A spooky photo of the White House on the night of Feb. 18, 1907. (Library of Congress)
On a lonely night in 1946, President Harry S. Truman went to bed at 9 p.m. About six hours later, he heard it.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The sound against his bedroom door awakened him, he wrote to his wife in a letter that is archived in his presidential library and museum.
“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there,” he wrote. “Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”
“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”
In addition to its political ghosts, the White House has long housed unsettling specters of a different, more bump-in-the-night kind, if numerous former leaders and their staff members are to be believed.
Whether one embraces or mocks the paranormal, the many accounts that have spilled out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over two centuries give ghosts an undeniable place in the country’s history. They also make that address arguably the nation’s most famous haunted house.
The sightings, which have been documented in eerie detail by scholars and newspapers, involve a former president who appears when the nation needs a leader most, a daughter who pleads in vain to help her doomed mother and a first lady who is, sadly, perpetually stuck doing laundry.
Jared Broach is the founder of the company Nightly Spirits, which offers tours of haunted areas in several cities across the country. But when Broach started the tours in 2012, he offered only one: The White House.
“The White House has the best ghost stories, and I’d call them the most verified,” Broach said. “Honestly, we could do a 10-hour tour if we really wanted to.”
One of his favorite stories is about David Burns, who sold the land where the White House sits and whose voice has been reportedly heard in the Oval Office. “I’m Mr. Buuuuurns,” Broach would always say during tours when he got to that part of the story.
Asked if he believes in ghosts, Broach said “for sure” and then pointed to more prestigious authorities.
“If I said no, I’d be calling about eight different presidents liars,” he said.
One of them would be Abraham Lincoln. He reportedly received regular visits from his son Willie, who died in the White House in 1862 at age 11 of what was probably typhoid fever. Mary Todd Lincoln, who was so grief-stricken by the loss that she remained in her room for weeks, spoke of seeing her son’s ghost once at the foot of her bed. There are also reports of her hearing Thomas Jefferson playing the violin and Andrew Jackson swearing.
After his assassination in 1865, Lincoln apparently joined his son in his phantasmal roaming. First lady Grace Coolidge spoke in magazine accounts of seeing him look out a window in what had been in his office.
Many more sightings would come in the decades and presidential administrations that followed. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom in 1942 when she reportedly heard a knock on her bedroom door, opened it to see the bearded president and fainted.
Two years earlier, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, according to accounts, had just stepped out of a hot bath in that same room and was wearing nothing but a cigar when he encountered Lincoln by the fireplace.
“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
In his research, Broach said he found that Lincoln seems to be the most common visitor among the White House’s ghosts and also the one who carries the greatest burden.
“They say Lincoln always comes back whenever he feels the country is in need or in peril,” Broach said. “They say he just strides up and down the second-floor hallways and raps on doors and stands by windows.”
In a 1989 Washington Post article, White House curator Rex Scouten said that President Ronald Reagan had commented that his dog would go into any room except the Lincoln bedroom.
“He’d just stand outside the door and bark,” Scouten said.
Among other spirited stories are those about Annie Surratt. Some have sworn her ghost knocks on the front doors, pleading for the release of her mother, Mary Surratt, who was convicted of playing a role in Lincoln’s assassination and later hanged.
Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt are hanged inside Fort McNair in Washington on July 7, 1865. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)
There are also haunting accounts involving two presidents’ wives. Abigail Adams was the first first lady to live in the White House and used the East Room to dry sheets. Since her death, there have been reported sightings of her likeness in that area. She walks, according to the accounts, with her arms outstretched as if holding clean linens.
Dolly Madison, if the stories about her are to be believed, seems to have chosen a better eternal pastime: taking care of the garden. During the Woodrow Wilson administration, staff members reported seeing her ghost as they were about to move the Rose Garden. They apparently decided afterward to leave it where she wanted it.
The first lady is also connected to another storied Washington location. When the British burned down their home during the War of 1812, she and President James Madison moved to the Octagon House on the corner of 18th Street and New York Avenue NW, making it the temporary White House. Unexplained occurrences there have been linked to the deaths of three women, including two daughters of the wealthy man who built the house. In both incidents, according to newspaper accounts, the women had argued with their father about who they wanted to marry and then fell from the same staircase.
“Bells could be heard in the house when no one was there to ring them,” reads a 1969 Washington Post article about the location. “A specter of a girl in white could be seen slipping up the stairway; terrifying screams and morbid groans could be heard emanating from the house. Some insisted that it was impossible to cross the hall at the foot of the stairwell on certain days, without unconsciously going around some unseen obstacle on the floor.”
Newspapers once treated stories about ghosts with far less skepticism than they might today. A Washington Post article published Aug. 13, 1907, describes the police department’s effort to address paranormal activity in Georgetown with the headline: “Spooks Baffle Police.”
“Despite the vigilance of Capt. Schneider and his officers of the Seventh Precinct, they continue night after night their weird and ghost-like tricks,” the author wrote. “The police are unable to stop the shower of gravel and stones, which appear to be the favorite means of manifestation of these materialistic ghosts; nor are they able to discover whence they came.”
The headline for a 1903 Post story, which ran next to an advertisement offering a lawn swing for $3.95, said: “White House Ghosts: Changes in the Mansion Have Driven Them Away.”
In the article, a longtime White House servant lamented how renovations had cleared the mansion of the spirits that kept him company on lonely nights. He described them as gliding up public stairways and down private ones.
“It’s the truth, the gospel truth,” said Jerry Smith, who is described as spending a quarter century at the White House. “Times are not what they used to be about the house. Ever since I first went to the White House, I have seen the spirits of Mr. Lincoln and other Presidents as they died. But you know that they don’t like new places, and I never see a sight of Mr. Lincoln or Gen. Grant.”
But Lincoln, it seems, would not be scared away so easily.
Mary Eban, who worked for Eleanor Roosevelt, reported seeing him on his bed, pulling on his boots. Her screams apparently brought Secret Service agents running. Mrs. Roosevelt, in a 1932 talk about life in the White House, told a group in San Antonio that she felt another presence when she worked in a room where many presidents had also worked. “I get a distinct feeling that there is somebody in the room,” she said.
After Truman wrote to his wife about the knocks on his door, the president’s daughter wrote him back. Margaret Truman, in a 1986 biography of her mother, said she and her mom were skeptical of the existence of ghosts, presidential or otherwise, and she wrote her father saying so.
In his reply, he said, “I’m sure they’re here, and I’m not so much alarmed at meeting up with any of them.”
“I am sure old [Andrew Jackson] could give me good advice and probably teach me good swear words,” he wrote, according to the book. “And I’m sure old Grover Cleveland could tell me some choice remarks to make to some political leaders. … So I won’t lock my doors or bar them either if any of the old coots in the pictures out in the hall want to come out of their frames for a friendly chat.”