Creepy Tales Of White House Ghosts

Since its doors opened in 1800, the White House has been the official residence of many presidents and their families. Some claim that it is also home to an assortment of ghostly squatters. Over the years, there have been numerous reports of paranormal activity at the presidential residence. Some of these reports recount strange sounds and disembodied voices, while others attest to the appearance of eerie apparitions. Almost all of them involve famous figures from American history returning from the afterlife.

One interesting aspect of White House ghost lore is that it isn't just propagated by supernatural enthusiasts and nameless "sources." A few of the presidents themselves have hinted at a belief that the White House is haunted, Abraham Lincoln, Harry S. Truman, and Ronald Reagan among them. Here are their stories, along with creepy tales from the first families, visiting guests, and members of the White House domestic staff.

Abigail Adams lingers around the East Room

One of the most commonly reported White House ghosts is that of First Lady Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams. When the Adamses moved into the White House, History states, Washington D.C. was not the sprawling, shining city we know today. The ground where it stood was largely swampland. Abigail used to hang laundry in the White House's East Room because it was the warmest and driest room in the residence.

In the years since Abigail's death, there have been several reports of her ghost haunting the East Room and the surrounding area. According to both History and The Washington Post, she has been seen with her arms outstretched, as if she's carrying linens. Alternatively, Roll Call claims that she has been spotted with a laundry basket. Roll Call also relays another detail about the Abigail Adams ghost sightings: Allegedly, her apparition is sometimes accompanied by the squeaky-clean scent of soap.

The Lincolns reported visits from their son Willie

President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln were met with tragedy early into their term when their son Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862. He was only 11 years old at the time, so his loss was especially difficult for them to accept. 

According to the White House Historical Association, Mary turned to spiritualism while mourning Willie's death — a popular practice during the era. She began to participate in regular seances in the White House's Red Room. Her attempts to contact her son's spirit may have been successful, if the legends are to be believed. A Washington Post article states that after a few weeks of grieving, she reportedly saw an apparition of Willie at the foot of her bed. President Lincoln was a believer, too: He was allegedly visited by Willie's ghost multiple times.

A blog post by the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance states that Willie's ghost has made several reappearances over the years. A maid claimed to have seen him during President Ulysses S. Grant's term. It is said that Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, encountered him as well — in the very room where he died back in the 19th century.

Andrew Jackson's swearing still echoes through the White House's halls

Willie Lincoln might not have been the only ghost that Mary Todd Lincoln came into contact with during her time at the White House. According to History, the First Lady also heard the ghost of President Andrew Jackson moving about the halls of the mansion, stomping and muttering curse words. It is said that the Rose Room, which was Jackson's bedroom during his presidency, is still haunted today — and is perhaps one of the most haunted rooms in the White House.

President Harry S. Truman, a noted believer in paranormal activity at the White House, mentioned the ghost of Andrew Jackson in his correspondence several times. A Washington Post article reveals that in a 1945 letter to his wife Bess, he wrote, "The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth — I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin," referring to Jackson, President Theodore Roosevelt, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, respectively. In another letter, this one addressed to his daughter, Truman offhandedly remarked that Jackson's ghost could probably "teach [him] some good swear words."

Anna Surratt begs for mercy for her mother

In 1865, Mary Jenkins Surratt went down in history as the first woman to be executed by the United States government. According to The Washington Post, she was hanged at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary, now Fort McNair, after being convicted as a co-conspirator in Lincoln's assassination. Her case was complicated: Although there is no doubt that she was a die-hard Confederate, she maintained her innocence until death, and the extent to which she was involved in John Wilkes Booth's plot is debatable. It is rumored that her spirit now floats around Fort McNcNair, weeping.

Mary may not be the only member of her family who has returned from the grave. According to the White House Historical Association, her daughter, Anna Surratt, is a regular ghostly presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The lore says that she bangs on doors looking for President Andrew Johnson, intending to beg for a pardon for her mother.

