Want a good Halloween story? Talk to history buff Natalie Zanin. She knows the ghosts who haunt the White House.
Zanin, director of “The Ghost Story Tour of Washington,” said ghosts roam the nation’s capital frequently and freely – particularly around the White House – and she’s there to share their stories.
Dressed as Dolly Madison’s ghost and speaking in Old English, each year around Halloween she leads several groups through D.C. to point out which areas are haunted.
The tour, which lasts a little over an hour, starts outside the McPherson Square Metro station. From there, Zanin leads the group toward the White House.
Lafayette Square Park is “the most haunted square in Washington,” Zanin said. St. John’s church, near the White House, is said to be haunted by the ghosts of former Secretary of State Daniel Webster and United Kingdom Privy Counsellor Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, who signed a treaty settling where the border is between the U.S. and Canada. Zanin said their ghosts have been heard arguing about the Canadian border, and they walk along every building surrounding the White House.
On the tour, the stories are illustrated by interacting with “spirits” – two actors Zanin hired to pop up every few minutes to tell their character’s stories, and why they still wander the streets of D.C.
In Lafayette Square Park, actor Brandon Mitchell was dressed up as the ghost of Philip Barton Key, a U.S. attorney in D.C. who was murdered by a congressman for having an affair with his wife, waving his handkerchief and crying over the woman he lost. Poet Edgar Allen Poe is also known to haunt that square, and has been spotted drunkenly walking there, Zanin said.
And Zanin is adamant that none of these stories are made up. Since 2001, she has been researching old newspapers at the Martin Luther King library. She has also been asking people who work around the areas she highlights for their own encounters with ghosts, to find out the exact spots on the street where historic figures have died, as well as who is still haunting the buildings and Lafayette Square Park to this day.
In fact, she has done so much research, she said, that housekeepers, policemen and several other people have started calling her anonymously to tell her about their own experiences with ghosts.
Zanin said she is a strong believer in spirits and ghouls, and every once in a while she runs into one herself.
“I was doing research for a Civil War tour at Ford’s Theater, and when I went behind an alley to explore, I spotted a man in a Civil War costume,” she said. “When I went back into the theater I asked around about him and nobody knew who he was. They weren’t even performing that night, nor were they performing anything having to do with the Civil War any other night.”
Zanin also used to work at the D.C. Historical Society and told ghost tales to children. She said while working there, every time she would turn the lights off at the end of the day, they would turn back on again, and every time she tried to move a piece of furniture, as soon as she left the room the furniture would pop right back into place.
“I don’t find the ghosts to be threatening as much as they are irritating,” she said. “I began to ask them for permission every time I wanted to move something, and then they didn’t bother me anymore.”
A few of her tours have been haunted by ghosts as well, she said. One time even the ghost of Abraham Lincoln showed up.
Zanin said some of the people on the tour spotted him in the crowd before he disappeared into the night. On another tour, every time she mentioned a certain ghost’s name, a streetlight would turn on and off.
But the tales told on this tour – of murder, scandal and even forbidden love – are all intriguing, even if you don’t believe in ghosts at all.
One of her most fascinating stories she tells is of Anna Surratt, who she said still bangs on the gates in front of the White House every night. In 1865 Anna’s mother Mary Surratt was convicted of conspiracy for the murder and kidnapping of Abraham Lincoln.
On the tour, one of the actors dressed as Anna was weeping and pleading, begging the tourists to lead her to President Johnson, whom she claimed would help her mother. He never came to the door, and Mary Surratt became the first woman ever to be executed by the U.S. government.
And even for tourists who have phasmophobia – the phobia of ghosts – they shouldn’t fret because this tour is no Saw 3, but it definitely keeps the crowd laughing.
Zanin uses silly and unexpected jokes to keep her tourists entertained.
“And here on this spot I encountered the most terrifying sight I have ever seen. (Actor) Rob Lowe without make-up,” she said in one of her tours this weekend.
And on Saturday, Zanin did keep her tourists entertained. A few of them said that they were pleasantly surprised by the ghost tour and loved every minute of it.
One of the tourists said, “You start these tours thinking to yourself that you’re going hear a bunch of stories intended for little kids, but as soon as it’s done, you walk out thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to tell some of these stories to my friends and family.'”