Walking tours explore D.C.’s darker side

Rick Massimo, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Lafayette Square, behind the White House, plays host to a typically Washington bustle of high-powered staffers and tourists circulating through the park, heading to meetings and holding impromptu photo shoots among the statues.

But two walking-tour guides in the city feel darker resonances among the monuments.

Carolyn Crouch, of Washington Walks, runs various tours of the city, including the Most Haunted Washington tour; Carol Bessette, a retired Air Force intelligence officer, leads Spies of Washington tours, one of which centers on the square as well.

Crouch calls the haunted-Washington tour “one of our more popular ones.” Bessette says her tours draw up to 20 people at a time. Both say the real appeal of a walking tour, for the audiences and the guides themselves, lies in the stories. And at two hours-plus for each tour, each guide tells dozens of fascinating tales.

“I want the American public to watch the evening news and put it in perspective,” Bessette says. Crouch calls her tour “a nice combination of an entertaining evening walking through Lafayette Park, but when you go away, you’ve actually learned something that you hadn’t known.”

Both tours stop at the east end of the park, at what is now the U.S. Court of Claims. Crouch tells of Henry Adams and the ghost of his wife, Clover, who went unmentioned in Adams’s memoirs and whose ghost would be seen in the nearby Hay-Adams House, rocking in a chair and sobbing. A copy of the Adams memorial is in the courtyard.


Carol Bessette, leader of the Spies of Washington Tours, stands outside of the White House Friday. (WTOP/Rick Massimo)

Meanwhile, Bessette talks about the attempt on the life of President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward. He was living in what is now the courthouse on the night Lincoln was killed, and he was saved from a would-be assassin’s knife by an upper-body cast he was wearing after a horse-and-carriage accident.

On the west side of the park, Crouch tells of Henry Rathbone, the Army officer who was staying at what is now 712 Jackson Place when he and his fiancee went to Ford’s Theatre with the president and Mary Todd Lincoln. Rathbone’s career and life fell apart afterward, and he eventually killed his wife in Germany and spent the rest of his life in an institution. His wife’s spirit is said to haunt the Jackson Place site, and it was considered bad luck to walk past the building for many years.

And Bessette uses the west end to tell the story of a succession of Civil War spies, including Thomas Nelson Conrad, a Confederate sympathizer who would simply sit in the park, slowly reading a newspaper and listening to the young officers heading from one headquarters to another.


Civil War spy Rose Greenhow. (Courtesy Carol Bessette)

Rose Greenhow, another spy, used sexism in her favor – on both sides, women and blacks were thought not smart enough to serve as spies – to run a ring of female spies who felt their smuggled maps and documents were safe under their hoop skirts. She was put under house arrest, which merely inspired her to employ her daughter, who would act as a courier by not-so-inadvertently leaving a doll or a ball with a document in it in the park. The elder Greenhow eventually drowned on the way back from Europe, weighed down by $2,000 in gold coins for the Confederacy.

Crouch’s tour also includes the Octagon – the building a few blocks from the square that President James Madison and First Lady Dolly Madison lived in after the White House was burned during the War of 1812, and the site of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.


Carolyn Crouch, the leader of Washington Walks and the Haunted Washington tour, explains the legends of the Tayloe family outside of the Octagon in downtown D.C. Thursday. (WTOP/Rick Massimo)

Crouch says the house was the subject of numerous ghost stories regarding the family of Col. John Tayloe, who built the house, mostly circulating around the four-story spiral staircase and any number of Tayloe daughters who supposedly plummeted from it during passionate arguments: “Sort of a succession of falling female bodies,” Crouch says with a laugh.

None of the legends are true – none of the Tayloe children died in the house – but it didn’t stop people from telling the stories about the house, which at the time, Crouch explains, was built at an eerie remove from the square, the “mover and shaker place” in Washington until the early 20th century.

Still, she says, some staffers of the American Institute of Architects, the current tenants, who don’t want to be the last person left in the building at night.

Bessette uses the Post Office Plaza to tell the story of Michael Straight, a friend and confidant of Jacqueline Kennedy who fed information to the British spy ring known as the Cambridge Five before he headed the National Endowment for the Arts, first headquartered in the Post Office building. Her tour also stops by the FBI building to discuss Robert Hanssen, who fed information to the Soviets and Russians for more than 20 years before his arrest in 2001.

Both say that Washington is a fertile setting for the stories they tell.

“There’s always been a certain amount of jockeying for power, tension, disagreements. … And a ghost is someone who is not at rest, who has had a very troubled or even violent death, and they’re not able to move on to where they need to move on to,” Crouch says.

Bessette, who says she likes to explore what could lead someone to betray their country, simply says, “I could probably be para-dropped blindfold anyplace in downtown Washington, take the blindfold off and start telling spy stories.”

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