When I was a kid one of the earliest books about ghosts I ever read had a story about the ghost of Abe Lincoln in the White House. I don’t remember the title of the book, or much else about it other than it told the story of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln knocking on the White House bedroom door in the middle of the night.
If you search for White House ghost stories the mention of Lincoln’s ghost is usually the most popular. So, I thought that I would delve into the historical lore behind the ghosts of the White House, starting with the Lincoln family. This will be a series of posts, so if you haven’t already, subscribe to our newsletter to be informed about upcoming posts and other bits of news.
The Death of William Wallace Lincoln
The middle child of President and Mrs. Lincoln, Willie Lincoln was said to be a very friendly and happy child; he was also the son with whom Lincoln was closest to. Willie and his younger brother Tad both became ill in early February 1862 with what is believed to have been Typhoid Fever.((Family: William Wallace Lincoln))
He lay very ill, in the Lincoln Bed, in what was an upstairs guest room of the White House. This room is now called the Private Dining Room. On February 20th, 1862 he passed away, throwing the Lincoln’s (especially Mrs. Lincoln) into an inconsolable grief. The picture below, taken in 1898, is the room Willie Lincoln died in, which at the time was the McKinley bedroom.((Family Residence Dining Room))
Shortly after his death, Willie’s body was taken downstairs to the Green Room where it was embalmed and laid out for viewing. The Green Room was Mrs. Lincoln’s favorite room up until this point. In 1861 she went to great lengths redecorating it and was very proud of the purple drapes.((Green Room History)) Mrs. Lincoln came to view her son’s body only once. She laid a piece of laurel on his chest and then quickly left the room. She never set foot in the room again and did not attend his funeral.
Willie’s funeral was held at 2 pm on February 24th, 1862, in the East Room. During the funeral and procession to Oak Hill Cemetery, Mrs. Lincoln remained at the White House, in bed.
Seances In The White House
It’s well known that Mrs. Lincoln was very into spiritualism which was quickly gaining in popularity at the time. After the death of Willie, she increasingly began participating in seances, usually at the homes of friends in Washington. On at least one occasion, however, she held a seance in the White House with President Lincoln in attendance.
They referred to the seances as “calls to the dead” and Mrs. Lincoln’s favorite medium was Cranston Laurie.((First Ladies & The Occult)) Shortly after she attended these seances she began to talk of both of her dead sons (Willie, and a son Eddy who died years before). She told friends that Willie would come and stand at the foot of her bed in the middle of the night.
Ghostly Sightings of Willie Lincoln
The first published mention of the White House being haunted that I could find comes from The Washington Critic on April 22nd, 1883 and is titled “Is The White House Haunted?”. However we’ll get to that article in a future post because it does not involve a Lincoln ghost.
Grant Administration – 1869 – 1877
Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House from 1869 until 1877. In the 1870’s, a member of Ulysses S. Grant’s staff reported he had a conversation with the ghost of Willie Lincoln. Members of the Grant Administration also said that his ghost was spotted throughout the White House from time to time. I found a couple of vague newspaper articles that all mentioned the same thing. However, no one was ever quoted by name.
Taft Administration – 1909 – 1913
The first direct Willie Lincoln ghost mention comes from someone pretty well connected to the White House in his day, Major Archibald Willingham Butt. What a name huh? Major Butt served as a military aide to both Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. He also, unfortunately, went down with the sinking of the Titanic.
In July 1911 he wrote a letter to his sister stating “It seems that the White House is haunted.” He went on to detail an event where he overheard a few of the servants talking about some ghostly activity. Maj. Butt relayed the gossip to President Taft who “went into a towering rage”. Taft threatened the staff saying the next person to talk about ghosts again would be summarily fired. Realizing that the President must have heard these stories before by the way he reacted, he waited until the President calmed down to ask him what it was all about.
A short while later Major Butts and President Taft talked about the servants being upset over the ghostly activity. The President relayed that the ghost is felt more than seen, and the consensus among the staff is that it is the ghost of a boy. They told him that more than one person has felt a hand placed on their shoulder when they’re alone working in the White House. They said it felt as if someone was trying to look over their shoulder to see what they were doing. ((The Brooklyn Daily Eagle · Thu, Sep 4, 1930, · Page 6))
Eisenhower Administration 1953 – 1961
During an event at the White House in the 1950’s, the young daughter of a Belgian Ambassador was seen playing peek-a-boo with an unseen playmate. When her parents asked what she was doing, she explained she was playing with a boy. She described him in detail but no one else had seen any other children. During a visit to the Smithsonian shortly after she pointed at a picture of a boy and told her parents that was who she was talking to at the White House. When her parents looked up, they saw that it was a picture of Willie Lincoln. ((Arizona Republic 31 Oct 1978, Tue • [First Edition] • Page 20))
Johnson Administration 1963 – 1969
The last reported sighting of Willie Lincoln took place during the John Administration. Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Robb was staying in the room in which he died. Not only did she report seeing his ghost, but she also spoke to him. I would love to know the details of this encounter, but that brief mention is all that I could find. ((Ghosts of Presidents Past))
So, I thought I would try and reach out to Lynda Robb and see if she would be willing to share her story with me. To my surprise, she called me, just a couple of days after I mailed the letter.
She explained that when she moved into the White House (which she called a great honor) she really wanted to know who lived in the room before her. So she began to ask around and no one really could give her answers prior to the Eisenhower Administration. That wasn’t good enough for her! So she began to research and found all the macabre history of her room.
She said that over the years her talking about researching her room somehow turned into her seeing and speaking with Willie Lincoln. “Unfortunately, ” She said “I never saw or spoke with Willie Lincoln. I wish I had a better story to tell you!”
So there you have it!
Reports of ghostly activity at the White House seems to have dwindled since massive reconstruction was done in the 1950’s. It could be that the ghosts have calmed down over the years, or I’m inclined to think that people shrug off odd things they notice. Maybe the ghost of Willie Lincoln is still wandering the halls of the Executive Mansion but the stories just aren’t making it past those historic rooms.
The next post in this series will be about the main man himself, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.