Legendary footman Jeremiah Jerry Smith saw countless ghosts in the White House

Jeremiah "Jerry" Smith was a free-born Black man who began working in the White House during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. The White House Historical Association states that during his approximately 35 years there, he played many roles, including footman, butler, cook, doorman, and official duster. However, he might be most famous for the ghost stories he told reporters who would visit the White House.

According to The Weekly View, Colonel William H. Crook, a Secret Service agent throughout the late 19th century, wrote in an account of his time at the White House that Smith "was always seeing or hearing the ghosts of former deceased Presidents hovering around in out-of-the-way corners, especially in deep shadows at sundown, or later." Specifically, Smith claimed to have seen the ghosts of Presidents Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley. He asserted that they tried to speak to him but could only make buzzing noises. He wasn't bothered by the ghosts' presence, Crook recounted. Rather, he was "perfectly willing to let them do whatever they wished so long as they let him alone."

Speaking to a reporter for a 1903 Washington Post article called "White House Ghosts: Changes in the Mansion Have Driven Them Away," Smith stated that the ghosts he had formerly spotted gliding up and down stairways had stopped appearing due to renovations. Nevertheless, reports of ghost sightings at the White House have continued long after Smith's death.

The Taft administration was haunted by The Thing

According to the White House Historical Association, the administration of President William Howard Taft might have been terrorized by a strange specter. This ghost had the appearance of a teenage boy but was known to White House domestic staff as "the Thing."

Most of what we know about the Thing comes from a man named Major Archibald Butt, military aide to President Taft. In a letter to his sister Clara, he wrote, "The ghost, it seems, is a young boy about fourteen or fifteen years old ... They say that the first knowledge one has of the presence of the Thing is a slight pressure on the shoulder, as if someone were leaning over your shoulder to see what you might be doing."

Taft must have been frustrated by the rumors of ghostly activity in his home. He instructed Butt to tell his staff that anyone who perpetuated the legend of the Thing would be fired.

Dolley Madison appeared to Woodrow Wilson's staff

First Lady Dolley Madison was the wife of President James Madison. While she was alive, she was known for hosting lavish parties and creating a vibrant social scene in Washington. In death, she has become known for guarding the White House's famous Rose Garden.

According to the National Constitution Center, during her stay in the White House, First Lady Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, decided to have the Rose Garden moved. When two gardeners went to go do the job, they found themselves face-to-face with Dolley Madison's angry ghost. As a result, Edith Wilson's plans were abandoned, and today, the Rose Garden still stands in its original location. 

Some accounts of this story, including the one presented by the National Constitution Center, claim that Dolley Madison was the one who ordered the creation of the Rose Garden, which would offer an explanation as to why her ghost might have been so appalled by Edith Wilson's proposition. On the other hand, the National First Ladies' Library asserts that this detail is based in myth: It was actually Ellen Axson Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's first wife (and first First Lady) who did so. In any case, the tale remains compelling.

Queen Wilhelmina and Winston Churchill saw Lincoln's ghost

Over the decades, several notable visitors to the White House have allegedly encountered Abraham Lincoln's ghost. One of these famous figures is British prime minister Winston Churchill.

As one of the leaders of the "Big Three" Allies, Churchill visited the White House multiple times during World War II. During a 1940 visit, The Washington Post reports, Churchill stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, which the 16th president used as an office during his terms. An unclothed Churchill had just emerged from the bathtub attached to the room when he saw Abraham Lincoln himself sitting by the fireplace. As the story goes, he immediately spat out a quip: "Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage."

Another big-name guest who might have had a run-in with Lincoln's spectral form is Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned over the Netherlands from 1890 to 1948. According to The Washington Post, when the queen visited the White House in 1942, she slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, just as Churchill did. She awoke in the middle of the night upon hearing a knock on the bedroom door. When she got up and answered it, she reportedly saw an apparition of Lincoln, looking just as he did when he was alive. Overcome with shock, she fainted on the spot.

