It’s the perfect time of year to swap ghost stories, whether you believe them or not. But too many people seem to have too many stories about things that went *bump* — or even more — in the night at America’s most famous home: the White House.
“That’s absolutely true,” said Colleen Shogan, senior vice president at the White House Historical Association and the director of the Rubenstein Center for White House History. “There’s a lot of ghost stories over the years that are attached to the White House.”
She said about 10-12 ghosts are thought to haunt the White House. Some of them appear, or are felt, on a more regular basis, while some only come around at certain times of the year.
The most famous ghost said to be haunting the premises is President Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln reported seeing and hearing the ghost of President Andrew Jackson when she lived in the White House.
But it’s not just dead presidents that are reported there.
Some people have reported seeing the ghost of a British soldier who died while burning down the White House during the War of 1812.
Legend has it that on July 6, you might see the ghost of Anna Surratt, who first showed up to the White House on that day in 1865, hoping to plead for her mother’s life. She would be denied entry and prevented from seeing President Andrew Johnson, and her mother would hang as part of the conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination.
Former first ladies, from Dolley Madison to Ellen Wilson, are also reportedly haunting the White House.
But how many of the stories are true?
“Most ghost stories are rooted in historical fact,” Shogan said. “Anna Surratt did go to the White House and ask for clemency for her mother. And we do know Abraham Lincoln left unfinished business because of his assassination.”
Some reports come up with tougher explanations.
“There’s also the ghost of a teenage boy, either 13 or 14 years old, that made some appearances during the administration of President (William Howard) Taft,” Shogan said.
“He was called by some of the people who worked in the White House as ‘The Thing.’ He would actually come up from behind you and look over your shoulder. You would feel his presence over your shoulder. He was not attached to any presidential administration, but actually President Taft was so angry about so many members of the staff reporting incidents of experiencing ‘The Thing’ that he told his staff if anybody mentioned it again, he would fire the person.”
Perhaps more interestingly, while U.S. society as a whole tends to be less superstitious and less accepting of ghosts, the stories keep coming.
President Ronald Reagan reported that his dog, Rex, would not go in the Lincoln Bedroom. “Rex would go into all the other rooms in the White House, very happily, but would stand outside the Lincoln Bedroom and bark,” Shogan said.
And she said that when Reagan’s daughter and son-in-law spent a night in the bedroom, “they reported the next day that they certainly felt and experienced the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.”
More recent stories involve the children of President George W. Bush. Shogan said Jenna Bush once told a story about how she and her sister Barbara “reported having a very spooky 1920s piano music coming out of the fireplace in their bedroom one night that scared them.”
Shogan has a story she said was told by former first lady Michelle Obama, too.
One night “they felt like they heard voices in their bedroom. They felt the presence of a ghost; they actually left their bedroom and went outside in a hallway to investigate,” Shogan said. “And Mrs. Obama also said members of her family reported feeling that there was a presence of a ghost or a spirit that would gnaw at their feet at night when they were relaxing inside the residence of the White House.”
She said other stories have come from former Secret Service members and White House residence staff. “Historically, members of the White House household staff have been actually a lot of the individuals who have perpetuated these ghost stories over time,” Shogan said.
You can learn more about the haunting of the White House at the WHHA site, and there are special ghost stories tailored to kids at the White House Experience app that’s available for Apple and Android phones.
Here’s WTOP’s guide on where to have Halloween fun in the D.C. area.