The Haunted Houses of Washington

“Hobgoblins and Witches Have Enlivened Capital in Halloween History,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 27, 1940.

“The United States Capitol is full of ghosts,” claimed the Dickenson Press in 1896. Tales of hauntings around Washington, D.C., are a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. From presidents and soldiers to local residents, the ghosts are said to haunt both official buildings and houses. Even today, you can find many ghost tours of the city that will tell you spooky stories about what takes place at night in the shadows of our Nation’s capital.

The Evening Star traced the haunted tales of the region all the way back to John Smith’s account of ghosts on Three Sister Island in 1608. The article continues with an account of the very farmland on which the city was built, and the haunting of some of the first structures erected in the new city. So if you hope to catch a glimpse of Pierre L’Enfant or a formerly living President, read some of these tales in Chronicling America*…if you dare!

The White House

The image of a woman that glides through the White House each day before dawn is said to be the ghost of Abigail Adams. The White House is known for having many renowned haunts. Many witnesses have claimed to have spotted Abraham Lincoln on his way up the stairs at night. President William Henry Harrison, who died in the White House, was seen haunting the attic for a time.

“Haunted Washington,” The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer (Bridgeport, CT), October 16, 1919.

United States Capitol

The ghost of President John Quincy Adams has been spotted in Statuary Hall, which is the former chamber of the House of Representatives where he served for 19 years after his presidency. Known as  “a harmless, amiable ghost,” he is mentioned in many tales of the Capitol. As noted above though, there are many stories of ghosts all throughout the Capitol Building, both known figures and unknown.

Van Ness Mansion  

Marcia Van Ness, wife of Congressman John P. Van Ness and daughter of Davy Burns whose lands much of Washington was built upon, decided to build her family’s mansion not far from the White House. Long after her death in the mansion, it fell into disrepair and was said to have been haunted by Marcia’s ghost. Others say that that dilapidated mansion is haunted by the ghosts of the six white horses that drew John Van Ness’ funeral bier.

“Haunted Houses of Washington and Their Weird Stories,” The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 13, 1902.

Octagon House

The site of one or two tragic deaths, depending on which stories you hear, the Octagon House is said to have been haunted by quite a few people and even a cat. The happiest of these hauntings, however, is Dolly Madison and her guests, seen (and heard) still holding parties there as they used to in 1814 after the White House burned in the War of 1812.

Old Capitol prison Washington, D.C. circa 1864. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Old Brick Capitol

The Old Brick Capitol, now the site of the U.S. Supreme Court building, once held some notorious prisoners within its walls, including the famous Confederate spy Belle Boyd. It was in the yard of this building that Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, known for running the Andersonville Prison, was executed. It is said that other soldiers may have been executed there as well. And it is the restless spirits of these prisoners that are said to have haunted the building. You can read more about this building in the Law Library’s blog post, “The Old Capitol Prison and the United States Supreme Court.”

Mount Vernon

Home of our first president, George Washington, Mount Vernon sits just outside of Washington, D.C., in a beautiful stretch of Virginia. You can still visit the grounds today, and even look into Washington’s own bedroom where he died in 1799. But while Mount Vernon was still a residence, visitors who stayed there were known to have heard his footsteps and felt his presence while sleeping in his bedroom.

Many More

If you read some of the articles linked above, you’ll find even more houses and buildings around Washington where spooks have been spotted. Take a look at some of these other articles to read more, and let us know in the comments if you’ve ever spotted a ghost wondering through Washington!

Ghosts of the Capital,” The Weiser Signal, (Weiser, ID), January 9, 1902.

Spooks and Ghosts in Government Buildings,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), May 29, 1910.

The Ghost That Went with the Roof,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), September 29, 1912.

Looking Backward,” Washington Herald (Washington, DC), November 17, 1918.

Capital’s Ghosts Walk Anew on Halloween Eve,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 27, 1935.

* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Cooking Up History: Homemade Halloween

This post was written by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement. It was originally published on Minerva’s Kaleidoscope: Resources for Kids & Families Blog. For Halloween 2020, we’re all going to be staying much closer to home than is the norm. That made me wonder what we […]

The Murder of Rasputin

Without a flicker of emotion, Russian aristocrat, Prince Felix Yussupov, declared on the witness stand that he killed Russia’s “Mad Monk,” Rasputin. Yussupov described in detail how he helped poison, shoot, beat, and drown him, as part of a larger conspiracy to murder the mystical “holy man,” who had gained powerful influence over the Imperial […]

La Prensa: Latinx Exile Newspapers

This blog post was written by Jennie Horton, a 2020 Librarian-in-Residence in the Serial & Government Publications Division.  Unrest in Latin America caused many to flee to the United States. Exile newspapers, Spanish-language papers published in the US, helped immigrants stay connected to their homeland, language, and culture. Spanish-language newspapers first appeared in the United States in 1808 with El […]