by EUN SIL KANG
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went on The Ghost Story Tour of Washington last Saturday night. The tour is led by Natalie Zanin, who runs, writes, directs and produces the show. I’ve never been to anything like it before, but by the end of the tour I was pleasantly informed and entertained.
Zanin has had her share of spooky happenings in the Square. On one of her tours, she saw a man in the group who resembeled a young Abraham Lincoln.”I turned away,” Zanin said. “And when I looked back, he was gone.”She did the majority of her research through newspapers on microfilm, combed through national archives and even viewed online archives. The research took years, she said. By including improvisation from actors, visitors get to see these historical stories come to life.
“People want ghosts, and they love ghost stories,” Zanin said. “They want to see the stories.”
Zanin started the ghost story tour in 2001 as a way to distract herself and others from the Sept. 11 tragedy. She said it helped her to focus on something else. She did not think that anyone would show up, but they did.
“People came, and I was really surprised,” said Zanin.
Not everyone who works on the tour has had sightings. Gale Munro, who plays the ghosts of Abigail Adams and Ida McKinley said she’s not seen one since she started working for the tour in 2001. She said she loves the job because she has a strong interest in small-theatre acting.
Ellie Nicoll, who plays the ghosts of historical figures such as Susan Decatur and Mary Todd Lincoln, also enjoys working on the ghost story tour.
“I love the idea of this semi-improvisational street theater,” said Nicoll.
Click here for an Observer slideshow on D.C. ghost story tours.
The Haunted Sites:
* The Department of Veterans Affairs
There have been claims of ghosts setting pieces of paper on a desk. Zanin said it could have been 1863 Union soldiers revisiting the building.
* St. John’s Church Parish House
Visitors to this church on Vermont Ave. have claimed that they heard “fighting spirits” and papers being slammed onto desks, even though no one else was in the building, according to Zanin.
* St. John’s Church Protestant Episcopal
This church, located next to the Parish House, also has some interesting history. Supposedly, one night, a man on duty heard organ music, even though the doors were locked, said Zanin. She also said some people believe that spirits sit in pew No. 54 every time a great American dies, perhaps to pay their respects.
* Hay-Adams Hotel
Zanin said that Marian Hooper Adams, wife of Henry Adams, apparently drank poison and died. Her ghost allegedly haunts the 7th floor of the building, where she has been known to give quick hugs to housekeepers, said Zanin.
* Howard T. Markey National Courts Building
There have been two incidences around this area. There was an assassination attempt on William Seward, who was involved in a carriage accident in 1865. A man came up to his door saying he had medicine. He then came through the door and attacked Seward. The man was later found and executed, and Seward lived.
Another incident involves Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, Congressman Daniel Sickles, and his wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles. Apparently, Key had an alleged affair with Daniel’s wife, Teresa. As a result, Sickles and Key fought each other, and Sickles shot and killed Key, said Zanin. She also said that their people have heard their ghosts fighting when they are around the Howard T. Markey National Courts Building area.
* The Treasury Annex
Before the building was the Treasury Annex, it was known as the Freedman’s Bank. Zanin said during the 1870s, Frederick Douglass tried to keep the bank open, and today, “He could still be heard walking the halls,” she said.
* The White House
There are many ghost stories that come out of the White House. President Andrew Jackson’s ghost had been known to “pinch the behinds of a pretty girl,” and then go away laughing, Zanin said. The other story took place more recently.
“During the first Gulf War, Dick Cheney and the first President Bush were working on a Gulf War plan. The doors were locked, but papers were flying, and they [supposedly] heard a distinctive voice laughing,” Zanin said. She said it could have been Lyndon B. Johnson’s ghost, since he had a very distinctive laugh.
* The Executive House Office Building
Supposedly, former Vice President Dan Quayle became scared when he allegedly “heard” something in the hallway, said Zanin.
* The Blair House
There was an attempted assassination that occurred right outside the Blair House during President Harry S. Truman’s temporary stay. Zanin said that in November 1950, two men in a cab asked where the president was staying. They arrived at the Blair House. One of them was confronted by a White House police officer, Leslie William Coffelt. The man shot and mortally wounded Coffelt, but Coffelt shot and killed the man before he could make it to Truman. Coffelt later died. Truman had apparently went by his window to see what was going on.
Zanin said Coffelt’s ghost can be seen walking outside the Blair House. She also said the curtains could be seen moving, and someone (perhaps Truman) could be seen looking out into the street.
* The Decatur House: A “Lively” Home
Strange things have happened at the Decatur House by Lafayette Square. Supposedly, there have been instances when mysterious voices and the sound of footsteps coming from upstairs were heard. There was even a time when an employee may have heard a file cabinet opening and shutting by itself.
“This has always been a lively place,” said Mame Croze, 22, a public relations and marketing manager at the Decatur House.
Croze, who lives in Washington, said the house is full of history, and no one knows what—or who—is behind such strange alleged occurrences.
The house does indeed have an interesting history. According to the Decatur House Web site, Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr. and his wife, Susan, had moved into the home in 1818. Two years later, Stephen began to argue with his long-time friend, Commodore James Barron, because he thought that Barron did not serve his country during the War of 1812. The two Commodores decided to duel in Bladensburg, MD., in 1820. Both received wounds, but Stephen was mortally wounded. He was rushed back home and died there several hours later.
So could Stephen Decatur’s ghost be haunting the house?
When asked if the place is haunted by any ghosts, Croze said no one knows for sure.
“If the walls can come alive, what would they say?” Croze said.
She added that ultimately, it is in the hands of visitors to find out whether or not they believe in such stories.
“Why don’t you come and decide for yourself,” she said.
For more information about the Decatur House and its “Ghosts and Spirits Evening” event on Oct. 31, visit the Decatur House site.