Ghosts of Presidents Past: Who’s Haunting the White House?

Family History
27 August 2014

White House
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]
President Harry Truman once wrote in a letter to his wife that the White House was “haunted sure as shootin’.” This country’s most famous address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, may also be its most haunted house.

Plenty of reputable people have reported seeing the White House’s various ghosts:

Abraham Lincoln

The most well-known White House ghost is the shade of Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865. He is usually seen in what’s now called the Lincoln Bedroom but which, at the time of his administration, was actually a meeting room.

The first person to report seeing Lincoln’s ghost was First Lady Grace Coolidge, who lived in the White House in the 1920s. She reportedly saw him standing at a window in the Oval Office, looking across the Potomac to what had once been Civil War battlefields.

A well-known Lincoln ghost story was reported by 20th-century British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was a guest at the White House. After a long bath, and naked except for a cigar, he walked into the adjoining bedroom — and there was Lincoln at the fireplace. Churchill said, “Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” He reported that Lincoln smiled softly and then disappeared. Churchill refused to sleep in that bedroom after that encounter.

Another interesting Lincoln sighting was in 1942, when Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands answered a knock at the door of the White House bedroom where she was staying, saw Lincoln standing there in a coat and top hat, and fainted.

Others said to have seen Lincoln within the White House include Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower; First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; and presidential children Susan Ford and Maureen Reagan. Both Maureen Reagan and her husband saw Lincoln at the fireplace in the Lincoln Bedroom, like Churchill.

Several of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration’s staff members claimed they saw him, as did FDR’s personal valet, who ran screaming from the White House.

President Truman’s daughter, Margaret Truman, said she heard rapping at the door when she stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom and believed it to be Lincoln, and President Truman himself was once awakened by mysterious raps at the door in that room. Some who’ve stayed in that room have seen Lincoln sit on the edge of the bed, putting on his boots — including Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary Mary Eben, who ran screaming from the room.

The most recent Lincoln sighting seems to have been in the early 1980s, when a White House operations foreman came into the White House and saw Lincoln sitting in a chair at the top of a staircase.

Willie Lincoln

People have also reported seeing Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie Lincoln, who died in the White House in 1862 of typhoid fever. Staff members of the Grant Administration first saw Willie’s ghost in the 1870s.

He was seen as recently as the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb saw Willie’s ghost — he had died in the room in which she was staying — and she says she talked with him.

David Burns

David Burns owned land on which some of the city of Washington D.C., including the White House, was built, and in 1790 he was forced to sell it to the government. Various people in the White House, including one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s valets and a Truman security guard, have heard a disembodied voice saying, “I’m Mr. Burns,” and “I am David Burns.” (George Washington referred to him as “the obstinate Mr. Burns,” as a descendant has proudly noted on Burns’s 1790 census record on Ancestry.)

Abigail Adams

When Abigail Adams and her husband, John (the second president, 1797-1801), moved to the newly built White House, Washington D.C. was just a swampy little town. Abigail used to hang the wet laundry to dry in the East Room because it was the warmest and driest part of the White House.

Her ghost, still clad in a cap and a lace shawl, has been seen, arms outstretched as though carrying a laundry basket, heading toward the East Room.

These are not fly-by-night accounts; it was President William Taft who first saw the first lady’s ghost floating through doors on the second floor, as though taking the laundry to hang up to dry.

There were quite a few sightings during the Taft years, but some tourists reportedly saw her as recently as 2002. (Lincoln has also been seen in the East Room; it’s where his body lay in state after he was assassinated.)

Dolley Madison

First Lady Dolley Madison planted the famous White House rose garden in the early 1800s, and then 100 years later, First Lady Ellen Wilson requested the garden be dug up. But garden workers reported that Dolley Madison’s ghost appeared and refused to let them tear up her garden. Since then, an unexplained smell of roses is sometimes experienced inside the White House and it’s attributed to the ghost of Dolley.

Andrew Jackson

The Rose Bedroom was President Andrew Jackson’s bedroom, and many White House employees claim to have seen or heard the former president in this room; they say he is either laughing heartily or swearing heavily. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is among those who heard him cursing in the room.

Random Sightings

The North Portico entrance of the White House is noted for its ghosts, including a British solder wielding a torch who is often seen just outside its door. People also sometimes report seeing dead White House doormen still on duty.

One of the eeriest ghosts is that of Anna Surratt, whose mother, Mary, was hanged in 1865 for her part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Anne’s ghost has been seen pounding on the door of the White House, begging for her mother’s release, and it’s said that every July 7, Anne’s ghost sits on the White House’s front steps. That’s the anniversary of her mother’s execution.
—Leslie Lang

Millions of Stories. Find yours. Start a free trial today.