Haunted DC: Georgetown’s phantoms

As the stories go, almost a dozen specters haunt Old Stone House, including a violent one named George. Then there's the Halcyon House and the M Street Bridge. But are there any actual hauntings in Georgetown? Maybe. WTOP's Will Vitka headed out to several spooky sites to find out.

WASHINGTON — I have remained a vocal skeptic of ghost hunting. I say that with reason: I grew up Irish Catholic, on a steady diet of horror movies, and “The Exorcist” remains probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never seen or heard anything that I couldn’t explain.

At least, not until recently.

Something happened while my wife, Reem, and I were out patrolling supposedly haunted locales in Georgetown. Our first trip was overnight Oct. 11. Our second trip, a return to the Old Stone House in the predawn hours of Oct. 16, is when it got funky. And we’ll get to that.

But let’s start with the first house in our adventure.

Halcyon House

Halcyon House has an intensely bizarre history.

Halcyon House site plan. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The Georgetown mansion was originally built in 1787 by Benjamin Stoddert. Stoddert was born in 1751 in Charles County, Maryland, and served as the first Secretary of the Navy. Its gardens were designed by Pierre L’Enfant, a name most Washingtonians should be familiar with.

Stoddert himself acted as George Washington’s confidential agent when it came to establishing the boundaries of the District. He was also one of the 19 “original proprietors” who signed the agreement for the 10-mile square of land that created D.C., according to a Historic American Buildings Survey.

He wanted the massive manse constructed “after the manner of some of the elegant homes I have seen in Philadelphia,” Stoddert is quoted as saying in the same survey.

Halcyon House first floor plan. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

At the time, it was the only developed lot on the hill, and it quickly became a popular place for local politicians and socialites, including Dolley Madison.

The good times did not continue for Stoddert, however.

His wife, Rebecca Lowndes, died shortly after 1800 and Stoddert’s financial situation grew grim.

In 1801, Stoddert mortgaged the house, lost it and retired to his estate, where he died in 1813.

Records show that the property changed hands repeatedly over the next 100 years. Eventually, the property was sold to Albert Adsit Clemens in 1900 for $7,500.

Halcyon House before Albert Clemons’ bizarre alterations. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Fact time!

Despite the rumors, Clemens was not Samuel Clemens’ (aka Mark Twain’s) nephew.

That said, Clemens was still a strange duck.

A known eccentric, he was convinced he wouldn’t die as long as he kept adding to Halcyon House. And he spent the next 40 years doing so.

He “enlarged the structure substantially and disfigured the north front and side wings with an amazing assemblage of architectural details from demolished buildings,” a National Park Service report said.

During Clemens’ bizarre construction efforts, after he had added apartments to Halcyon House, he put up a sign that allegedly read:

“Apartments for rent. No children, no dogs, no electricity permitted. Apartments furnished in beautiful antiques.”

Halcyon House in 1968 during a NPS survey. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

People got curious about how an oddball like Clemens was able to afford four decades’ worth of construction. Those questions went public after his death in 1938.

An article from the Washington Times-Herald wrote that Clemens “had plenty of money reportedly provided by his wife (Elizabeth White, daughter of Senator White of New Hampshire) on condition that he stay away from her.”

According to city directories, Halcyon House sat vacant for four years following Clemens’ death until it was bought by Dorothy W. Sterling, wife of Frederick Sterling, the former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, in 1942.

The couple moved in, started renovating, rented out the apartments and explored the “weird geography” of their new home.

One expedition left Frederick Sterling lost in his own home after following an unexpected visitor down dark passageways that opened onto 34th Street.

And Dorothy Sterling told the Times-Herald in 1943 that:

“There are dozens of tiny rooms — some of them hardly large enough for a table or chair. There are staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open on blank walls and closets that open on other closets.”

Well, that’s very interesting and all, but who haunts the place?

People say they’ve seen and heard Benjamin Stoddert throughout Halcyon House and the property grounds. Albert Clemens could also be lurking.

Some have claimed to see a ghostly woman in an upstairs window as well.