Abraham Lincoln may have haunted the Reagans, as well

Lincoln's ghost is apparently a regular visitor at the White House. According to reporter Joan Gage, he just might have haunted the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

In an article for the Huffington Post, Gage shares the story of the time she was seated with Reagan at a state dinner in 1986. He was a good entertainer and told the table a variety of yarns, including a chilling ghost story. One night, he said, he noticed his dog acting suspiciously inside the Lincoln Bedroom, barking wildly before hurrying through the door and refusing to come back in. Another evening, the dog began barking at the ceiling, seemingly reacting to an unseen stimulus. Reagan wondered if the dog was responding to some kind of suspicious high-pitched signal, so he asked his staff to investigate.

A while later, a member of Lincoln's family and her husband visited the White House and stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom. The husband woke up in the middle of the night to see a transparent figure standing at the window, gazing into the night sky. Just moments after he witnessed the strange sight, it disappeared. At first, his wife was hesitant to believe his account. However, the next time they slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, the same figure appeared to her. It seems that Reagan's dog might have detected a supernatural presence after all.

A supernatural visitor knocked on Harry Truman's door

President Harry S. Truman was one of the White House's prime believers in ghosts. He often wrote to his wife Bess with claims that the building was haunted.

According to History, just two months into his first term in 1945, Truman started to pick up on signs that something was amiss. "I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches — all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallways and even right here in this study," he wrote. 

The Washington Post reports that he told Bess about another ghost encounter in 1946. According to his letter to her, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a series of mysterious knocks on his bedroom door. "I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. 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!" he wrote. "The damned place is haunted sure as shootin'."

David Burns' voice can still be heard

Back in the 1700s, a man named David Burns sold the government the land where the White House now stands. According to Haunted America, a book by Michael Norman and Beth Scott, his presence has continued to linger about the premises for centuries.

In 1961, Norman and Scott state, a woman named Lillian Rogers Parks wrote a memoir about her experiences as a White House seamstress, titled My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. In its pages, Parks recounts a tale told to her by Cesar Carrera, who worked as a valet to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Carrera was in the White House's Yellow Oval Room when he heard a distant voice calling his name. The voice then said, "I'm Mr. Burns." Carrera assumed someone was playing a joke on him until he learned about David Burns and his White House connection.

Norman and Scott also assert that Burns' ghost may have returned to haunt the Truman administration. Apparently, a White House guard was on duty when he heard a disembodied voice calling, "I'm Mr. Burns, I'm Mr. Burns." He figured that the voice belonged to Secretary of State James Byrnes, until he learned that Byrnes wasn't present in the White House that day. 

Jenna Bush Hager reported strange occurrences

Not all of the ghost encounters in the White House happened decades ago. According to a 2018 episode of The Today Show, its hallowed halls have continued to be haunted well into the 21st century. Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of President George W. Bush, is now a host on Today. Talking to co-host Hoda Kotb, she revealed that while living in the White House, she and her sister Barbara might have had a few supernatural experiences of their own.

Jenna and Barbara shared a bedroom in the White House during their father's presidency. One night, they were sound asleep when Jenna's phone rang, instantly rousing them awake. A few moments later, they heard "1920s piano music" emanating from the room's fireplace. Jenna was so startled by the eerie noise that she jumped into Barbara's bed. The next week, the incident repeated itself, but with opera music. Jenna and Barbara tried to convince themselves that they couldn't possibly have experienced a haunting, but a conversation with Buddy, their favorite White House staffer, made them second-guess themselves. "Buddy, you wouldn't believe what we heard last night," Jenna told him. He replied, "Oh, Jenna, you wouldn't believe what I've heard."

Jenna said that although the incidents were scary, she doesn't think she and Barbara were visited by any malevolent forces. "They came with all good intentions! They were friendly ghosts," she reassured Kotb.