Do you believe in ghosts?
Ghosts seem to prefer haunting some locations over others. You rarely spot them at Walmart, for instance, or the airport. For some reason, they’re always hanging around in old houses, and if there’s anything we have a lot of here in D.C., it’s old houses. And history. It just goes to reason that the more dead people you have in a particular area, the better the chances of a ghosting.
Many spots throughout the city are rumored to be haunted, but if you want the facts behind the stories, take a Washington, D.C. Ghost Tour.
Two tours are offered — Ghosts of Lafayette Park and Capitol Hill Haunts. Having seen Lafayette Park and been frightened in the light of day many a time, my companion and I chose this tour.
As we waited on the sidewalk with a dozen other tourists, the bells of St. John’s Church slowly tolled 8 p.m., setting the mood for our spooky trek.
Tour guides dress in period costume and carry lanterns, and our guide, Elizabeth, was animated, friendly and knowledgeable. She informed us that to be included in the tour, each haunting had to have been reported by at least three different people on separate occasions.
Elizabeth told us that Lafayette Park itself has a long history of death and despair, having served as a cemetery, the site of a soldiers’ encampment during the War of 1812 and the scene of slave auctions throughout the years.
As we stood outside the first stop on the tour — the courthouse at H Street and Madison Place — Elizabeth told us how that spot was once the site of the Old Washington Club, a hangout for politicians and lobbyists to drink and make the kind of deals that are supposed to be illegal now. It was a men’s-only club — except for the hookers, of course.
Washington in the mid-1800s was not unlike it is today — full of intrigue, lies, betrayal and sex. Daniel Sickles, a U.S. representative from New York and a faithful customer of local prostitutes, shot his wife Teresa’s lover outside the Old Washington Club in a fit of rage. He plead temporary insanity, was acquitted and continued to serve in Congress.
Over the years, many have reported seeing the ghost of Teresa’s lover — Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key — either in the building or in Lafayette Park, waving a handkerchief (Philip’s secret signal to Teresa to come out and play).
The next stop on the tour is right next door at the Dolley Madison House. After the death of her husband, James Madison, and mismanagement of the family finances by her alcoholic son, Dolley was left to live in poverty. She moved to the house in Lafayette Square and accepted food and other donations from locals who took pity on her. She recovered financially somewhat with the sale of her husband’s papers, but died shortly thereafter in 1849.
Many have claimed to see her ghost rocking on a chair on the front porch of the house, waving to passers-by.
The nearby St. John’s Church, the second-oldest building in D.C. after the White House, is said to be home to six ghosts. The figures are seen only when the bells toll in honor of an important person’s death. The figures, wearing robes and walking together in line down the church’s main aisle, file into the president’s pew and promptly disappear.
Directly across the street is the Hay-Adams Hotel, a five-star luxury property whose history began well over 100 years ago.
Henry Adams, the descendant of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, lived on the fourth floor of the building with his wife, Marion, also known as Clover. In 1885, Clover was found dead in their quarters, the apparent victim of cyanide poisoning. Her death was ruled a suicide, but rumors circulated that it might have been murder after Henry had all her possessions destroyed and her body buried in an unmarked grave in Rock Creek Park.
Her ghost is said to wander the halls of the Hay-Adams most frequently in the first two weeks of December, around the time of the anniversary of her death, turning lights on and off and opening and shutting doors.
Decatur House, on the west end of Lafayette Square, was built in 1816 by war hero Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan. Decatur, a naval commodore in the War of 1812, was the target of Commodore James Barron’s wrath, after Barron was fired from his post and replaced by Decatur. Decatur, relentlessly hounded by the bitter and angry Barron, finally agreed to a duel, which he promptly lost.
Shortly thereafter, his ghost began appearing in the third-floor window, or leaving through the back exit with pistols. Some have also reported hearing his distraught wife crying. So many sightings of Decatur’s ghost at the window were reported that the window has been permanently shuttered.
The White House, arguably the scariest building in D.C. these days, has been the home of many ghost sightings over the years, most famously, that of President Abraham Lincoln, who has reportedly been seen performing such presidential acts as looking out the window, standing by the bed, putting on his boots and peeling an apple.
The ghosts of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abigail Adams have been seen in the White House as well.
Each of the D.C. ghost tours lasts an hour and a half. The Lafayette tour is less than a quarter-mile, and the Capitol Hill tour is less than a mile. Come out one night and learn the spookier side of D.C. history — if you dare!
Washington D.C. Ghost Tours; tickets $17 adults, $10 children 7 to 11, under 11 free, advance purchase required; March through mid-November; 888-844-3999.