Headless man on K Street Bridge

Legend has it that an unidentified headless man haunts the K Street Bridge on the Georgetown side. But it seems to be a tall tale and nothing more.

The story appears to have originated in Hugh Taggert’s 1908 journal article “Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. Vol. 11.

Taggert says he has no idea what caused the guy’s appearance and even jokes that the alleged spirit must be pretty chill since it hasn’t ever tried to take someone else’s head, unlike Washington Irving’s headless horseman:

“What caused the appearance of the headless man of K Street bridge I have not heard, and whether his forbearance has been due to a moral perception of the impropriety of taking what did not belong to him, or of the inutility to a spook of such an appendage as the head, it seems that he has never made an effort to supply himself with that article at the expense of any of those who have had occasion to pass that locality. The only losses of heads which he has been known to have caused have been of a purely figurative character.”

Ghost stagecoach and drummer boy of M Street Bridge

The original wooden bridge over Rock Creek was built in 1788. Tragically for one stagecoach driver and his horse, the bridge was not sturdy enough to withstand the onslaught of raging wind and rain.

It collapsed, taking with it the stagecoach driver and his horse, who drowned.

Accounts differ on whether the stagecoach had passengers.

It wasn’t the first such drowning for that area of Rock Creek. During the Revolutionary War, a young drummer boy drowned trying to cross the waters on his way to muster in Virginia.

Both have been said to haunt the M Street Bridge on stormy nights.

People have claimed to see the stagecoach race toward the bridge from the Georgetown side only to disappear when it hits the new span.

Others say they’ve heard drumming near the spot where the boy drowned.

Ghost Suite at the Omni Shoreham

We also wanted to check out the Omni Shoreham Hotel and its much-touted “Ghost Suite.” Alas, that was not meant to be, but since its creator was a Georgetown grad, it felt fitting to squeeze this in here.

The Shoreham is said to be haunted by both the housekeeper of wealthy businessman Henry Doherty — Juliette Brown allegedly died calling for help from an illness — and the Dohertys’ adopted daughter, Helen, who died of unknown circumstances — rumored to be a drug overdose or suicide.

Sometime after Omni bought the hotel in the 1980s and renovated, turning the Dohertys’ apartment into Suite 870, stuff got weird.

Guests in rooms adjacent to the apartment would call the front desk in the middle of the night to complain about doors slamming, voices, vacuuming, lights and TVs going on and off.

Housekeepers have said their carts move on their own.

Prime time for this paranormal activity was always around 4 a.m., when Brown allegedly died.

Helen also supposedly haunts the halls of the Shoreham.

Omni decided, after promising initial conversations, they weren’t keen on a reporter being in the Ghost Suite.

Bob Yienger, director of sales and marketing, told me this in an email:

“As a matter of policy, the accommodation about which have inquired [sic] is not available for use to the public. Additionally, such a feature as you are suggesting is not part of our current public relations strategy and plan.”

Unwelcome at Old Stone House

Before I tell you what happened when we visited Old Stone House, I will say up front that I have no desire to visit there again. I will, I’m sure, out of stupidity and curiosity, but I’ve seen enough horror movies to know when to stay away from a creepy location.

Old Stone House during a post-1933 National Park Service Survey. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Most of the information on the hauntings at Old Stone House — there are 11 individual spirits alleged to have taken up residence between the rock walls — is legend and hearsay. Whispers based on whispers based on whispers with little or no sourcing.

Old Stone House is also exceptionally old. It was first erected in 1765, according to the National Park Service. It is the oldest structure in the District on its original foundation.

The white wood attached structure shown in this Library of Congress photo is no longer part of Old Stone House. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

There were owners of the property before that, though. A Historic American Buildings Survey from 1936 states that a John Boone owned the land in 1757. Then came Christopher Leyhman (referred to elsewhere as “Layman”) and Cassandra Chew.

One tidbit about the building that does have some entertaining — albeit somewhat confusing — historical backing is that original efforts to preserve Old Stone House were taken because locals screwed up and mistook the building as George Washington’s headquarters during the 1791 survey to outline D.C.

