Saturday, October 28, 2006

It can be a spooky walk through the corridors of power. The District is full of stories of power struggles and corruption, cobblestone streets, assassinations of long-ago presidents, old cemeteries and creaky buildings.

Add to that a few tales of long-lost love, a duel to the death and a couple centuries of unexplained sounds in the night, and the nation’s capital has all the makings for full-fledged ghost stories, says Lawana Holland, historian for the D.C. Metro Area Ghostwatchers.

Ms. Holland, who chronicles Washington’s best purported ghost sightings and spooky legends on her Web site (, says the District is a great town for ghosts.

“Usually when you have historic places, you have an increase in haunted stories,” she says.

Though most District ghost stories are still legends, some have a kernel of truth in them — or at least have not been proved false, which is part of the legends’ appeal.

“I always tell people they don’t have to believe in ghosts,” Ms. Holland says, “just the possibility of them.”

Washingtonians have long been fascinated by their city’s tales from the crypt. In 1891, the Washington Star proclaimed Washington “the greatest town for ghosts in this country.”

More than 100 years later, it still is, says Natalie Zanin, a local historian who leads tours of the District, including a seasonal ghost-story tour.

Ms. Zanin says she has encountered ghosts. She recalls working at the Heurich House (also known as the Brewmaster’s Castle) in Northwest about 10 years ago.

“I felt someone standing behind me and saw the shelves vibrating,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m outta here.’ ”

Other strange things happened there, too, Ms. Zanin says. She would turn the lights off, then later they would be back on.

“If it wasn’t the ghost of [the mansion’s former owner] Christian Heurich, then it was his essence,” she says.

Talking out loud eventually made the high jinks stop — and it turned Ms. Zanin into an enthusiast of Washington’s haunted history.

One of Ms. Zanin’s favorite haunted spots is Lafayette Square, near the White House. Several stories over more than 150 years have the place crawling with ghosts.

It is said, for example, that ghosts inhabit St. John’s Church, built on Lafayette Square in 1821, when the church bells toll for the death of a famous man.

At that time, white-robed spirits of “six great Washingtonians, whose names have been obscured by time, appear at midnight. They sit in the Pew of the Presidents, with arms folded and heads facing forward,” writes John Alexander, author of “Ghosts: Washington Revisited,” a comprehensive book about haunted Washington.

The ghost of 19th-century Navy hero Stephen Decatur also has been seen nearby, according to Mr. Alexander. Court-martialed Navy officer James Barron challenged Decatur to a duel in March 1820. Barron was wounded at the scene of the duel in Bladensburg. Decatur, mortally wounded, returned to his Lafayette Square home to die.

A year later, some of the household staff saw Decatur’s ghost in the window on H Street. The window was ordered walled up, but others saw figures slipping out the back door just before dawn, just as Decatur had done on his last morning, Mr. Alexander recounts in his book.

The saddest Lafayette Square story is the one of Theresa Sickles and Philip Barton Key, son of “Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key.

Around 1859, Sickles, the wife of former congressman Daniel Sickles, and Philip Barton Key reportedly were having an affair, Ms. Zanin says. Daniel Sickles approached Key outside the Washington Club, and said, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die.”

Sickles shot and killed Key. As he was dying, Key’s eyes fixated on the window where Theresa Sickles used to signal him it was time to rendezvous.

“It was a huge scandal at the time,” Ms. Zanin says. “Washingtonians were captivated by the trial.”

Ever since, there have been sightings of Key on the sidewalk where he was shot, Mr. Alexander writes.

Here are some of Washington’s other haunted hot spots:

• The White House. One of Ms. Holland’s favorite tales is of Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison. Legend has it that Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, wanted to move Dolley Madison’s precious Rose Garden.

Madison “swooped down with 19th-century magnificence and frightened off the gardeners by flouncing up to them with arms waving and tongue lashing,” Mr. Alexander writes.

The garden stayed where it was.

“The most famous White House stories involve Abraham Lincoln,” Ms. Holland says. Mr. Alexander recounts many of the Lincoln sightings in his book.

When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was visiting the White House, she heard a knock at the door of the Rose Room. She told her hosts she fainted after seeing Lincoln standing in the doorway.

Some of the Lincoln sightings were, of course, in the Lincoln bedroom.

Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, once told the Wall Street Journal that she saw “a transparent person” while spending the night in the Lincoln bedroom, Mr. Alexander writes.

President Reagan said he was never scared of Lincoln’s ghost, but his dog might have been. Mr. Reagan told a group of reporters in 1987 that his dog, Rex, would bark repeatedly outside the door to the Lincoln bedroom.

“Once, early on in this, I couldn’t understand it,” Mr. Reagan said. “So I stepped in and turned around for him to come on. He stood there barking and growling and started backing away and would not go in that room.”

Through the years, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson have been sighted, as well, Mr. Alexander writes. White House staffer Lillian Rodgers Parks wrote in her 1961 book that she felt a presence in the Rose Room thought to be that of President Jackson.

“It was cold, like someone looking over my shoulder,” she wrote. “I felt a hand on the back of my chair. I never went back into that room alone again.”

• The Capitol. The Capitol’s spooky history dates back to its construction. According to legend, one worker killed another, then sealed his body into the building’s walls. The stonemason has been seen over the years, passing through the walls on the Senate side of the building, Mr. Alexander writes.

The ghost of John Quincy Adams also is a possible Capitol resident. Adams, who was a nine-term congressman from Massachusetts after he was president, suffered a stroke while making a speech on the house floor in 1848. He died two days later, but it has been said his ghost visits the chamber, still trying to finish his speech.

The best Capitol legend is that of the demon cat, Ms. Holland says. Cats used to be the main form of rodent control in the building. Over the years, the cat population was wiped out — except for one. For more than a hundred years, the story has been that a demon black cat — affectionately called “D.C.” — has surprised late-night Capitol guards.

There have been stories of the snarling cat, its eyes glowing, growing before a guard’s eyes.

“When it is a time of national change, the cat will grow in size,” Ms. Holland says. “It is a foretelling of something bad about to happen.”

Some less-known Washington sites are popular with ghosts, Ms. Holland says. The National Building Museum is built on the site where Civil War wounded were treated, as well as a former D.C. jail and asylum, making it a hot spot for spooky happenings.

At the National Theatre, where an actor was murdered in the basement in 1885, legend says a spirit dressed in Shakespearean costume appears whenever actors are preparing for a new show.

One of the most haunted spots in Washington is the Octagon House at 18th Street and New York Avenue Northwest.

In the early 1800s, the structure was the home of Col. John Tayloe, his wife and their 15 children.

One Tayloe daughter was in love with a British military officer. She was on the massive spiral stairway in the center of the house, arguing with her father about her romance. She fell to her death. Fifteen years later, another Tayloe daughter met the same fate as she tried to push past her father on the stairs.

Stories through the years have included people hearing a woman scream, followed by a violent thud, as well as the vision of a woman crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.

Other sightings at the Octagon House include a man who tips his hat, an aberration by the fireplace and a woman on the stairs, Ms. Zanin says.

“There is a weird vibe there to this day,” Ms. Zanin says of the Octagon House. “A number of years ago, an intern brought a dog into the house. The dog was terrified to go into certain rooms.

“A lot of things you can’t verify, but there have been accounts of people who work there,” she says. “If you want to see something, you’ll see it, but so many have seen things they were not looking for. All around town, there are these weird spots.”

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