The Octagon House
I may sound like I’m getting old by what I’m about to write, but Halloween isn’t what it used to be when I was growing up. Some of the most popular costumes in recent years have been a twerking former Disney child star, a female prison inmate in an orange jumpsuit, and a fired high school chemistry teacher turned homicidal meth dealer. I miss the more generic and traditional costumes, like ghosts. So as I celebrated Halloween on today’s bike ride, I went on a ghost hunt. There are a number of reportedly haunted locations throughout D.C., and today I rode by a few of those places where ghosts and spirits are reported to have been encountered.
The first stop on my self-guided bike tour of D.C.’s haunted locations was The Octagon House, which is reported to be the most haunted residence in the city. It was built in 1801 by Colonel John Tayloe, III, and some members of the Tayloe family are reported to still be residing there today. Two of Colonel Tayloe’s daughters are said to haunt their former home. The first allegedly died just before the War of 1812. Colonel Tayloe and his daughter quarreled on the second floor landing over the girl’s relationship with a British officer stationed in the city. And when the daughter turned in anger to go down the stairs, she “fell” down the stairs. Or possibly over the railing. Stories differ. Either way, she died. Her apparition has allegedly been seen crumpled at the bottom of the steps, or on the stairs near the second floor landing, and sometimes exhibits itself as the light of a candle moving up the staircase.
The death of the other Tayloe daughter, stories claim, occurred in 1817 or shortly thereafter. She had eloped with a young man, thus incurring her father’s wrath. When she returned home to reconcile with her father, they argued on the third-floor landing. This daughter, too, “fell” to her death. Her spirit is alleged to haunt the third floor landing and stairs between the second and third floors.
After the burning of the White House in the War of 1812, President James and Dolley Madison briefly lived at The Octagon House as well. Dolley Madison’s spirit is said to have been seen near the fireplace in the main ballroom as well as heading through a closed door to the garden. Her ghost’s presence is reported to be accompanied by the smell of lilacs, which was her favorite flower.
Other spirits are also said to remain at The Octagon House as well. A slave girl in the house was allegedly killed by being thrown from the third floor landing to the first floor below by a British soldier during the War of 1812. During the years since eyewitnesses have reported hearing her scream. The specter of a British soldier in a War of 1812 dress uniform was seen by a caretaker named James Cypress in the 1950s. Perhaps it was the soldier who killed the slave girl.
A gambler shot to death in the home’s third-floor bedroom in the late 19th century has sometimes been seen still in the bed where he died. And ghostly footmen have been seen at the front door waiting to receive guests. Various witnesses have also reported hearing assorted moans, screams, and footsteps in The Octagon House.
The next stop on my ghost ride was the Dolly Madison House, also referred to as the Cutts-Madison House, located at 1520 H Street (MAP), near the northwest corner of Lafayette Square Park. One of the most reported spirits in all of D.C. is that of former First Lady Dolley Madison. In addition to being seen at The Octagon House, her ghost has been encountered at additional locations, including the White House Rose Garden, and at her home on Lafayette Square. It is in this home that Dolley Madison spent her last years, and where she died in 1849. Since the mid-19th century, it is on the porch sitting in a rocking chair that her ghost has most often been encountered.
I then made a stop at the nearby statue of President Andrew Jackson, located in middle of Lafayette Square Park (MAP) across the street from the White House. There are a variety of haunted accounts involving the boisterous President Jackson within the nearby White House. Most of the stories center around the canopy bed in the Rose bedroom on the second floor. Mary Todd Lincoln and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands are but a couple of the notable witnesses to President Jackson’s apparition.
My next stop on this haunted bike ride was the location where Congressman Daniel Sickles’ House used to be. Located at 717 Madison Place (MAP), it is now the downtown site of the U.S. Court of Claims.
In 1859, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key, who at that time was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem. After learning of Key’s affair with his wife, Teresa, who was only 15 years old when she married the 33-year old Sickles, Sickles approached Teresa’s lover in front of his home and allegedly said, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die.” He then shot Key. As he lay dying, Key gazed at the window where Teresa would signal him when the coast was clear for their trists. A jury acquitted Sickles after a sensational trial that featured the first use of the temporary insanity defense in U.S. legal history. Since that time Key’s visage has been reported to occasionally appear in the location where Sickles shot him.
