Ghosts of the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Halloween from History First!

Since John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, the executive mansion has had its fair share of inhabitants–from this world and the next. Jared Broach, who offers tours of haunted places in America, calls paranormal sightings in the White House “verified.” To say otherwise, he noted, would be “calling eight different presidents liars.”

One of the first people to live in the White House–Abigail Adams–is reported to continue to roam the halls. Witnesses have claimed to see her en route to the East Room–where she once would hang laundry–and some White House staff have smelled wet laundry and the scent of lavender. Why Abigail Adams would prefer to spend her time in the afterlife doing laundry at the White House, instead of relaxing at home in Massachusetts, is beyond the comprehension of History First.

Harry Truman wrote a letter to his wife in 1945 expressing the haunted feeling of his new home–he was only two months into his term at the time.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Truman wasn’t the only one to imagine Jackson’s lingering presence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who wanted desperately to believe in the afterlife after the death of her sons, and then her husband, also felt Jackson. She told friends that she had heard Jackson “stomping and swearing.” Jackson has also been spotted lying in his bed in today’s Rose Room, and others have heard his “guttural laugh” in the White House since the 1860s. In addition to Jackson, Mary Lincoln also once reported seeing the ghost of her dead son, Willie, at the foot of her bed, and even thought she heard Thomas Jefferson playing the violin.

In 1946, Truman wrote another letter to his wife detailing a more concrete supernatural experience. He writes that he went to bed, and six hours later heard a strong knock on his bedroom door.

“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s [the president’s daughter]. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Perhaps the White House’s most famous ghost is Abraham Lincoln–killed only a month and a half into his second term in office. Grace Coolidge first reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the 1920s, staring across the Potomac at old Civil War battlefields. Other first ladies also sensed Lincoln’s presence. Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked out of a room near the Lincoln Bedroom, said she strongly felt Lincoln’s presence one night. Two European visitors, staying down the hall, said that they had felt the same thing. Lady Bird Johnson, after watching a documentary about Lincoln, admitted to similar feelings in the private residence, where Lincoln had once worked out of his office.

Other visitors to the White House have had more tangible crossings with the assassinated president. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited the White House in 1942, and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. She claimed to have heard a knock on the bedroom door, and to have discovered Abe Lincoln on the other side–an experience so frightening that she fainted outright.

Winston Churchill liked to tell a story about his own ghostly Lincoln encounter during a visit to the White House in 1940. As Churchill tells it, he had just stepped out of the bath and picked up a cigar. Walking into the next room wearing nothing and still dripping wet, he found Lincoln by the fireplace.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s dog, Rex, seemed to sense something unsettling about the Lincoln Bedroom. It was the only room in the White House that the dog refused to enter. Reagan himself said that Rex had twice barked “frantically” in the Lincoln Bedroom, then backed out and refused to come back in. The president went on to say that one night while the Reagans were watching TV in the room below the Lincoln Bedroom, Rex began to bark at the ceiling. The president thought the dog might be detecting some sort of spy equipment, perhaps an electrical signal too high pitched for Reagan to hear himself.

And yet Rex the dog wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about the Lincoln Bedroom during the Reagan administration. The president related a story in which his daughter Maureen and her husband both saw a ghosty figure in the bedroom, looking out the window.

It seems that the ghosts of the White House have been fairly quiet in recent years–or perhaps the current and recent inhabitants are hesitant to tell their stories.

Thomas Jefferson & Emmanuel Macron: Foreign Dignitaries, Then & Now

By Kaleena Fraga

On Tuesday night, the Trump White House welcomed Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and his wife Brigitte to the Trump Administration’s first official State Dinner. The Macrons were greeted with all the pomp and circumstance that has come to be expected of state dinners. It’s quite a contrast to how some foreign dignitaries were treated during the early years of the country.

When Thomas Jefferson entered the White House in 1801, he was determined to represent himself as a republican in dress and manner–not like his political foes, the Federalists, whom he suspected were all aristocratic monarchists.

