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The Haunted White House: Ghosts, Superstition and the Executive Mansion

Explore the allegedly haunted White House in this blog post. Read about the superstitions and ghostly tales that have been linked to the White House over the years, including stories of John Quincy Adams, "Black Jack" Logan, and more.
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A great article in the Washington Post from November 2nd, 1902 is very apropos for this blog, or at least the name of the blog. We don’t really write about ghosts stories, except for the allegedly haunted suite at the Omni Shoreham and the Octagon House.

White House daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr. in 1846 (Library of Congress)
White House daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr. in 1846 (Library of Congress)

Well, every now and then we make an exception, and this article is one of those worthy of an exception. The article was written at a time when the White House was under serious renovations, including the expansion building the West Wing.

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The generous appropriation now being expended in the work of enlarging and improving the White House is a reminder of the fact that no money can provide for it that hall-mark or distinction–a ghost. For more than fifty years it has been whispered among the employes of the Capitol that the ethereal presence of John Quincy Adams has frequently been seen at night in the Speaker’s room, in which he uttered his dying words: “This is the last of earth: I am content.”

It is said that “Black Jack” Logan, intangible, yet plainly visible, strides along the corridors between the Hall of Representatives and the Senate chamber. In the grounds, in the neighborhood of the grotto, a ghostly visitant, military in bearing and attire, and wrapped in a cloak of a by-gone foreign fashion, has been encountered at night by two generations of Washingtonians. Is it the specter of some British officer who was concerned in that “wanton outrage,” the burning of the Capitol?

The cornerstone of the dear and venerable edifice, known to all the world as “the White House,” was laid nearly a year earlier than that of the Capitol, the “First American” being in attendance. Seven years later, only a few weeks prior to his death, he and Mrs. Washington made a tour of the then almost completed “President’s House.” It may well be believed that he left upon and within it, the benediction of his presence, for no blood has ever been shed and no crime ever committed beneath its roof.

It is a remarkable fact that of the three Presidents whom we have lost by assassination, none received, in the White house, the bullet that laid him low, nor drew his last breath within its walls. Two Presidents, after short periods of service, died there; but in the pneumonia that terminated the career of William Henry Harrison, and the acute indigestion that caused the death of Zachary Taylor, there was no suggestion of foul play. Mrs. John Tyler, for many years an invalid, died in the Executive Mansion in 1842, and the gradual decline of Mrs. Benjamin Harrison from robust health to protracted illness, and subsequent death, in the White House, is yet fresh in the memory of the public. Other deaths there, were those of twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, and the nonagenarian, John Witherspoon Scott.

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On the lives of none of these persons was there any shadow of guilt, nor in their hearts any wrongs to be avenged; and from “that undiscovered country” which is now their abiding-place, none has ever returned to disturb the peace of later occupants of that dwelling which never loses its hold on the interest of the public.

Now here comes the creepy stuff, and you can be the judge as to whether this really happened or not.

However, it has been maintained that the daily course of the sun causes strange shadows to appear beneath the capitals of the columns of the main portico. It is averred that five years ago, just prior to the death of Mrs. Nancy McKinley, these shadows formed an unmistakable likeness of that excellent woman. About two years ago these columns displayed a new shadow–that of a human arm and hand, with bent forefinger, upheld in an attitude of warning. It appeared every day for fully a fortnight, and was displaced by a silhouette of President McKinley. This, a startling likeness, while it continued visible, with the changing of the sun’s position, was metamorphosed into a portrait of Queen Victoria, wearing a crown. These shadows are always most distinct in the winter months.

On the Friday morning preceding the death of President McKinley, a large bird of black plumage, was observed to alight on the eagle that surmounts the flagstaff on the White House. During the few minutes that it occupied its lofty perch, a spyglass, two hundred yards distant, revealed it to be a raven of unusual size.

It is a matter of congratulation that, with the exception of the instances above mentioned, neither history nor tradition has ever linked with the White House any of the phenomena that appeal to the superstition which lurks in the minds of the great, as well as the humble. A ghostly occupant, should the Executive mansion ever possess one, will have its origin in future years and events at present unforeseen. So much for the lack of complication and intrigue in our republican government, and the clean and simple lives led by those who have occupied its high places.

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