The White House Has a Spooktacular Haunted History

By: Kate Morgan  | 
haunted white house
The history of the White House is rife with stories of ghostly sounds and sights. Here, the South Portico, constructed in 1824 during the presidency of James Monroe, is decorated for a spooky Halloween. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

If there's any group of people who tend to leave unfinished business, it's America's presidents. Perhaps that's why the White House, the Washington, D.C., residence of the country's commanders in chief since 1800, is often called the most haunted house in America.

Over the centuries, presidents, visitors and staff have reported hearing strange noises and even seeing ghosts. First ladies and others have even attempted to communicate with the otherworldly residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


The President Who Never Moved Out

The most frequently spotted White House ghost is that of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, who has reportedly haunted the White House since his assassination in 1865.

"President Abraham Lincoln is probably the most-recounted ghost sighting at the White House," says Sarah Fling, a historian at the White House Historical Association, via email. "And many of the stories about him come from Jeremiah 'Jerry' Smith, a longtime White House employee, who claimed to have seen him hundreds of times, gliding silently about the stairs and rooms and always with a sad, serious expression on his face."


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The Lincoln Bedroom, shown in this 1962 photograph, is the site of many famous Lincoln ghost encounters. Lincoln never slept in the room but used it as his office and Cabinet Room during the Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln bought the bed around 1861.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

According to lore, Lincoln tends to show up most frequently when the country is in some sort of peril. He's been spotted in the room he used as an office, now known as the Lincoln Bedroom, by first lady Grace Coolidge, and by both Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. President Ronald Reagan said his dog, Rex, refused to go into the room; he'd just bark at the door.


Mrs. Lincoln's Ghosts

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Willie Lincoln shortly before he died, Feb. 20, 1862, at the age of 12, photographed by Mathew Brady.
Library of Congress

Before her husband became the White House's best-known specter, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was one of its most haunted. After her 11-year-old son, Willie, died in 1862, the grieving first lady began holding seances and spirit circles in an attempt to contact him.

In the Red Room, Mrs. Lincoln held more than half a dozen seances, some of which the president himself may have attended. "The Lincolns had suffered the tragic loss of their son, Willie, to typhoid fever while living at the White House," says Fling. "These seances really helped Mrs. Lincoln handle her grief over the loss of her child."


Mrs. Lincoln once told her half-sister, "Willie lives. 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." Sometimes, she said, Eddie — the Lincoln's son who died a few years earlier, at the age of four — was there too.


More Ghouls and Ghosts

Many of the White House's ghosts have appeared to staff members. Jerry Smith, the employee who claimed to have seen Lincoln's ghost on several occasions, was the White House's official duster for almost four decades, beginning in the late 1860s. "Jerry also claimed to see the ghosts of presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley," says Fling.

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Is Abigail Adams still doing laundry in the White House?
National Gallery of Art Washington/Wikimedia/(CC BY 2.0)

Other ghosts have appeared to staff, too. Some "have claimed to smell laundry in the East Room, where first lady Abigail Adams used to hang her laundry," says Fling. "And Major Archibald Butt, military aide to President Taft, claimed to see a young boy." Butt called it "The Thing" and said its presence was like "a slight pressure on the shoulder, as if someone were leaning over your shoulder to see what you might be doing." Taft "did not like these ghostly rumors," says Fling, "and threatened to fire any staff who might repeat the story of 'The Thing!'"


There are plenty of other haunts. A ghostly Dolly Madison is said to guard the rose garden, and in 2009, Michelle Obama told a group of students that she and her husband, then-President Barack Obama, sometimes heard noises in the hallway at night. Jenna and Barbara Bush say they once heard eerie music coming from a fireplace in the residence.

"One of my favorite ghost stories is that of Anna Surratt, the daughter of Confederate sympathizer Mary Surratt," says Fling. "Mary was found guilty of harboring John Wilkes Booth and other Lincoln conspirators at her Washington, D.C., boarding house, and was sentenced to death. Her daughter, Anna, visited the White House, hoping to beg President Andrew Johnson to pardon her mother ... unfortunately, she was unsuccessful, and it is said that her ghost can still be heard knocking at the door of the White House, pleading for her mother's life."

So, should you find yourself on a tour of the White House, don't be surprised if you hear — or even see — something a bit spooky.