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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Origin of the Abraham Lincoln Ghost Story

Jeremiah "Jerry" Smith's portrait by the "White House court photographer" Frances B. Johnston in 1889.

Library of Congress

When it comes to White House spirits, Abraham Lincoln’s ghost is the most famous of them all. The legend of Lincoln’s ghost may have emanated from stories that Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith would spin for reporters. Smith started working at the White House during the Ulysses S. Grant administration in the late 1860s as a footman, and also served as a butler, cook, doorman, and “official duster” until his retirement approximately 35 years later. He often stood at the North Entrance with his signature feather duster. Newspapermen dubbed him the “Knight of the Feather Duster,” as reflected in his formal pose in an iconic photograph taken by photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1889.1

Reporters—after his death—reflected on his life and contributions and echoed in print the dignity and presence that Johnston had captured in her fine portrait. A 1904 Los Angeles Times obituary noted, “He was not favored by position, for he was the dustman and the charman; but his dignity and his courtesy made him the most conspicuous and the most liked servant in the place. . . . He was not born to live a life of obscurity, for with dust broom he was as dignified in his bearing as a king on his throne. . . . For more than a quarter century he held his place, and the White House was more changed by his disappearance than by the architects who remodeled it."2

A popular character, reporters could always count on Smith for a story on a slow news day. Some famous White House ghost legends may have originated with him in the late 1880s. One Chicago newspaper commented about Jerry Smith: “He is a firm believer in ghosts and their appurtenances, and he has a fund of stories about these uncanny things that afford immense entertainment for those around him. But there is one idea that has grown into Jerry’s brain and is now part of it, resisting the effects or ridicule, laughter, argument, or explanation. He firmly believes that the White House is haunted by the spirits of all the departed Presidents, and, furthermore, that his Satanic majesty, the devil, has his abode in the attic. He cannot be persuaded out of the notion, and at intervals he strengthens his position by telling about some new strange noise he has heard or some additional evidence he has secured.”3

The noises in the attic proved to be rats scurrying about and the story of the devil was a ruse devised to keep young Nellie Grant and her girlfriends from playing in the attic. Smith did claim to have seen the ghosts of Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley, who tried to speak to him but could produce only a buzzing sound. When McKinley was mortally wounded while standing in a receiving line at an exposition in Buffalo, it was Jerry Smith who shouted the news down a White House stairwell, “The President is shot!” Shortly before Smith died of throat cancer in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the beloved “duster” at his home in Washington, D.C.4