefields beyond.
The ghost of Lincoln was seen frequently during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the country went through a devastating depression then a world war. When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was a guest at the White House during that period she was awakened one night by a knock on her bedroom door. Thinking it might be an important message, she got up and opened the door. The top-hatted figure of President Lincoln stood in the hallway. The queen fainted. When she came to she was lying on the floor. The apparition had vanished. Eleanor Roosevelt used Lincoln’s bedroom as her study. Although she denied seeing the former president’s ghost, she admitted to feeling his presence whenever she worked late at night. She thought he was standing behind her, peering over her shoulder. On one occasion, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, Mary Eben, encountered Lincoln’s ghost sitting on the bed in the northwest bedroom. He was pulling on his boots, as if in a hurry to go somewhere. The startled young woman screamed and ran from the second floor. Other staffers of that era said they’d seen Lincoln lying quietly on his bed of an afternoon. Seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks detailed in her autobiography a mystifying experience that she had one summer day in that same northwest room. It had just been freshly painted and she was putting it back in order. The White House was almost empty because the Roosevelts had gone to Hyde Park, taking most of the maids with them. As Mrs. Parks worked, she kept hearing someone coming to the door, but she never saw anyone. In fact, the second floor was deserted. After an hour of listening to the tromping, Mrs. Parks went searching for the source. On the third floor she found a houseman. She asked him why he kept pacing the second floor. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I haven’t been on that floor. I just came on duty. That was Abe you heard.”
During Harry S. Truman’s administration, his daughter, Margaret, slept in that area of the White House and often heard rappings on her bedroom door late at night. Whenever she checked, no one was there. She complained to her father and he said the “noises” must be due to dangerous settling of the floors. He ordered the White House completely rebuilt. It was a propitious decision. The chief architect, Major Gen. E. Edgerton, told President Truman that the building had been in danger of imminent collapse! Had the ghost of Lincoln tried to warn the Trumans that the president’s home was ready to fall down?
Thirty years after the rebuilding of the White House, the Lincoln Bedroom was till regarded as a spooky place. Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford, said publicly that she believes in ghosts and ruing her stay in the White House she had no intention of ever sleeping in that room. Stories of a ghostly President Lincoln wandering the corridors and rooms of the White House persist, but are not officially acknowledged. The gangly prairie lawyer with the black stovepipe hat and the long, sad face was the kind of man around whom legends naturally collect. If one were to believe in ghosts, one would have to believe that the benevolent spirit of Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, still watches over the nation he fought so gallantly to preserve.
“The Other Tenants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” is an excerpt from Haunted America by Michael Norman and Beth Scott. It appears here courtesy of Tor Books.