“My dear Clara, it seems that the White House is haunted.” These words were written by Major Archie Butt to his sister-in-law in the summer of 1911, referencing “the Thing,” a ghost believed to be the spirit of an unidentified 15-year-old boy. Butt was a military aide to President Howard Taft and had been receiving reports from frightened staff about strange encounters.
Servants told stories of feeling the Thing touching them on the shoulder, as if a curious boy was leaning over to see what they were doing. Taft’s housekeeper, whom Butt referred to as “a spooky little thing herself,” was the only one who claimed to have actually seen the apparition. She described it as a young boy aged around 14 or 15 with sad, blue eyes and light, unkempt hair.
Taft was very angry at the upheaval caused by panic and nervousness of staff in his presidential home, and ordered Butt to get it under control. They were also determined to find out who the mysterious “Thing” was. Unfortunately, Butt perished one year later when the Titanic sank, and the mystery is still unsolved.
The Thing, however, has not been not the only ghostly visitor reported at the White House. Between 1862 – 1863, Mary Todd Lincoln participated in seances in the Red Room after her son, Willie, died. President Abraham Lincoln is believed to have attended a couple of the seances with his wife and reportedly foresaw his own death more than once; he even had a dream about it shortly before he was assassinated. Willie’s spirit has been a common appearance, according to witnesses.
Abraham Lincoln’s ghost is the most widely reported sighting. Grace Coolidge, the wife of President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), was first to say she saw his ghost. She said that Lincoln had been standing looking out a window of the Oval Office, across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (1933-45) wife, Eleanor, used Lincoln’s bedroom as her study and claimed to feel his presence when she worked at night. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands said, during a visit, that she opened her door after hearing a knock and saw his ghostly figure, wearing his top hat. The queen fainted from the sight. Winston Churchill said he’d emerged from his evening bath to see Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room. A seamstress, Lillian Rogers Parks, heard someone pacing an unoccupied upper level of the White House, but when she inquired about it, another staff member said, “that was old Abe pacing the floor.”
Mary Lincoln told her friends she’d heard President Andrew Jackson stomping and swearing through the halls. The Rose Room, Jackson’s bedroom while he had been president, is supposedly the most haunted room in the White House.
America’s 33rd president, Harry Truman, wrote to his wife Bess in June 1945 to talk about the spookiness going on in his new residence. “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 hallway and even right here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth – I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”
Other Ghostly Residents
- Abigail Adams, wife to John Adams (1797-1801), the second president of the U.S., used to hang laundry in the East Room of the new White House because it was the warmest and driest place. Her ghost, wearing a lace shawl and cap, has supposedly been seen heading towards the East Room with outstretched arms, as if she was carrying laundry, with the scent of lavender filling the air.
- President Thomas Jefferson is said to play his violin in the Yellow Oval Room.
- Anna Surratt reportedly bangs on the doors of the White House, begging to see President Andrew Johnson to plead for a pardon for her mother, Mary Surratt, a conspirator of the Lincoln assassination.