I then proceeded to the Walsh Mansion, which currently serves as the Indonesian Embassy and is located at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood. The most expensive residence in the city at the time it was completed in 1903, the mansion was built by Thomas J. Walsh, a famous gold miner and industrialist. He was also known for giving the famed Hope Diamond to his daughter Evalyn Walsh McLean as a wedding present. However, along with the diamond came its curse. According to the legend, a curse befell the large, blue diamond when it was stolen from an idol in India – a curse that foretold bad luck and death not only for the owner of the diamond but for all who touched it. Anyway, Evalyn continued to live in the house after her father’s passing until her death in 1947. However, by the time she died she had lost the family fortune and more, and to cover her significant debts, the Walsh Mansion was sold to the government of Indonesia. According to embassy staff, however, Evalyn never vacated the home. Rather, her spirit has been seen several times gliding down the mansion’s grand central staircase.
The Mary Surratt Boarding House was the next destination on my haunted tour of D.C. Located at 604 H Street (MAP) in the heart of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, the three-story Federal-style townhouse has been substantially renovated through the years. But in the mid-1800’s it was a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, who was convicted and hanged as one of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The building currently houses a Chinese restaurant, named Wok and Roll, on the ground floor. But it may also house Mary Surratt’s ghost as well. From the 1870s onward, occupants of the building have claimed that Surratt’s spirit is responsible for the incomprehensible mumbling and whispers, footsteps, muffled sobs, and creaking floorboards which have unnerved them.
I also rode to the Capitol Hill neighborhood today, where the ghost of Joseph Holt is said to haunt the street near where he lived. Holt was Judge Advocate General of the Army, and presided over the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. During the trials, accused conspirators Dr. Samuel Mudd (who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg) and Mary Surratt (at whose downtown boarding house the conspirators met) were held at the Old Capitol Prison opposite the U.S. Capitol Building. The modern day U.S. Supreme Court Building stands on the site today. After Holt retired, he allegedly became a recluse in his Capitol Hill home. Local residents have told stories of Holt’s ghost walking down First Street in a blue suit and cape, pondering the guilt of Mudd and Surrat as he heads for the site of the Old Capitol Prison.
Lastly, before heading back to my office, I concluded my self-guided haunted bike tour by stopping by the U.S. Capitol Building. Many people would contend that the Capitol is soulless, but it is no stranger to departed souls. The Capitol Building is reputedly haunted by a former President, many past members of the House of Representatives, other government officials, officers who served during the American Revolutionary War, workers who died during its construction, and perhaps most famously, or infamously, a “demon black cat.”
One of the most illustrious ghosts said to haunt the Capitol Building is John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth President, who after serving as President went on to serve nine terms as a Massachusetts Congressman. In 1848, at age 81, Adams fell unconscious on the House floor while in the middle of a speech. Lawmakers carried him into the speaker’s office, where he died two days later. Ghost followers contend that his spirit subsequently made its way back to the chamber, now known as Statuary Hall. A plaque there marks the spot where Adams’ desk once stood. It is from that spot, believers attest, that his ghost sporadically redelivers his unfinished speech.
The infamous “demon black cat” is alleged to prowl the halls of Congress, and make appearances just before a national tragedy or change in Presidential administration. It was first seen in the early part of the 19th century, and a night watchman shot at it in 1862. It has also been seen by other night watchmen and members of the Capitol Police. It appeared before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the October 1929 stock market crash, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The cat has not only been seen in the halls, but has repeatedly appeared in Washington’s Tomb. The Tomb, located two levels below the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda, was an original feature of the building, planned as a resting place for George Washington and members of his family. But the Washington family politely declined the offer, and the Tomb now stands empty. Or does it?
The specters of at least two soldiers are also said to haunt the Capitol Building. A few eyewitnesses have claimed that whenever an individual lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a World War I doughboy momentarily appears, salutes, then disappears. A second apparition, which eyewitnesses say is the ghost of an American Revolutionary War soldier, has also appeared at the Washington Tomb. According to several stories, the soldier appears, moves around the unused Washington family catafalque, and then passes through the door into the hallway before disappearing.
Thus having concluded my haunted tour, I headed back to my office. It was a great bike ride, despite the fact that I did not see, hear, or otherwise sense the presence of any ghosts in a city that seems to be full of them.
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