The most famous address in America – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – is also perhaps the country’s most famous haunted house. Presidents, first ladies, White House staff members and guests have reported feeling ghostly presences, hearing unexplained noises and even running into apparitions – even on the way out of the bathtub in one particularly famous case.
Abigail Adams and her husband John, the second president of the United States, moved to Washington, DC from the former U.S. capital in Philadelphia. At the time, Washington was still just a town, built mostly on swampy land on the banks of the Potomac River. Because the East Room of the new White House was the warmest and driest, Abigail used it to hang the wash. Her ghost, clad in a cap and lace shawl, has reportedly been seen heading towards the East Room, arms outstretched as if carrying laundry.
A lesser-known early White House personality who has been said to haunt its halls was David Burnes, who sold the government most of the land on which the city of Washington was built. Labeled obstinate by President Washington, primarily because he demanded top dollar for his property, Burnes had approximately 700 acres coveted by the government, including the land on which the White House currently sits. Burnes was the recipient of numerous letters from the Commissioners, imploring him to cease growing his crops on land that was laid out to become Pennsylvania Ave.
Lillian Rogers Parks, a seamstress who chronicled her 30-year career working at the White House in a 1961 memoir, told the story of a valet to President Franklin Roosevelt who reportedly heard a disembodied voice coming from a distance in the Yellow Oval Room, saying “I’m Mr. Burns.” During Harry S. Truman’s administration, a guard heard a similar voice; thinking it was then-Secretary of State James Byrnes, he went looking for him, only to learn that the secretary hadn’t been at the White House that day.
In 1824, Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson was defeated by John Quincy Adams in one of the most contentious presidential elections in history. Elected president four years later, the surly Jackson continued to hold grudges against those who had supported his opponent.
In the early 1860s, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln – who believed strongly in the occult, and reportedly held seances in the White House to commune with the spirits of her dead sons – told friends she had heard Jackson stomping and swearing through the halls of the presidential residence. The Rose Room, Jackson’s bedchamber while he was president, is believed by some to be one of the most haunted rooms in the White House.
Jackson’s ghostly presence also showed up in the White House correspondence of Harry Truman. In June 1945, just two months into his first term, Truman wrote to his wife Bess of the spooky quality of his new residence: “I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches – all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth – I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”
By far the most frequently reported sighting in the White House over the years has been the ghost – or at least the presence – of the celebrated 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, whose life was cut tragically short by an assassin’s bullet in April 1865.
Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, was the first person to say she had actually seen Lincoln’s ghost. According to her, the lanky former president was standing looking out a window of the Oval Office, across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields beyond. Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, reportedly felt Lincoln’s presence one night while watching a television program about his death.
Most notably, sightings of Lincoln’s ghost were frequently reported during the long administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also presided over his country during a time of great upheaval. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used the Lincoln Bedroom as her study, and said she would feel his presence when she worked there late at night.
During her visit to the White House, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands heard a knock on her bedroom door in the night; when she answered it, she reportedly saw Lincoln’s ghost, wearing his top hat, and fainted dead away.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who visited the White House more than once during World War II, told a story of emerging naked from his evening bath smoking his customary cigar, only to find a ghostly Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room.
Rex, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel who had recently replaced Lucky as First Dog in the Reagan years, twice barked frantically in the Lincoln Bedroom and then backed out and refused to set foot over the threshold. And on another evening, while the Reagan’s were watching TV in their room, Rex stood up on his hind legs, pointed his nose at the ceiling and began barking at something invisible overhead. To their amazement, the dog walked around the room, barking at the ceiling.
When Lillian Rogers Parks, the seamstress, once investigated the sound of someone pacing an upper level of the White House, another staff member told her the room in question had been unoccupied, and “that was old Abe pacing the floor.” Psychics have speculated that Lincoln’s spirit remains in the White House to be on hand in times of crisis, as well as to complete the difficult work that his untimely death left unfinished.
Strange things happen outside, too. The Rose Garden is one of the commonly used sites for presidential announcements. It is also the site of a particularly creepy haunting. The garden was originally planted by First Lady Dolley Madison in the early 1800s.
A century later, when First Lady Ellen Wilson requested that the garden be dug up, garden workers reported that Madison’s ghost appeared and prevented them from destroying her garden. Since that time, other White House insiders have reported an occasional and inexplicable smell of roses in the White House. These instances are often credited to Madison’s ghost.
The White House entrance has a number of notable ghost fixtures. A torch-wielding British soldier (possibly the soldier who set fire to the White House during the War of 1812) is often seen standing outside the front door. People have also reported seeing long-deceased White House ushers and doormen still tending to their duties.
Perhaps most bizarre is the ghost of Anna Surratt, whose mother Mary was hanged in 1865 for her role in the Lincoln assassination. Anna’s ghost has been spotted pounding on the White House doors begging for her mother’s release. She is also reported to sit on the front steps every July 7, the anniversary of her mother’s execution.