But Jefferson’s simple republican ways ran up against traditional procedure of greeting foreign guests. When the British Minister to the United States (this in a time where American presidents received envoys from foreign nations, rather then meet with other leaders face to face) Anthony Merry, presented himself for the first time at the White House he had quite a shock. Merry had dressed up for the occasion–wearing a blue dress coat with a gold braid, his white breeches and silk stockings, and a plumed hat, with his sword at his side. Accompanied by Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, Merry was shocked to find that the president had not jeffersoncome to formally greet him–in fact, he was no where to be found. Madison and Merry more or less ran into Jefferson while wandering the halls of the White House looking for him. From there, Merry’s sense of insult deepened. Jefferson wore simple clothing–slippers, breeches, and woolen stockings.

Merry was shocked, and felt that Jefferson’s dress and appearance was not only an insult to him, but to the Crown. And it got worse. At dinner that night–where the Merrys assumed they would be guests of honor–Jefferson, a widower, took the arm of Dolley Madison, not Elizabeth Merry (despite Dolley’s insistence that he should “take Mrs. Merry” instead). Then, because Jefferson favored a “pell-mell” style of seating–that is, random seating, not by rank–the Merrys found themselves fighting for a seat. As Merry tried to take a seat next to the Spanish ambassador, an ambitious Congressman barreled ahead of him to take it for himself.

Utterly dismayed, the Merrys boycotted all future White House events.

According to Jon Meacham’s Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, this sat perfectly well with the nation’s third president. “We say to them, no,” Jefferson wrote, referring to those, like the Merrys, who preferred the time-honed tradition of formal dress and dinners, “the principle of society with us, as well as of our political constitution, is the equal rights of all: and if there be an occasion where this equality ought to prevail preeminently, it is in social circles collected for conviviality.”

Of course, Jefferson, a Francophile who distrusted the British, would probably be more thrilled to host the Macrons at the White House than he ever was to host the Merrys.

First Lady Feature: Dolley Madison

By Kaleena Fraga

Dolley Madison is best known for rescuing a portrait of George Washington from the White House during the British attack on Washington D.C. in 1814. She, like Nellie Taft, was an indispensable member of her reticent husband’s presidency.

dolley madisonIn David McCullough biography’s of Madison-foe John Adams, the nation’s fourth president is described as “a tiny, sickly-looking man who weighed little more than a hundred pounds and dressed always in black.” When Dolley Madison caught his eye and he asked for an audience with her (bonus trivia: mutual friend Aaron Burr set them up), she wrote her sister that “the great, little Madison” wanted to meet her. Great because of Madison’s political reputation; little because at 5’7, Dolley Madison was several inches taller than her future husband.

When Thomas Jefferson won the election of 1800, James & Dolley Madison moved in with the new president to the White House (James Madison was the new Secretary of State). Jefferson had been a widower for several years, and his daughters had not come to live with him in Washington. Although the Madisons eventually found a home of their own near the White House, Dolley Madison became the de facto First Lady.

Whenever Jefferson held dinners at the White House where women were invited, Dolley Madison was the hostess. To her husband, who was a prolific writer, and who had conducted much of his politicking through letters, Dolley was an immense asset–especially in a city like Washington D.C. where politics were based more on social relationships. Dolley thrived in such an environment.

As Secretary of State, Madison needed to become better at face-to-face interactions. In james madison1the James Madison biography The Three Lives of James Madison by Noah Feldman, Feldman writes that Dolley was instrumental in forming Madison’s ability to converse with diplomats and their wives. “Under Dolley’s tutelage,” Feldman writes, “Madison developed what would become a lifelong habit of telling witty stories after dinner, the ideal venue for his particular brand of dry wit.”

Dolley Madison presided over the first inaugural ball when her husband was elected in 1808. While Dolley “looked like a queen” according to an attendee, her less social husband remarked to a guest that he “would much rather be in bed.”

In the eight years of her husband’s presidency that followed, she went on to shape the role of first lady more than her predecessors. She was the first one to live full-time in the White House, and as such set out to transform the executive mansion, and to make it a social center of the nation’s capitol.

