Washington hauntingly hard to leave
By Mark Stewart
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Carolyn Crouch won't say she believes in ghosts, but she can't say she doesn't believe in them, either. Sometimes she just has to wonder.
For several years, she has been leading weekly Capital Hauntings tours of Lafayette Square for Washington Walks, a company that provides guided walking tours of famous areas in the District. She talks about the buildings and office structures in Lafayette Square and the various ghost stories and legends that have grown up around them.
She says she has never seen or heard a ghost on any of her tours, but every so often, she runs into somebody, such as a former worker at the Dolley Madison House in Lafayette Square, who claims to have encountered one.
"I was doing an interview last year with Channel 7, and I was standing in front of the Madison House," she says. "A gentleman observed the reporter talking to me, and he said, 'I work in that building. I know about ghosts in that building.'
"He said that he had been in the house working on the electrical system one time, and he suddenly heard a piano begin to play, and there was no piano in the house. He got out and told his boss he wasn't going to work in there anymore by himself."
So are there really ghosts in Washington? Ms. Crouch will only say she's "open" to the idea. If they exist, she would like to meet one.
If they do, she seems to be in the right place. As far back as 1891, the old Washington Star proclaimed Washington "the greatest town for ghosts in this country." Washington Walks says no other place in Washington has such a mysterious and macabre history as Lafayette Square.
Washington isn't the only place around the area to find ghost stories. Gettysburg, Pa.; Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; and Old Town Alexandria all offer "ghost tours" almost year-round. But what is it about the District, especially Lafayette Square, that seems to bring out the most (and best) ghost stories?
Ms. Crouch thinks it's the combination of power and intrigue that has always surrounded Lafayette Square.
"Here's where you have had all the powerful and egotistical people in the country, all living in a seven-acre area," she says. "They're all bumping into each other. So naturally, when conflicts happen, people know about it. It's odd that such a number of bad things have happened here over the years assassination attempts, murders, suicides."
John Alexander, a former journalist and video producer who has written and updated "Ghosts! Washington Revisited: The Ghostlore of the Nation's Capital" (Schiffer Books, $14.95 softcover), says he thinks many of the ghost stories in Washington started as a means of "social control," to keep blacks from settling in the city.
He read about that theory in a book called "Night Riders in Black Folk History" (University of Tennessee Press, 1985, $20) by University of Maryland historian and professor Gladys-Marie Fry and found evidence for it when he started researching his own book.
"After the liberation of slavery in the South, a lot of blacks moved into the Washington, D.C., area, and in an effort to keep blacks in their place, stories would be told," says Mr. Alexander, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
"I looked at some of the areas that ghost stories were being told and what year it was when they tended to start, and you could very easily see the reason some stories started circulating in the Washington area."
Nevertheless, Mr. Alexander admits, ghost stories intrigue him.
"I found out ghosts can be good for business," he says with a laugh, tracing how a simple Halloween radio show he put together years ago for WMAL-AM turned into his book.
"My sole interest in the book was good storytelling," he says. "I've always loved a good story, and I love storytelling."
He devoted an entire chapter in his book to Lafayette Square, including a section on the Stephen Decatur House on Jackson Place, the former home of one of America's early naval heroes.
Decatur was killed in a duel in Bladensburg in 1820 and reportedly spent the night before his death staring out of a second-floor window in the house. After his death, stories began to spring up about people seeing his ghost at that same window.
Several windows in the house are bricked in, and stories began that owners of the house had filled them in to prevent Decatur's ghost from returning to his old haunts. Historians at the Decatur House, now run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, say the windows actually were bricked in by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to create a sense of symmetry on the H Street side.
That hasn't stopped the Decatur House from taking advantage of the legends. It even makes available a brochure for visitors titled "Is This House Haunted?" The brochure discusses some of the stories that have blossomed over the years.
Carla Jones, Decatur House's marketing director, says some people on the staff swear they have heard and seen strange things at the house.
"It's interesting, let's say that," says Ms. Jones, who says she personally hasn't seen or heard anything unusual.
Though Mr. Alexander says most of the ghost stories in Washington have rational explanations, Al Tyas isn't convinced. Mr. Tyas, founder and director of DC Metro Area Ghost Watchers (www.dchauntings.com), a group that investigates and documents paranormal activity around the city, says he has had plenty of experiences with unexplained sounds just while doing research at the Library of Congress.
"I've been walking through the tunnels there and heard yelling behind me, but nobody was there," he says. "Things like that have happened a lot. You see things out of the corner of your eye, but you turn the corner, and there's nothing there."
He has talked with plenty of Capitol Police officers and heard plenty of stories involving the Capitol building. Some stories about the Capitol he dismisses out of hand, like the one about the statues in Statutory Hall coming alive at night and dancing and the one about "Demon Cat," a cat that appears whenever a national tragedy or calamity is about to occur. Some stories, though, he has a hard time disbelieving.
"Cops there tell very similar stories, and they are very reliable people, I've found," he says. "Some of it you can say, well, they were tired and it was the middle of the night, and who knows what they really saw or experienced? But I don't think you can dismiss all of it."
In the District, the three most popular areas for ghosts and ghost stories are the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court building, and obviously those buildings are pretty much off-limits to the public at night. For true believers in ghosts, there still are plenty of places to look.
Washington Walks holds weekly hauntings tours of Lafayette Square, which start at 7:30 Friday nights from the McPherson Square Metro station. The tour includes Decatur House; St. John's Church, where the ghosts of six famous Americans nobody is sure who they are are said to sit in the front pew to pay their respects when a famous American dies; and the Dolley Madison House.
Incidentally, Mr. Tyas says Dolley Madison's ghost, unlike the ghosts of many other famous Americans in the District, still seems fairly active. She reportedly has been spotted around the White House (where one story has her ghost yelling at gardeners who were ordered to dig up a rose garden on the White House lawn that she planted); at the Octagon House on 18th Street and New York Avenue NW; and at Montpelier, the former estate of the Madisons in Orange County, Va.
"Very rarely do you hear stories that are brand-new, but I'm starting to hear stories out of Montpelier, where they're doing some renovation work," Mr. Tyas says. "There are some strange things going on down there, apparently."
Other interesting ghost stories involve the Halcyon House in Northwest, where the ghosts of two former owners one of them Benjamin Stoddert, the first secretary of the Navy, apparently have been visitors over the years.
Current owner and property manager Wendy Charles says she has lived there for 19 years and hasn't seen or heard anything unusual. "I don't have any ghost stories to tell," she says. "People out in the street will stop occasionally, like they're saying, 'Is this the place?' but I haven't noticed anything unusual."
Finally, there's the Indonesian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Mr. Tyas says he has heard stories that the embassy is haunted by the ghost of Evelyn Walsh McLean, a former owner of the Hope Diamond who suffered a series of freak tragedies while in possession of it. She lived in a mansion where the embassy is now and, according to Mr. Tyas, posed for a nude statue that stands in the embassy lobby.
Mr. Tyas says he has heard stories of her ghost appearing totally nude on the stairways in the lobby.
"I know people who have done renovation work there who said they've grown to accept her and know her and love her," he says with a laugh. "Of course they would say that. Who wouldn't?"