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5 famous White House ghosts

Do you believe in ghosts? If you do, you have something in common with 46% of Americans — not to mention several Presidents. Harry Truman, Abraham Lincoln, and even Winston Churchill are among the world leaders who may or may not have had supernatural experiences at the White House, which was first built starting in 1792 and rebuilt in 1817 after the British burned it during the War of 1812. The White House has been called“the country’s most famous haunted house,” and with good reason — some even count a former POTUS among the supposed spirits in residence. Here are a few of the most famous ghosts rumored to haunt the Executive Mansion.

First Lady, first ghost

John Adams was the first President to live in the White House after its completion at the turn of the 19th century, making his wife, Abigail Adams, the first First Lady to reside there. According to some, she still does. Because the newly completed East Room was the warmest and driest in the building, Abigail used to hang her wash there. Many have reported seeing her in or near the East Room in the two centuries since, often with her arms outstretched as though still carrying laundry — not the most menacing activity, perhaps, but surely quite the shock when you’re in the middle of a walk-and-talk.

A rather ghostly Rose Garden

Abigail Adams isn’t the only First Lady who’s said to have taken up permanent residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Dolley Madison, who spent eight years there while her husband James served as President from 1809 to 1817, helped define the role of a presidential spouse and served as a model for future First Ladies. It would appear she was also quite protective of the Rose Garden. When two landscapers were tasked with moving the famous garden a century later at the behest of First Lady Edith Wilson, they apparently encountered Dolley’s angry ghost and abandoned their plans. The Rose Garden was never moved, and remains in the same spot to this day.

Harry Truman hears 3 knocks

Not even leaders of the free world are immune to the effects of hearing scary sounds at night. Just ask Harry S. Truman, who was awakened by three knocks on his bedroom door at about 4 a.m. one morning in September 1946 and described the experience in a letter to his wife Bess. “I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there,” he wrote. “Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

Truman’s letter concluded, “You and [daughter] Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Mary Todd Lincoln’s séances

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when their 11-year-old son William, often called Willie, died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862, in the White House. This was doubly tragic, as their son Edward had died about a month before his fourth birthday 12 years earlier. In her grief, Mary Todd began holding séances in the Red Room (some say she held as many as eight of these supernatural gatherings), and she apparently found them to be an effective coping mechanism. “Willie Lives,” she later told her half-sister. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile that he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

When Churchill met the ghost of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is one of America’s defining historical events, and the trauma lasted long after his death. Our 16th — and, according to many rankings, best — President is the White House’s most famous ghost, having been sighted more than any other spirit. In a way, those sightings include a chilling prophecy Lincoln experienced himself. One evening early in 1865, Lincoln told his close friend Ward Hill Lamon of a troubling dream he’d had a week and a half earlier:

“I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs …

I arrived at the East Room. Before me was a catafalque [raised platform for a coffin], on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer. ‘He was killed by an assassin.’”

Lincoln was assassinated just a few months later, and sightings of the fallen leader in the room now known as the Lincoln Bedroom began not long after. According to Jared Broach, founder of the ghost tour company Nightly Spirits, “They say Lincoln always comes back whenever he feels the country is in need or in peril. They say he just strides up and down the second-floor hallways and raps on doors and stands by windows.”

It isn’t just humans who have felt this presence. Rex Scouten, then the White House curator, said in 1989 that Ronald Reagan’s dog felt comfortable roaming through every room in the White House except the Lincoln Bedroom, where “he’d just stand outside the door and bark.”

No less a credible source than Winston Churchill himself reported encountering Lincoln’s ghost in that very room, albeit under different circumstances. He had just stepped out of the bath and was “wearing” nothing but a cigar when he saw the former President by the fireplace. “Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” Indeed he did, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else being so witty in that moment.

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