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With election looming, Washington is a ghost town -- literally

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- With the Nov. 7 elections looming, politicians are preparing to flee the capital for their home districts in search of votes.

Except for John Quincy Adams.

Some say he has not left the House of Representatives since he had a stroke at his desk there in February 1848 and died shortly after in a nearby office. They swear they can still hear "Old Man Eloquent" arguing against slavery.

Or Kentucky Rep. William Preston Taulbee. He is said to remain in the Capitol to continue a feud with the press that did not end when a reporter shot him on the steps to the House Press Gallery in February 1890. He died of his wounds 11 days later.

And then there is Sen. Thomas Hart Benton. Capitol Police working the overnight shift say they have seen the Missouri lawmaker burning the midnight oil at his desk in what is now National Statuary Hall -- even though he lost his re-election bid in 1850 and died eight years later.

"A lot of the reason the spirits are there is because of emotional attachments, because of the political process. They loved it so much they never left," said David Oester, head of the 13,000-member International Ghost Hunters Society.

Indeed. Ghost hunters say the Capitol Building is home to no less than 15 spirits, including a demon cat that legend says prowls the marble halls of Congress before a national tragedy or change of administration.

"A friend of mine, a police officer, spent an entire night here one night and he said unless he was ordered to do so, he would never do it again. He heard some things and saw some things...," Michael Judge, a Capitol Building tour guide, said before trailing off into uneasy silence.

Judge is an expert on the Capitol Building present and past. He can recite countless details about the grand old building and its construction.

He can also tell a visitor where to stand to "hear" Adams raging against a 19th century gag order that prevented House members from considering citizen petitions denouncing slavery.

Judge said a "ghostly whisper can be heard" at the exact spot where Adams' desk once stood in the Old Hall of the House (now Statuary Hall).

"In the past the whispering was so bad people thought they could still hear the speeches of John Quincy Adams," Judge said.

As for Taulbee, Judge said the steps leading to the House Press Gallery are still stained by the blood of the representative who was shot by reporter Charles Kincaid Feb. 28, 1890. "Every time a reporter trips on those steps, it is said Taulbee's ghost is tripping them as they walk over his blood," Judge added.

Lawana Holland, a Washington, D.C., ghost hunter affiliated with the International Ghost Hunters Society, said there are several theories among believers concerning why spirits are attracted to certain locations.

"Usually these are places where something tragic or unexpected has happened, places of high emotional energy," she explained.

"It is also believed that that energy being left behind is like an imprint, the energy is still present."

Holland said experts in her field believe that some ghosts are "very much aware of what's happening." But others believe spirits are caught in a loop and are unaware that times have changed. "They're doing what they did before," she said.

Take Abigail Adams. There are those who claim the wife of the nation's second president has been condemned to an eternity of laundry.

Natalie Zanin, of the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition, has written plays about Washington's ghosts and will give a tour of haunted D.C. Oct. 29 and Oct. 31, Halloween. She said some White House visitors have seen the first lady who lived in the executive mansion beginning in 1800 carrying laundry into the building's East Room.

"I was once on a tour of the White House and I kept smelling damp laundry and I thought, Abigail Adams," Zanin said, adding somewhat dejectedly, "But it was only the man standing next to me."

Zanin may not have encountered a ghost during that visit but there are numerous White House guests who claim they have.

There are overnight visitors who say they have seen a British soldier from the War of 1812 trying to set fire to the bed they are sleeping in. Others have seen the tortured spirit of Abraham Lincoln roaming the White House. Still others say they have seen the ghost of former first lady Dolly Madison.

Madison was said to have appeared to White House gardeners during the Wilson administration in the early 20th century, about 65 years after her death, to prevent them from digging up and moving the rose garden she had planted.

But Dolly's ghost has also appeared more at peace across the street from the White House, in a rocking chair surveying Lafayette Square from the porch of the home she moved to.

For Washington ghost hunters, in fact, Lafayette Square is ground zero for spirits.


"I've always wondered if it was something about that land itself because all the houses ringing the square have had a very haunted history or a very tragic history. It's one of the most haunted areas within the city," said D.C. ghost hunter Holland.

One of the most famous haunted homes on the storied square is the Decatur House. Its owner, Navy hero Stephen Decatur, was killed in a duel with a fellow officer March 22, 1820.

"The night before the duel he stood at his window and looked out. So many passersby saw him after his death that the window was walled up and shuttered," Holland said. It remains that way today.

"They also say his wife haunts it as well. She became hysterical when he died. Even now when you go there, there is a feeling of sorrow from her and you can hear her crying," she added.

It seems that the ghosts of Washington, D.C., if one believes they exist at all, are tragic souls. Except, that is, for the statues back at the Capitol Building -- they know how to celebrate the passage of time.

Legend has it that every New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight the 96 statues in Statuary Hall -- where the busy Thomas Hart Benton is toiling and John Quincy Adams delivers his eloquent oration -- come down off their pedestals and dance.

Samuel Adams, Ethan Allen, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Huey Long, Daniel Webster and George Washington set aside whatever differences they may have had in life to join the party.

"They're celebrating that the republic has survived another year," Judge said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Tuesday, October 24, 2000


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