Real-Life Ghost Stories Haunt City’s Historic Landmarks 

Compiled by Kate Oczypok

Now that it’s spooky season, ghost stories abound. We set out to explore tales of apparitions haunting the halls of our local museums and homes, many of which are hundreds of years old. Enjoy four stories from area employees — if you dare! ….

From Mary Lesher, Dumbarton House Programs Manager: 

We have a ghost story at Dumbarton House! In 1806 a young girl named Eliza Denison visited Dumbarton House with her aunt and uncle. One night a thunderstorm woke her up and she remembered that the window on the stair landing had been left open. She walked down to the landing to close the window against the storm and walked back to her room. As she reached the bedroom door, she looked back at the landing. At that exact moment a flash of lightning brightened the room, illuminating a person standing on the landing — an older Black woman in a white dress.   

Thinking the woman had also come to close the window, Eliza called out that she had already done so before going into her room. Eliza thought it odd that the woman had not answered her and ventured back into the hallway to see why. When she did, Eliza saw the woman standing perfectly still in silence on the landing with her arms outstretched. Upon seeing this ghostly apparition, young Eliza fainted. The next morning, when asked about the incident, Eliza shared what she had seen and was assured that there was no one matching that description living or working at Dumbarton House.  

This story was passed through the generations of Eliza’s family until her granddaughter sent it to us in the 1930s. No one else has ever seen the ghost, that we know of. If anyone else has seen the woman on the landing, we’d love to hear their story.  

From Clara dePablo, Communications & Marketing Assistant, The National Museum of American History:

With support from PRX, The Smithsonian’s Sidedoor Podcast takes listeners into over 155 million treasures that fill the museum’s vaults. The premise of the podcast is “where the public view ends, Sidedoor begins.” With the help of biologists, artists, historians, archaeologists and more, host Lizzie Peabody searches for stories that can’t be found anywhere else. Their October 5 episode is titled “Spooked at the Smithsonian.” The episode is inspired by an apparition at the National Museum of American History. Guests include Molly Horrocks, collections manager for the Division of Political and Military History at the museum, Pamela Henson, institutional historian at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, Cpl. Ronald Howlin, security officer at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Deborah Hull-Walski, collections manager for Education Collections at the National Museum of Natural History, Melissa Johnson, Hull-Walski’s daughter and Kim Dixon, former volunteer at the National Zoo.  

Note from Kate: I listened to the spooky episode and it’s a spine-tingling one! It made me want to go ghost hunting for a night at the museum. 

On Display at the National Museum of American History, Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat. “The last time he put it on was to go to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.” Courtesy Smithsonian.

From Amanda Hodges, Visitor Services Manager, The National Building Museum

Apparitions are not rare at the National Building Museum. To experience them, one need only wait for dark. The building is rarely still. During the day, currents of visitors sweep through its halls, joining the soaring fountain and the crews readying the Great Hall for its next spectacular event. Bold rays of sunlight compete for attention with the towering central columns. The spaces pulse with lively energy. 

However, once the doors close for the day and the light begins to fade, there’s one area the staff knows to avoid. If you should enter the first-floor restroom after 9 p.m., it will seem dark and quiet, but you’re unlikely to find yourself alone. Disturbances are regularly reported. Occasionally, a woman appears dressed in a full black skirt and veil. She likely first appeared in the building seeking assistance from the Pension Bureau located here after the Civil War, and it seems that she never left. Perhaps her claim was rejected by a bureaucrat over a century ago; her husband’s paperwork tied with red ribbon and sent away to languish amongst the millions of similar files. She vents her frustrations and makes herself known by slamming stall doors and flushing the toilets. She joins dozens of other reported nighttime inhabitants, as fixed a part of the building as the soldiers marching forevermore along the exterior frieze. 

Secrets and specters hide themselves throughout the building, longing to be discovered, their stories waiting to be told. Some stories are over 130 years old, while some are very fresh indeed.  

The Great Hall of the National Building Museum. Photo by Kevin Allen. Courtesy NBM.

From Christopher Jones, Georgetowner Managing Editor:

My grandmother lived on 34th Street NW in Georgetown. After her retirement from law and lobbying and well into her elderly years, she was asked by volunteers of a fair at the National Cathedral to play the role of a “Gypsy Fortune Teller.” So, she accepted and decided to play the part to the hilt. She acquired a costume, a crystal ball and all the works. During the festival they put her in a tent for entertainment and put a sign out front. Instead of hamming it up, however, she decided to actually serve as a medium for those who came in. She just gave voice to whatever she heard in her head. Soon, people were shocked at her mysterious powers, lines started forming and she became a sensation. After the event, people visited her frequently at home for her psychic wisdom and insights. She always said, however, that you “can tell an actual psychic from a fraud because a fraud charges money.” So, for years she served as a free psychic for the neighborhood. The psychic experiences I personally had with my grandmother seem too far-fetched for people to believe. But, they’re true…

…One need only wait for dark, to discover them for yourself.  

“She acquired a costume, a crystal ball and all the works…” Photo by Cottonbro.










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