Something strange in your neighborhood: D.C. has plenty of haunted hotspots

In a city full of memorials, D.C. certainly pays attention to the dead. And some say that the dead pay attention to D.C.

“D.C. is a good candidate to have a lot of haunted places,” said Lawana Holland, historian and folklorist at the D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers (see story “The Ghost Trackers,”).

Get ready to separate the real ghost stories from the urban legends. Here are a few of the area’s talked-about haunted hotspots.

Omni Shoreham Hotel
2500 Calvert St. N.W.

For $1,500 a night, guests can stay in the Omni Shoreham’s infamous “ghost suite.”

The ghost suite has been the site of two mysterious deaths, said David Gerdes, Omni Shoreham’s director of marketing. The hotel’s executive housekeeper, Juilette Brown, died unexpectedly in the room in 1930. Shortly after, the hotel owner’s adopted daughter, Helen, died mysteriously in the same suite.

Legend has it that the two spirits haunt the suite, and if the room is occupied and left unclean for a day or two, the spirits will appear to tidy up, Gerdes said.

Last year, one concerned guest called the concierge desk after he awoke to find his luggage moved from one corner of the suite to another even though his door was locked all night, Gerdes said. The guest was unaware of the suite’s history and reputation.

Other guests have complained of hearing noises from the suite, seeing lights mysteriously flicker at odd hours and seeing the television turn on by itself, Gerdes said.

Even with some spooked guests, the ghost suite is one of the most popular rooms at the Omni Shoreham, Gerdes said.

“They’re friendly spirits, nothing sinister,” he said.

Decatur House
1610 H St. N.W.

One of the oldest surviving homes in Washington, D.C., the house was built in 1818 for Stephen Decatur, a naval hero recognized for serving in the War of 1812 and the Barbary wars.

Fourteen months after moving into the house, Decatur was shot in a duel by Commodore James Barron, and died soon after in his home, said the museum’s communications director Carla Jones.

Museum employees have reported seeing a figure standing near the windows and leaving through the building’s back door in the early morning, Jones said. Some people believe this figure is the ghost of Decatur running off to his duel.

Long-time staff members have also reported hearing voices and footsteps and seeing shadows, Jones said.

The Decatur House recently invited the DCMAG to investigate the rumors. Using motion detectors and video cameras, the ghost hunters recorded some abnormalities and “definitely think (the house) is haunted,” Jones said.

“They detected a ‘heaviness,’ but nothing malicious,” Jones added.

Nonetheless, some museum employees have been frightened by the house’s sad spirit. During an exhibit of historical documents last year, the museum hired 24-hour security, and the guards reported hearing people going up and down the stairs after the museum had closed, Jones said.

“One guard almost quit because she heard so much noise,” Jones said.

Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel
1401 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

The Willard is a Washington legacy, but not because of its alleged political poltergeists.

One of the earliest developed sites in D.C., the Willard was built in 1818 and became a popular meeting place in Washington.

“It was known as ‘the little White House,'” said bar manager Jim Hughes, who has worked at the Willard for nearly 20 years.

The most famous spirit rumored to haunt the Willard is President Ulysses S. Grant, who would often smoke his favorite Cuban cigars in the hotel, Hughes said. Grant became such a fixture at the hotel, that people seeking his support on political matters would often approach him in the hotel’s lobby while he was smoking. It is here that Grant coined the term “lobbyists.”

To this day, workers at the hotel have reported smelling cigar smoke in certain areas, particularly late at night, Hughes said.

Another spirit believed to haunt the Willard is that of first lady Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce, Hughes said. The Pierces’ 11-year-old son was killed in a train accident in Baltimore as the family headed down to Washington for the inauguration. First lady Pierce stayed in the Willard for part of her mourning period and is rumored to have actually died at the Willard four years later due to “melancholia,” Hughes said.

In actuality, the first lady passed away 10 years after the accident in Andover, Mass., but her spirit is still said to wander the halls of the Willard.

“Buildings have kind of a soul of their own and it comes from the people who inhabited them,” Hughes said.

National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

D.C.’s popular theater is known for more than its Shakespearean plays. The current building, built on the original foundation of the 1835 theater that burnt to the ground, is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of 19th century actor John McCullough.

Legend has it that McCullough was shot and killed by another actor while washing his clothes in the Tiber Creek, which then flowed through the theater’s basement, corporate administrator John Loomis said. McCullough’s body is rumored to be buried underneath the theater’s stage, Loomis added.

McCullogh’s ghost, described as a “benevolent spirit,” is typically seen backstage before each opening night, Loomis said.

“He checks out the stage and then disappears,” he said.

Loomis said he was skeptical of the rumors until he had an “eerie experience” last summer. Working late one night, Loomis saw a fuzzy image out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a black orb-shaped object in his doorway. The orb headed down the hallway toward the theater’s balcony and the doors swung closed behind it, Loomis said.

Employees working at the theater’s box office have reported seeing a similar image, Loomis added.

Despite the sightings, Loomis said no audience members or employees have ever complained about hauntings. The theater has no plans to bring in ghost hunters to confirm a supernatural presence, he added.

“We wouldn’t want to disturb Mr. McCullough,” Loomis said. “We’re happy to know we have someone watching over us.”

Octagon Museum
1799 New York Ave. N.W.

Carolyn Crouch, founder of Washington Walks, a tour group that gives “ghost tours” of the Capitol, described the museum as the “most haunted house in D.C.”

Built between 1799 and 1801 for Col. John Tayloe III, the six-sided house served as a home to President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, for nearly a year after the White House was damaged in a fire in 1814. The Madisons rented out the building for $500 a month, museum director Sherry Bark said.

Legend has it that former first lady Dolley Madison, who held several parties at the Octagon, still haunts the building, now owned by the American Architectural Foundation.

Some visitors have reported smelling lilac perfume, which the first lady is known to have worn, Bark said. Other people have reported hearing voices in the building, she added.

“I can’t refute their experiences,” said Bark, who has not had any personal encounters with the alleged ghosts. “Different people have different levels of sense perceptions.”

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W

President Abraham Lincoln, who also allegedly haunts Ford’s Theater where he was assassinated, is one of the main spirits said to still roam the corridors of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Sightings of the former president are so common that the White House has posted several staff stories on its Web site.

White House operations foreman Tony Savoy once spotted Lincoln sitting outside his office wearing a grey pinstriped suit.

“When I blinked he was gone,” said Savoy in a video clip on the site.

Aside from Lincoln, first ladies Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison are said to haunt the White House.

Legend has it that first lady Madison appeared during the Wilson administration to prevent Mrs. Wilson from digging up the rose garden, Chief Usher Gary Walters wrote on the White House Web site.

Despite the sightings and the rumors, the haunting has not been significant problem for White House staff.

“Presidents aren’t scared of ghosts,” Walters wrote.

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