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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Forgotten Ghosts of the White House

Not all White House ghosts are well-known or have been presidents and first ladies. There are also lesser-known spirits like a white-haired old man that disturbed President Chester Arthur at night, a beautiful maiden in a flowing white dress sited in the old conservatory, and the unidentified boy called the “Thing” that greatly frightened the Taft residence staff in 1911. Perhaps they needed a press agent, as these specters have not received the recognition of other White House ghosts.

The Washington Critic newspaper claimed in 1883 that the description of the ghost of an old man haunting the Second Floor bedrooms came from a “White House attaché” who related the spirit “is an aged and bent man with long, phosphorescent, white beard and hair, ghastly and wavy, bright and glaring eyes, and long scrawny fingers. His walk is noiseless but stately, and his presence is always indicated by a peculiar electric sensation which pervades the surrounding air.”1 It was alleged the ghost had also disturbed President Ulysses S. Grant at night, but the apparition never became part of the cast of more famous White House ghosts traditionally described at Halloween.

Interior of the White House conservatory complex about 1890.

Library of Congress

Late one evening in 1897, a White House policeman was making his rounds and saw a light in the greenhouse complex that once stood on the west side of the building (demolished in 1902). The officer decided to investigate, as he assumed that an intruder was pilfering the prized exotic flowers that were grown there. The story related that, on entering the conservatory, he was met by “a tall, beautiful lady dressed in the fashion of the early nineteenth century.”2 He spoke to her and she then vanished, but he heard “a musical laugh” and a phosphorescent glow remained in the greenhouse for some time. He checked the doors and searched the conservatory, but there was no trace of the mysterious woman. A month later the same light appeared, and the guard went into the conservatory and felt a rush of air and a touch on his shoulder. He turned to see the same lady as before and, gripped by fear, passed out. After relating his story to his superiors, he was discharged. The story was told to friends and, before long, an enterprising journalist interviewed him to record the story. 3 However, it is not a tale that survived into White House ghost lore of the twentieth century.

One of the most interesting ghost sightings may have been the “Thing” that haunted the White House in 1911. President William Howard Taft’s military aide, Major Archibald Butt, wrote to his sister Clara: “It seems that the White House is haunted . . . The ghost, it seems, is a young boy—from its description, I should think 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 of someone were leaning over your shoulder to see what you might be doing.” When Butt repeated the staff’s gossip about the “Thing” to the president, Taft flew into “a towering rage . . . he thinks it will be a very serious thing to have the story get out among the people of the country.” 4 Taft ordered Butt to tell the White House housekeeper that the first member of the staff to repeat stories about the “Thing” would be fired. 5

President William Howard Taft out for a stroll with military aide Major Archibald Butt (right) and secretary Charles D. Hilles (left) in 1910.

Library of Congress