“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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.