Ghosts at the Capitol

13.7.09

From Roll Call:

Ghosts Wander the Hill
July 13, 2009
By Elizabeth Jordan
Roll Call Staff

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Many people had the pleasure of hearing John Quincy Adams speak during the 17 years that he served in Congress, but Steve Livengood of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society says he’s had that privilege much more recently — more than 150 years after Adams’ death.
In fact, Livengood claims to have seen the ghost of the sixth president giving a speech in the Old House Chamber.

He’s not the only one to see ghosts. During the day, Capitol Hill is filled with hustle and bustle. But after the flocks of interns, pages and staffers make their way home, some say the spirits of the oldest and most respected politicians (and other Hill types) stick around.

In fact, some people say ghosts reign supreme over the Hill after the sun goes down. Various witnesses have reported hearing and encountering spirits late at night. They tell stories that would make any Hill staffer avoid being the last to leave the office.


Beware of the Demon Cat

One of the most frightening and infamous apparitions on Capitol Hill is the “demon cat,” affectionately referred to as “DC,” probably by those who have not encountered what is reported to be a terrifying tiger-sized black cat. Mostly seen by lone security guards on patrol in the Capitol building late at night, the demon cat tends to appear before national tragedies. It allegedly appeared before the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Livengood, chief guide and public programs manager for the Capitol Historical Society, has heard a lot about the demon cat in his time at the Capitol. He has worked in Congress since 1965 and says he has seen and heard various spirits throughout the building.

Even so, he’s quick to debunk the legend of the frightening feline. According to Livengood, in the early 19th century, there were still cats roaming around the Capitol, brought in to take care of a rat infestation problem. After the rats were removed, a few cats seemed to have stayed behind. Also at this time, the Capitol Police force was notorious for hiring underqualified friends of Congressmen as favors.

Livengood says that after a “liquid lunch,” one of these inept security guards ended up horizontal on the ground when he thought he was still standing. One of the lingering cats licked his face, and convinced that he was still standing, he crafted a story of a giant cat who terrorized and attacked him after dark. Livengood credits the long life span of the story to the fact that “eventually the other guards found out that they could get a day off if they saw the demon cat.”

Donnald Anderson, former Clerk of the House and chief historian of the Capitol Historical Society, says the reported footprints of the demon cat are indeed feline footprints but were left there when a stray walked across the wet cement on the floor of the Rotunda.

The “demon cat in the Dome, that’s been around for a long time, and I haven’t had an encounter with it personally,” Anderson says. “Out of all the ghosts said to inhabit the Capitol, I suspect that would be one of the most frightening.”

Many people claim to have seen the cat. There is a common story of one security guard who, while doing his rounds, walked alone in a hallway and came upon a small house cat. All of a sudden, it started to grow and growl at the guard. The guard stood frozen in shock and fear, and just as the cat ran toward him and pounced, it disappeared.


Wilbur Mills Pays a Visit

Livengood says that besides Adams, he has also seen the ghost of former Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.). Mills served from 1957 to 1975 as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (a post that he held longer than any other Member). Livengood says he has seen Mills, who died in 1992, lingering around his former office late at night. “As far as I know,” Livengood says, “I’m the only one who’s seen him.”

Other lesser-known spirits also roam Capitol Hill.

A friendly police officer is said to inhabit the Library of Congress and aid visitors who get lost in the stacks.

According to E. Ashley Rooney, co-author of “Washington, D.C.: Ghosts, Legends and Lore,” the clinking of chains and screams can be heard on Independence Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets, where the Robey and Williams slave pens operated throughout the 19th century. Livengood says the slave pens were the “ugliest” place in Washington.


Spirits in the White House

The White House is a favored hangout for many executive spirits, including ex- presidents. Lincoln is the most active of these spirits and is said to roam the hallways and, appropriately, the Lincoln bedroom late at night while most of the residents are sleeping.

Many former presidents, including Harry Truman and William Henry Harrison have deemed themselves “believers” after hearing unexplainable noises and footsteps in the second floor hallway of the White House.

Abigail Adams is allegedly also still an active presence in the White House. The former first lady is seen carrying a laundry basket around the hallways and standing in the East Room, where she hung her laundry. According to the White House Historical Association, Abigail Adams chose the East Room because it was the driest and warmest room in the house. To this day, the smell of soap follows her spirit through the house.

The historic Hay-Adams Hotel has been host to the ghost of Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, wife of writer Henry Adams. After she committed suicide in her house, now home to the hotel, many say her weeping spirit still remains. Housekeepers and staff have reported feeling that they were being hugged or have heard a woman crying late at night in the hallways of the upper stories.

The White House Historical Association and organizations around the city, such as the Washington D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers and DC Tours, have taken advantage of the rising popularity of hauntings and spiritual activity. Around Halloween, many “ghost walks” are available to those looking for a good story and the allure of possibly having a personal paranormal experience.

There are many who believe these stories are a matter of happenstance and optical illusion. Anderson, for example, says he has never run into any spirits while working in the Capitol. “All the years I worked there, I never encountered any ghosts, even late at night,” he said.

Still others remain confident that what they’ve seen is real. “Anyone who has a sense of the Capitol building is going to have a sense of the people who worked there and the work they have done there,” Livengood says. “Their spirits are there — there’s no doubt about it.”
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