Old Stone House served as a private residential and commercial property (in the 1930s, it was allegedly a bordello; then it was a car dealership) until the federal government bought it in 1953.

In his book, “Haunted Places: The National Directory” (you can rent a copy from Archive.org), Dennis Hauck identifies the following phantoms as seemingly permanent residents:

  • A woman in a 1700s-style dress near the fireplace.
  • A young woman with rings in her hair running up and down the staircase.
  • A woman in antebellum clothing on the stairs and in the kitchen.
  • A man in short pants and long stockings in the kitchen.
  • A man with long blond hair near a front-room window.
  • A young boy named Joey in the third-floor hallway.
  • A young black boy in the third-floor hallway.
  • A carpenter thought to be Christopher Leyhman/Layman.
  • A colonial-era man in the master bedroom.
  • Another colonial-era man on the second floor.
  • And then there’s George …

George is said to be one of the few truly malevolent specters in the District. He despises women and haunts the third-floor bedroom. He has been accused of shoving, choking, knifing and sexually assaulting women who enter his room.

Something at the Old Stone House just feels … wrong.

My wife and I visited Old Stone House twice. The first time was overnight Oct. 11.

Old Stone House has a foreboding presence. For my wife and me, there was something ominous about it. Like we shouldn’t be there and certainly weren’t welcome.

The faint glow from upstairs work lights permeated the whole place. At one point, on the first floor, toward the back, I thought I saw something move — but I freely admit it could have been a case of the jitters.

We meandered around the property for a while, taking photos and talking, trying to determine where the various sources of light were coming from.

After we went home, I couldn’t get the place out of my head. I just kept thinking about it.

We resolved to go back to see if we missed something or if I was just being obsessive.

The feeling of unease did not abate the second time we went back, in the predawn hours of Oct. 16, around 4:30 a.m.

We took more photos, did some more talking. Then, mostly satisfied that I had done my due diligence, we headed back to Columbia Heights.

I did eventually feel better and less like I had something stuck in my subconscious.

That changed the next day when I went back to listen to what we had recorded…and this is the part I can’t explain. There is a “voice” or grunt or something on tape that is neither myself nor my wife.

It sounds like a man something like “No” (my brother thought he heard “so”) between a brief pause where I was debating what could be causing light to appear on the first floor of the otherwise-pitch black Old Stone House.

But, I’ll let you be judge. Do you hear it too or have I gone completely mad? The “voice” can be heard just shy of 9 seconds into the tape. It’s very faint.

Old Stone House clip from 10.16.18 about 4:30 a.m.

WTOP/Will Vitka | 10/16/18

Download audio

For maximum creepiness, a colleague of mine initially thought there were four people on tape: me, my wife and two others.

My wife and I were alone.

Another colleague listened to the segment in question and said, “What the f— is that?” referring to the voice.

Everyone seems to hear something a little different, so I’m providing the full audio in an effort to be completely upfront. Below is the full, unclipped audio from our time at Old Stone House in .mp3 format.

I’m not claiming to have caught a ghost on tape or even to have witnessed anything. But the recording is there.

For reference, my audio recorder was in a holster on my rucksack, about six inches from my mouth, secured in a way to make sure nothing rubbed against its dual (left, right) microphones.

So are the other hauntings true?

Halcyon House: I can say that my wife and I saw nothing weird or unsettling while we explored the area around Halcyon House, nor did we see any creepy characters in the windows. The scariest thing on that block was college kids coming back from having too much fun at nearby bars.

M Street Bridge: My wife and I went to the bridge on a dark and stormy night fabled to be when the apparitions appear. We saw no stagecoach, no driver and no spectral horse. Nor did we hear any faint drumming of a young ectoplasmic boy.

K Street Bridge: Nah. Nothing to see that night, other than people taking refuge in a small tent city nearby.

Omni Shoreham Hotel: Let us spend the night there, Yienger, and we shall see.

I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

Map of alleged D.C. hauntings

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