When the British invaded Washington D.C. in 1814, Dolley was alone at the White House, her husband out rallying the troops. He had sent messengers telling her to flee, but she white house burningwanted to wait for his return. According to an account by Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery at Madison’s estate of Montpelier and then working at the White House, the table had been set for dinner when a rider came charing to the mansion with the message that they must evacuate immediately. Dolley wrote her sister that she insisted on waiting until they could unscrew the portrait of George Washington from the wall.

“This process was found to be too tedious for these perilous moments. I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out.”

It was then rolled up and sent to New York, where it would be safe. Dolley Madison instructed its guardians that they should destroy the painting rather than allow it to fall into British hands. When the British troops arrived they found the table set for dinner. They ate their fill, and then burned the house to the ground.

Dolley outlived her husband by thirteen years, and continued to play a social role in politics after his death. She often told stories of the Founding Fathers and their generation, and advised other First Ladies on their role in the White House. Her last public appearance was on the arm of then-President James K. Polk.

First Lady Feature: Pat Nixon

By Kaleena Fraga

p nixonIn honor of Women’s History Month, History First is going to spend some time talking about the women standing beside American presidents. First–one of our favorites: Pat Nixon.

Pat Nixon, who holds the honor of being the first First Lady with a college degree, had a remarkable life long before meeting Richard Nixon. Born Thelma Ryan, she went by the nickname “Buddy” as a girl and “Pat” when she got older–apparently changing to Pat after the death of her father, who’d often referenced her birth being only a few hours before Saint Patrick’s day. By the time she was seventeen, both her parents had died–leaving her to care for her brothers.

When she graduated high school, Pat moved to New York City and worked in a Catholic hospital in the Bronx. Upon returning to California, she worked her way through college and earned a degree from the University of Southern California. Her tuition cost 240$. Pat worked 40 hours a week to pay it.

Having worked for this degree, and having attained a job as a teacher in Whittier, California, Pat Ryan had no desire to find a husband and settle down. But her acting partner in a local theatre group had other ideas. Richard Nixon pursued her with a persistence that many would see today as over the top and creepy. When he first asked her out, she said no. When he asked her again, she laughed. “Don’t laugh,” he told her, according to John A. Farrell’s Nixon biography, Nixon, The Life, “someday, I’m going to marry you.”

Indeed, Richard Nixon went to great lengths to keep Pat in his life, including driving her to dates with other men. When she moved without telling him her new address, he sent a letter to her school, writing that he had to see her again–anytime “that you might be able to stand me!”

pat and dickStill, the two came from similar backgrounds of hard work and tough luck, and Pat seems to have changed her mind. Two years after they met, she accepted his proposal of marriage.

As First Lady, she encouraged Americans to volunteer their time to good causes, and continued Jackie Kennedy’s project of preservation of the White House. She had the first wheelchair ramps installed at the White House (which is remarkable, since twenty years earlier, the president himself used a wheelchair). She also created White House tours for visitors with trouble seeing or hearing.

Many within Richard Nixon’s inner political circle saw Pat as the human side of the president they needed to project to the public. Charles Colson, a White House aide who would later be incarcerated for charges relating to Watergate, wrote a memo to the president about First Lady Nixon’s recent humanitarian trip to Peru. (Pat Nixon would be the most traveled first lady until Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the White House):

“As you know we have tried hard…to project ‘color’ about you, to portray the human side of the President…because of the hostility of the media, it has been an exceedingly difficult, frustrating and not especially successful undertaking. Mrs.  Nixon has now broken through where we failed. She has come across as warm, charming, graceful, concerned, articulate and most importantly–a very human person. It would be hard to overestimate the political impact…She is an enormous asset.”

Pat Nixon’s other legacies include the White House being lit at night, historical markers along the White House fence so that visitors could learn about the house and its history, and the refurbishing of the White House itself.

nixon at pat's funeralThe marriage was far from perfect–Pat once wrote a friend that when it came to household chores, “Dick is always too busy, at least his story, so I do all the lugging, worrying and cussing,”–but their relationship remained solid. It takes only a look at Richard Nixon’s face at the funeral of his wife to see the impact she had on him. And not only him–but the on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who visit the White House, and the First Ladies who followed in her footsteps and her example.