Spot of Parchment October 2019

Happy October! I absolutely love this month—everything pumpkin, fall colors on the trees, sweaters, boots, hiking, and of course, Halloween! Since we are just a few weeks out, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite White House ghost stories for the spookiest month of the year.

The White House is reportedly one of the most haunted buildings in the United States, at least in terms of the sheer volume of reported sightings. Most of the sightings come from White House staff and the first families that live in the building and have access to the rooms after hours. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen anything when I’ve been in the building during the day, as the rooms are usually quite full.

When John Adams moved into the White House on November 1, 1800, it was far from finished. Neither of the interior staircases were completed, the yards were still full of mud and essentially construction sites, and the East Room—now the largest and grandest of rooms on the state floor—was an empty shell. There was no private garden and certainly no wall or fence to provide privacy. The first thing President Adams requested was a vegetable garden to supply the White House kitchen. When Abigail arrived, she quickly realized that any laundry hung outside would be in full view of passing pedestrians and carriages. She decided to use the East Room to hang the laundry, memorialized in this painting by Gordon Phillips….Many years later, staffers report that they smell lavender and soap whenever they enter the East Room, left over from Abigail’s ghost hanging laundry.

This oil on canvas painting was created by Gordon Phillips in 1966. It depicts First Lady Abigail Adams and her granddaughter, Susanna, watching a servant hang laundry in the unfinished East Room. When President John Adams and his family moved into the White House in 1800, many of the rooms and hallways were incomplete. The East Room could not be used as a place to host receptions, so Mrs. Adams used it to dry laundry. Susanna was the daughter of Charles Adams, the President and First Lady's second son and younger brother to future president John Quincy Adams.
Gordon Phillips, 1966. Courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

In 1911, President Taft’s became obsessed with “The Thing.” They reported that they would sometimes feel something leaning over their shoulder to read their paperwork and when they turned around, they would see a fleeing blur. President Taft became so frustrated with their constant gossiping that he ordered his aide, Major Archibald Butt (a truly great historical name) to warn his staff that the first person caught repeating a story about The Thing would be fired.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his highly recognizable face and sad death, President Abraham Lincoln is one of the most commonly-reported ghosts in the White House. First Lady Grace Coolidge and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands both reportedly saw Lincoln, but my favorite story was from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During FDR’s lengthy presidency, Churchill frequently visited and enjoyed extended stays at the White House. At first, he stayed in the Lincoln bedroom (pictured here during the Ford administration). One night while Churchill was bathing in the bathtub, Lincoln’s ghost evidently walked through the door and interrupted Churchill while he was smoking his cigar in the nude. Churchill was so shaken by the experience he refused to stay in the Lincoln bedroom during future visits, preferring the Queen’s bedroom from that point forward.

This photograph of the Lincoln Bedroom was taken in August 1976 by Larry D. Kinney during the administration of Gerald R. Ford.  Located on the Second Floor of the White House, in modern times the Lincoln Bedroom is used for official and personal guests of the president’s family.  In the past, it served as an office and the Cabinet Room. The room became a bedroom in the family quarters during the 1902 Theodore Roosevelt renovation. The high-back bed, known as the Lincoln Bed, was purchased for the White House by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. While it was purchased during the Lincoln administration, the bed was probably never used by President Abraham Lincoln, nor was it originally placed in this room. Repurposed during the administration of President Harry S. Truman, the room features furniture, artwork, and refurbishing reminiscent of the 1860s. In 2005, the room underwent refurbishing under the direction of First Lady Laura Bush, enhancing the historical accuracy of the room.
August 1976, Larry D. Kinney, courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

Not all ghost stories are about presidents or quite so humorous, however. Immediately after Lincoln’s assassination, Anna Surratt visited the White House and President Johnson to beg for clemency for her daughter, Mary. Mary was accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln and she had been sentenced to hang for her crimes. When President Johnson refused to see Anna, she banged on the front doors, crying, and begging him to reconsider. Since that time, guests, workers, and residents at the White House have heard Anna’s ghost banging on the front door and crying out for President Johnson.

While some people take these stories very seriously, other presidents use it as an opportunity to have a moment of fun around Halloween and take a brief respite from the burdens of the office. In October 2016, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama opened the White House to local kids and filled the rooms with “ghosts,” or reenactors of famous past presidents and residents. Click here to see pictures and read more about.

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