Politics and Poltergeists: Hauntings on the Hill

White House is haunted by ghosts of politics past.

Oct. 31, 2007 — -- The nation's capital isn't just your average scary place — it's haunted, too.

From a congressional demon cat to the ghost of Abraham Lincoln living out his afterlife at the White House, the 2008 candidate who settles in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. once the election cycle is over might have more than the unfinished business of the last Congress spooking him or her after the move to Washington.

"The places that tend to be the haunted the most are the places people have the most reason to come back to," said Pamela Apkarian-Russell, author of "Washington's Haunted Past." She continued: "Passion — good passions or bad passions — that's what brings people back to places. If nothing ever happens, there is no reason for anyone to ever come back."

Apkarian-Russell, now a museum curator, says she saw Lincoln's ghost during a 1969 visit to the White House. And she's not alone in her sighting.

Decades of presidents, staffers and White House guests — believers and nonbelievers among them — recount encounters with the nation's 16th president within the White House walls.

In 2003, the White House's chief usher, Gary Walters, said he'd never seen Lincoln's ghost, but recounted an experience he deemed unexplainable.

While he was "standing at the state floor of the White House adjacent to the staircase that comes up from the ground floor . The police officers and I felt a cool rush of air pass between us and then two doors that stand open closed by themselves," Walters said, "I have never seen these doors move before without somebody specifically closing them by hand."

Lincoln Dreams His Assassination

Lincoln was known to have premonitions and believed his dreams could foretell the future, Washington Walks tour guide Renee Calarco explained during a tour of Lafayette Park, which borders the White House.

Calarco, who give a Capital Hauntings tour of the area surrounding the White House, said that early in his presidency Lincoln dreamed he was awakened by the sound of crying and followed the sounds through the White House till he came to a casket in the East Room surrounded by an honor guard of soldiers.

"Lincoln goes up to one of the soldiers and asks, 'Who is dead in the White House?' The soldier says to him, 'The assassinated president.' Lincoln said in the dream he went up, looked in the casket and saw himself," Calarco said.

Apkarian-Russell attributes Lincoln's White House whereabouts to unfinished business in the Oval Office.

"I think that he really feels that he has to help out with the country. There are people who pass on and come back because their job isn't finished. They're overseers and I think Lincoln was an overseer," she said.

Claws Come Out in Congress

If Lincoln is the White House's friendly ghost, the D.C. Demon Cat is Washington's poltergeist.

Local lore suggests that sightings of the D.C. Demon Cat in the halls of Congress are followed by a national tragedy or change in office, though sightings were not reported before Sept. 11 or the last presidential election. The D.C. Demon Cat is described as a cat with glowing eyes, increasing in size as it approaches its victim before it lunges and then vanishes.

Paw prints marking the floor in the Senate rotunda are rumored to belong to the ghost.

Those who see the cat are always alone, often night guards and security watchmen.

Hell Hath No Fury?

Former first ladies haunt the District as well.

Though Martha Washington was the nation's first lady, Abigail Adams was the first to reside in the White House at a time in American history when congressional appropriations to furnish the White House were not overflowing.

On her tour, Calarco describes an "incredibly remote" and underdeveloped District of Columbia during the time the nation's second president and his wife moved into the White House.

It was "so remote, in fact, that the Adams got lost trying to find it," she said.

Calarco describes an unfinished and "drafty" East Room where Abigail Adams hung wet laundry.

In her book, Apkarian-Russell details that the nation's second first lady "was forced to do without many necessities and luxuries were heavily curtailed. Abigail accepted her lot almost stoically."

"People to this day say they have seen the spirit of Abigail Adams walking through the closed doors to the East Room holding her arms out like she's holding laundry." Calarco said. "You know it's her because as soon as she passes through the doors you can smell the scent of soap and wet laundry."

Twice a First Lady, Forever a Ghost

The iconic Dolley Madison — who took on first lady duties for the widowed Thomas Jefferson and then again for her own husband, James Madison — is also known to make her presence known at the White House and the surrounding neighborhood in form, smell and sound.

Regaled in social circles, Dolley Madison was credited with saving Washington's portrait in the burning of the White House during the War of 1812. More than 100 years later, she reappeared to save the future Rose Garden as well.

Calarco recounted that first lady Edith Wilson, wife of President Wilson, had grown tired of a garden Madison had planted on the White House lawns. When the grounds keepers moved to dig it up "they said out of nowhere the spirit of Dolley Madison swooped out of the sky, chased them away and saved the garden from destruction."

Unexplainable sounds of music and scents of floral perfumes often manifest themselves in the White House corridor, to Calarco a sign of Madison's continued presence.

She alludes that Madison could be connected to first daughter Jenna Bush's recent comments in Texas Monthly magazine where the younger Bush twin describes her room at the White House as "filled with millions of ghosts. I get scared there sometimes. I'm not kidding. I have heard ghosts, I really have — ghosts singing opera. One night, opera noises came out of my fireplace. When I told my sister, she didn't believe me, but the next week we were up late in that bedroom and we heard 1950s piano music."

Ghosts of Washington's Future

Though D.C.'s haunts deserve a seasonally appropriate mention, they occur year-round.

For the politicos of Washington yet to come, Iowa and New Hampshire could be a walk in the park compared to canvassing the landscape beyond the grave.

Apkarian-Russell offers some advice -- beyond the standard "confront the ghost" -- when dealing with a capital city haunted by politics past. "We have not spent much time trying to learn from those who passed on," she said.

She suggests "common sense and common courtesy" as two qualities to keep in mind when dealing with political predecessors.

Said Apkarian-Russell, "If you meet with a ghost, you have to react with [it] one on one, it's no different than meeting a person."