Ghostly Tales and Spirited Stories from the White House
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White House Ghost Stories
"I sit here in this old house," President Harry Truman wrote to his wife, Bess, after his 1945 inauguration, "...listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway..." A friend of Abraham Lincoln's swore the 16th President said he dreamed of seeing a coffin in the White House, just days before his assassination. We can't say what's real, and what's a ghost story. We can only explore the chilling mysteries of the Presidents, First Ladies and their families.
No White House ghost is seen more often than Lincoln's. President Calvin Coolidge's wife was the first to encounter him, in the 1920s. Since then, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson have said they sensed his presence. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill probably had the biggest scare. After overnighting in the White House, he reportedly emerged from his bath with nothing a cigar -- and found Lincoln standing in his bedroom.
Seances and Spirit Circles
After one of her young sons died in an 1853 train wreck, First Lady Jane Pierce held a seance in the White House to summon him back. Mary Todd Lincoln was traumatized after her 11-year-old, Willie, died, and she, too, held seances and spirit circles. Later, Mary claimed Willie's ghost visited her room.
Young Willie Lincoln's ghost didn't rest after his mother summoned it. Members of Ulysses S. Grant's staff claimed to have run into him several times during the 1870s, and Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter, Lynda Johnson Robb, allegedly saw his specter in the White House room where he died.
Harry Truman, Reluctant Witness?
Harry Truman would never admit to personally seeing a ghost during his administration, but some stories say both he and his wife heard the pain-wracked cries of the late Frances Cleveland, the only First Lady to give birth in the White House. Truman later wrote that the White House was "haunted, sure as shootin'," and believed the ghosts of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincolnd still lurked within its walls.
Fearful gardeners refused to dig up the White House Rose Garden after First Lady Ellen Wilson ordered them to do so. It had been installed by a previous first lady, Dolley Madison, and they said her angry ghost blocked their way. Over the years, others have smelled unseen roses in White House rooms. Dolley, it seems, still guards her garden.
The country's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, answered to the nickname "Old Hickory." Perhaps he did a lot of swearing, because the family parrot had to be taken away when it started spewing obscenities during his funeral service. Even death didn't stifle Jackson's tongue. Mary Todd Lincoln occasionally heard his ghost cursing in his former bedroom.
Not all first ladies left household chores to the staff. Abigail Adams often did her own laundry, hanging it to dry in the East Room. President Taft was startled once to see her ghost float through a door on the second floor of the White House, and members of his staff claimed to smell her favorite lavender laundry soap. Mrs. Adams is the oldest spirit to haunt the premises; her husband, John, served as president from 1797 to 1801.
William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison was the first U.S. president to die in office, succumbing to pneumonia after serving just one month. Now he's said to haunt the White House attic, where he's heard rummaging around. No one knows what he's looking for, and his ghost either refuses to leave or just can't. Legend says Harrison was cursed after Army troops under his command killed Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, in the War of 1812.
Mary Todd Lincoln holds the record for spotting spirits. In addition to claiming to see the ghosts of her son, Willie, and another Lincoln son who died young, plus hearing President Andrew Jackson swear and stomp about, she also claimed to hear Thomas Jefferson playing his violin in the Yellow Oval Room. Visitors to Jefferson's home at Monticello say he shows up there, too, often whistling as he strolls the grounds.
Maureen Reagan's Ghostly Encounters
First ladies aren't the only ones who've encountered Lincoln's ghost. President Ronald Reagan's daughter, Maureen, and her husband apparently saw the late president more than once, when they stayed overnight in the White House. Maureen's husband said he awoke to find Lincoln staring out the bedroom window. He could see the trees on the lawn beyond, he added -- right through the transparent figure.
Jenna Bush's Aural Encounters
A haunting melody woke First Daughter Jenna Bush one night while her father, George W. Bush, was in office. "I heard a ghost," she later told TV talk show host Jay Leno. "I was asleep, there was a fireplace in my room and all of a sudden I heard 1920s music coming out." The spectral DJ turned out to have eclectic tastes. A week later, she reported she and her sister had fallen asleep in the same room, only to awaken to opera music drifting out of the same fireplace.