Ghostly wisps at famous sites recall the legends of history


June 28, 1992|By Terry Sue Shank | Terry Sue Shank,Contributing Writer

In spite of a characteristic lack of gloomy castles, bloody towers and dank dungeons, America, too, has its share of historic haunts and ghostly legends -- and Washington is no exception. Here are a few of the eerie tales of haunted heroes and patriotic spirits found lurking around the nation's capital.

Washington's most haunting hostess

Dolley Madison, the charming wife of President James Madison, is said to be one of the busiest ghosts in Washington. According to tales that have been circulating for almost 150 years, the specter of the delightful first lady has been sighted in at least three locations in our nation's capital.

During the War of 1812, British soldiers attacked and torched the presidential residence. While the White House was being rebuilt, President and Mrs. Madison moved into Octagon House, a handsome example of American Federal architecture at New York Avenue and 18th Street Northwest. Known for her hospitality and warm, friendly parties, the gracious Dolley Madison has been seen there, in ghostly form, on many occasions.

Years after her death, stories began appearing in local newspapers of ghostly apparitions of footmen in full-dress uniform still hailing carriages for Dolley's guests. People were quoted as saying they had heard unseen wheels rumbling over gravel roads, the opening and closing of carriage doors, and the fading sounds of carriages rolling into the night. One newspaper account described "the wispy form of the turbaned hostess" seen dancing merrily through the doorway.

Also associated with Dolley's spirit is the faint fragrance of lilacs, the perfume she always wore. In recent years, visitors at Octagon Museum, now occupied by the American Architectural Foundation, have mentioned walking into unexpected cold pockets of lilac-scented air.

Perhaps the most celebrated sighting of Dolley Madison's wandering essence was reported by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. When Edith Wilson instructed White House gardeners to move Dolley's beloved rose garden, the ghost of President Madison's feisty wife supposedly marched right up to the busy gardeners and scolded them. Work ceased immediately, and the White House Rose Garden remained as it was when Dolley planted it.

After James Madison's death in 1836, Dolley left their Virginia home and moved back to Washington, where she was once again the center of Washington society. Some say her spunky spirit can still be seen rocking on the porch of her house on Lafayette Square.

The phantom of Wilson House

Woodrow Wilson House is one of the most historically authentic homes in Washington. All the original furnishings are there. The dresses of President Wilson's second wife, Edith, still hang in the closets. An interesting collection of walking canes Wilson acquired after suffering a stroke in 1919 are on display. Favorite books wait patiently on library shelves. The red brick Georgian Revival town house stands almost exactly as it was on that cold February night in 1924 when President Woodrow Wilson died there in his sleep. Some say his spirit lingers.

Over the years, strange tales have surfaced concerning mysterious noises heard at Wilson House. One such account allegedly involved a staff member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She was working alone one night in the dignified old building when she heard loud whistling coming from the direction of the fourth floor. A couple of months later, she heard the eerie whistling again. But this time it seemed different, sad and rather pitiful. The staff member said she was so frightened it was all she could do to keep from running out of the building. The next morning, another staff worker, who had come in early to meet a repairman, became upset when she, too, heard the mournful whistling.

There have been numerous bewildering reports of a man's sorrowful sobbing and of a strange tapping sound, as though someone were walking with the help of a cane. Some speculate that it is the woeful spirit of Woodrow Wilson, the only president buried in our nation's capital, still grieving over the political defeat of his dream for the League of Nations.

The corridors of the Capitol

Almost from the beginning, when George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793, the Capitol building, with its massive marble walls, dimly lighted corridors and 580 rooms, has been surrounded by eerie tales of spectral visions and supernatural phenomena.

One particularly grisly tale originated during the construction of the Capitol's magnificent rotunda. According to early stories, a stonemason got into an argument with a hot-tempered carpenter, who ultimately murdered him with a brick, and used the stonemason's own tools to entomb him behind one of the walls. Rumor has it that the ghost of the unfortunate workman still roams the Capitol corridors and has been seen passing through a wall in the basement on the Senate side of the building.

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