Haunted History: The White House

Haunted History: The White House Ghosts
Arguably the most haunted house in America, the White House on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. is still home to some of our past presidents and first ladies who never left after their time there, and their time on earth, expired, and notable figures who visited the White House and presidents who lived there claimed to have experiences, and even conversations, with them, as President Harry Truman wrote in a letter to his wife, Bess: “I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Abraham Lincoln’s ghost is the most famous and widely reported haunt of the White House. Those who claim to have spiritual abilities say that he is always there, he is aware of his death but will not leave until his work is finished. Many of these people, without knowledge of what the other has said, have made this exact same claim. None of them know what this work is, just that he keeps telling them he has work to do and won’t go until it is finished. Many are skeptical of those who claim to have spiritual senses but it’s hard to refute those who are already skeptics, have no spiritual abilities whatsoever, and are leaders of other countries, and our own presidents, who have experienced Lincoln’s ghost.
It wasn’t long after Lincoln’s death when White House visitors and staff began experiencing odd activity. In the room just below Lincoln’s, which had been cleaned out after his death, a seamstress was working when she heard heavy pacing, as with boots, stamping across the floor of that room. When she went to check, she could hear the footsteps but found the room empty and nothing had been disturbed. Other staff members would find the door to Lincoln’s room wide open when it had been closed, candles would never stay lit, and cold drafts seemed to emanate from his room. Mary Todd Lincoln, a very devout believer in the spiritual realm, would hold seances in the White House to converse with her dead sons and, after Lincoln’s death, would also talk to him. She did this up until her own death.
It wasn’t until 1923, when Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, was the first to actually make the claim to see Lincoln’s ghost. After her account, others who had experienced it, mainly former White House staff, came forward and said they had also seen him but were too afraid to say. From then on, Lincoln’s ghost was said to appear on multiple occasions, and is most often seen during times of crisis, such as during World War 2.
Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was staying in the White House and claimed the ghost of Abe Lincoln visited her room. She fainted as soon as she saw him, and when she came to, the first thing she said to her attendants was that she saw Lincoln.
Winston Churchill had a similar experience where he stepped out of a bath to find the apparition of Lincoln sitting in a chair beside the fireplace. Out of all the presidents who lived in the White House, Lincoln was most experienced by FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt was a naturally spiritual person and claimed to feel Lincoln’s presence often, and even admitted that she held entire conversations with him. She would hear his voice seemingly in her head and she would reply. Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, had a similar experience. She would feel his presence often, to the point where she was uncomfortable being alone in the White House.
Even when he was alive, Lincoln claimed to see his own ghost, and was said to predict his own death. Shortly before his assassination, he awoke from a dream, in which, as he told his wife, he was walking through the White House, where he saw mourners gathered in a room. When he asked the man standing nearest him, “Who has died?” The man replied, “The President” and then moved aside, where Lincoln then clearly saw his own body lying in a casket.

Lincoln is not the only one there. First Lady Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, is most often seen in her rose garden or in the ballroom where she hosted her gatherings. Dolley Madison, along with Jackie O. was one of the most popular First Ladies to have ever lived at the White House. She was the first to throw lavish parties and really turned the White House into a social scene during her time as First Lady. She also loved to garden, and had a gorgeous rose garden built. Dolley Madison, after her death, was said to be a quiet specter whose only purpose seemed to be simply existing in a home where she felt the happiest. White House staff would catch a glimpse of her fleeting through the hallways, gone before they could really comprehend that they saw her. It wasn’t until the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House that Dolley really made herself known. The second Mrs. Wilson disliked Dolley’s rose garden, and so made plans to have it dug up and replaced by one to her liking. When the gardeners were out there, they had hardly touched their spades when one of the gardeners shrieked in horror, and all the others turned to see a very angry Dolley Madison, dressed in her 19th century garb, hovering over the terrified gardener with her finger pointed in his face as she gave him the what for. Every one of the gardeners fled. The plans to dig up Dolley’s garden were dropped, and just as it has for the last 2 centuries, Dolley’s rose garden still blooms today. Her ghost is now more often seen out there than it was in the house, as if she is protecting it from any future plans to dig it up.

Andrew Jackson is another ghost frequently seen at the White House. For all of Lincoln’s appearances and Dolley’s guarding of her precious garden, it is the Rose Room that is the most haunted spot in the White House; the Rose Room that is haunted by none other than Old Hickory himself. The Rose Room still contains the bed where Jackson slept. In 1824, Jackson lost the election to John Quincy Adams and never quite got over it, even though he won the election in 1828. Because of his grudge, he removed two thousand former office-holders and replaced them with those he personally appointed. He was a bitter man, a bitter president, and is now said to be a bitter ghost. The Rose Room is host to a number of paranormal disturbances, said to still be Jackson still suffering from his centuries-old grievances. While he has not been physically seen, his gruff voice is still heard grumbling out a myriad of cuss words as he stomps around his former bedchamber.

The first First Lady of the White House, Abigail Adams, is also said to have never left. It was during Adams’ presidency that the nation’s capitol moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania Avenue, at the time, was a swamp, and rain made it worse. The President Adams and his wife moved into the White House before it was even finished, and the cheerful, sweet Abigail Adams tolerated the noise and went about her duties not only as First Lady, but as a wife. Because the White House was incomplete and there was nowhere to hang her laundry, Mrs. Adams decided that the East Room would be best. Her tedious laundry tasks seemed to have followed her in the afterlife, as her ghost, clad in a cap and lace shawl, is most frequently seen by White House staff and visitors as she hurries toward the East Room, and her arms are always outstretched as if she is carrying a load of laundry. While some are a bit unsettled by this sighting, others find it a privilege to catch this replay of the past that still continues to this day.

Finally, and oldest of all the ghosts of the White House is said to be David Burns, the man who sold the property on which Washington, D.C., and the White House, was built. For the decades in which the White House has existed, every now and then, someone will catch a male voice, usually coming from the Oval Room, which will say, “I’m Mr. Burns.” This was first documented during FDR’s presidency, where a valet to FDR heard a disembodied voice coming from the Oval Room say, “I’m Mr. Burns.” Some years after this, during Harry Truman’s presidency, a guard heard “I’m Mr. Burns” coming from the same location. This guard walked around for an hour in complete confusion, looking for whoever said that but found no one. When he told of his experience, he said he thought it was the Secretary of State James Byrnes but learned, to his dismay, that Byrnes hadn’t been at the White House that day.

It’s no surprise that the site of so much intense life for many is so haunted. There is an old adage that comes with old houses; if walls could talk. In the case of the White House, they do.

1792, Washington, DC, USA --- The White House as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House was built from the design submitted by Irishman James Hoban. The corner stone was laid on October 13, 1792. The footings for the main residence were dug by slaves and much of the work was performed by immigrants not yet citizens. John Adams was the first president to take residence in the White House on November 1, 1800. --- Image by © William Manning/Corbis
1792, Washington, DC, USA — The White House as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House was built from the design submitted by Irishman James Hoban. The corner stone was laid on October 13, 1792. The footings for the main residence were dug by slaves and much of the work was performed by immigrants not yet citizens. John Adams was the first president to take residence in the White House on November 1, 1800. — Image by © William Manning/Corbis
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