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Washington DC Home to Ghost Stories

  • Ernest Leong

Washington, DC -- best known as the U.S. capital and a playground for politicians and diplomats -- might also be home of ghosts. Those who claim to have seen or felt their presence say the spirits date back to some of the earliest days of American history. People around Washington and in the news media often tell these stories at Halloween -- the October 31st tradition in which children in the U.S., Canada and British Isles dress up as fun and scary characters. VOA's Ernest Leong tells the story of two supposedly haunted houses.

On any given day, as people walk or drive past the Octagon House in downtown Washington, DC, they might not know this is considered one of the spookiest spots in the city.

Haunted houses can have scary stories attached to them, and this place is no exception.

But Carolyn Crouch, who offers ghost tours through her company, Washington Walks, says there is one unusual feature to the Octagon House's stories. "In the case of the Octagon, all the ghosts that are haunting this house, and all those ghost stories that go along with them, are not bas[ed] on anything that actually happened," she said.

One of the better known stories involves the original homeowner, John Tayloe, and two of his daughters.

The tale involves a heated argument and one daughter falling to her death over the railing of the home's three-story spiral staircase.

A few years later, the other daughter supposedly fell on those same stairs and died.

It would be a classic horror story, with romance, tragedy and sudden death. Only Crouch says, neither incident ever happened. "No, no Tayloe girl ever fell over it [the spiral staircase]."

Crouch says while the origin of the ghost stories is a mystery, such legends persist because the house and the Tayloes were well-known. "And that things kind of ending up attaching themselves, the stories, to the family and to the house, even though they're none of them are actually, really historically true."

Another fable about the Octagon House is that after 12 men stayed overnight here in 1888, they said they heard three bloodcurdling female screams come from an empty second-story room. Crouch says, "And the account ends by one of the men saying, 'I vouch for this, but I cannot explain it'."

A few blocks away, is the Stephen Decatur House -- another place some say is haunted. Stephen Decatur was an American naval hero who fought in the War of 1812. Unlike the fictional anecdotes of the Octagon House, Stephen Decatur's untimely death in a duel with Commodore James Barron is well-documented.

After Decatur was shot by Barron, he was rushed to his house, to the front room, where he later died.

Cynthia Malinick, Executive Director of the Stephen Decatur House Museum, spoke to us in that room. "Barron mortally wounded Decatur. Decatur supposedly, purposely missed because he did not want to shoot his mentor."

Some people claim to have seen Decatur's ghost standing at a second-story window, as well as at the window in the first-story room where he died.

But Decatur's ghost may not be alone behind these walls. There are also stories of inexplicable shadows and noises, in these former slave quarters now used for special exhibits. Clinking chains have been heard in this courtyard.

Although Malinick does not believe in ghosts, she says she heard filing cabinets opening and closing one night, after she thought everyone had gone home. "I will say that when I heard those filing cabinets opening and closing, I decided it was time to go home." [Laughs]

It is another ghost tale that Washington residents can repeat each year around Halloween -- a centuries-old pagan rite honoring the dead.