9 Creepy Things You Probably Didn't Know About The White House
I won’t lie: I find the White House to be a pretty terrifying place right now (for reasons that should be obvious). But even at the best of times, it’s still kind of terrifying — because it turns out there are loads of creepy facts about the White House lurking in the building’s long and varied history.
To be fair, there’s a lot about the White House’s history that’s overtly creepy; Michelle Obama nailed exactly why when she reminded us during the 2016 Democratic National Convention that the White House was built by slaves. Because Mobama is both a better person and a more optimistic one than I am, she used this fact as a way to mark how much progress the United States has made over the course of its history. Here’s what she said at the time:
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. So, don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again, because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”
For many, though, the White House is a fraught symbol — it’s intended to be a representation of a country that believes in freedom and liberty, but it was also built largely by people the country had enslaved, and on ground that colonists had taken from the people who lived here before they got here.
That’s… more than a little weird, and not really a thing to celebrate.
And there are many other weird, creepy, and spooky facts about the White House to be found, too. I dug up a few of them. Some of them are more light-hearted than others, but they’re all low-key terrifying. Sometimes, I think there’s nothing scarier than history.
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1. It’s Supposedly Haunted
Stories abound of the various ghosts allegedly haunting the White House. One of the most famous stories involves two of history’s most notable political personalities: Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly, Churchill, who was then Prime Minister of Britain, took a bath one night while he was staying at the White House. After he emerged from the tub, he walked into the next room, only to find Lincoln leaning on the fireplace’s mantel. They looked at each other — and in one account I dug up, Churchill allegedly took the moment to say, “Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage” — after which Lincoln vanished. Also, Churchill was apparently still naked at the time. There’s nothing quite like running into a ghost when you’re at your most vulnerable.
Churchill is far from the only person to have allegedly seen Lincoln’s ghost wander around the White House, though; others who have spotted him reportedly include first lady Grace Coolidge, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Mary Eban (first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s maid), and President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen.
2. Like, REALLY Haunted
Nor is Lincoln the only former president to have been seen in the White House long after his death. According to other stories, Andrew Jackson has stuck around; in fact, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly told friends that she’d heard Jackson “stomping and swearing” in the halls of the building. Jackson’s former bedroom, the Rose Room, is said to be one of the most haunted rooms in the entirety of the White House.
Other presidents whose spirits have reportedly been seen, heard, or otherwise sensed on the premises include Thomas Jefferson (he plays the violin in the Yellow Oval Room), John Tyler (he proposes over and over again to Julia Gardner in the Blue Room), and William Henry Harrison (he hangs out in the attic, for some reason).
3. SO HAUNTED, YOU GUYS
You want more? OK. I can do that. Here are just a few other ghosts allegedly haunting the White House:
- When Edith Wilson (Woodrow’s second wife — she married him during his first term) made plans to landscape the White House Rose Garden, Dolley Madison’s ghost was allegedly so angry about the idea that she scared everyone into keeping the garden exactly the way it was. The story isn’t quite as pat as you might think — although Dolley is often said to have created the Rose Garden (hence her protectiveness of it), it was actually made by Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen. Maybe the ghost was actually Ellen, not Dolley?
- First lady Abigail Adams liked to hang the laundry in the East Room to dry. Later on, during William Howard Taft’s administration, the East Room was often used for receptions — and folks at those receptions often reported seeing Abigail in a cap and lace shawl wandering through the room or smelling a soapy sort of scent. Today, people still sometimes report catching the scent of wet laundry and lavender.
- Also during the Taft administration, reports of a ghost simply called “the Thing” came with some frequency. Allegedly the spirit of a 15-year-old boy, the Thing had a habit of sneaking up behind people, grabbing their shoulders, and immediately disappearing when they turned to look.
- Anna Surratt was the daughter of Mary Surratt, a woman who was hanged in 1865 for conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln — the first woman who was executed by the United States federal government. Anna has reportedly been seen at the door of the White House, begging for her mother to be pardoned; these appearances often coincide with July 7, the anniversary of Mary’s execution.
4. The Walls Are Still Marked Today By A Fire That Occurred Two Centuries Ago
On Aug. 24, 1814 — deep in the middle of the War of 1812 (which, despite its name, waged on from 1812 to 1815) — British troops ransacked and set fire to the White House. The attack was part of what would become known as the Burning of Washington, which was enacted in retaliation after American troops attacked York in Ontario, Canada, in June two years prior — and although President James Madison and first lady Dolley Madison had already vacated the building before the troops got there, the damage was extensive. The soldiers reportedly ate a meal pillaged from the White House scullery, which they served themselves on White House dishes with White House silver; then they trashed the place and set it aflame.
The Madisons never lived at the White House again; President James Monroe was the next resident, arriving in 1817. Scorch marks from the fire are still visible on some White House walls today.
5. Literal Predators Have Lived In The White House
Dogs and cats have been common fixtures in the White House during the 30-plus years of lifetime, but not all of the pets that have taken up residence with the First Families have been quite so innocuous: Teddy Roosevelt’s kids had a hyena and a small bear (among many, many other pets), Calvin Coolidge had lion cubs (also among many others — the cubs were named Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau), and Herbert Hoover’s son Allen Henry had two alligators. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Hey kids, don’t forget to feed the pets.”
6. 10 People Have Died Within The White House's Walls
Or at least, 10 people that we know of; the White House Historical Association states that its list of people who have died in the White House includes “all known deaths.” It’s of course possible that others — particularly in the building’s early days — could have gone undocumented.
For the curious, the list comprises: President William Henry Harrison (April 4, 1841); first lady Letitia Tyler (Sept. 10, 1842); President Zachary Taylor (July 9, 1850); Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie (Feb. 20, 1862); Fredrick Dent, first lady Julia Grant's father (Dec. 15, 1873); Elisha Hunt Allen, Minister of the Kingdom of Hawaii to the United States (Jan. 1, 1883); first lady Caroline Harrison (Oct. 25, 1892); first lady Ellen Wilson (Aug. 6, 1914); White House Press Secretary Charles G. Ross (Dec. 5, 1950); and Margaret Wallace, first lady Bess Truman's mother (Dec. 5, 1952).
I don’t often think of all the people who have died in every building I enter, but when I do actually stop and spare a moment for it, I get a little creeped out. Maybe that’s just me, though.
7. The First Film Screened In The White House Was… Not A Great Pick
It was The Birth of a Nation, the enormously racist 1915 epic directed by D.W. Griffith. Based on the novel The Clansman, it “presented a distorted portrait of the South after the Civil War, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and denigrating blacks,” as PBS describes it. It’s often studied in film classes — I actually encountered it for the first time myself in a high school film history course myself — for two reasons: One, its notable filmmaking techniques; and two, its phenomenally awful racism and the controversy it fueled at the time (and still fuels now). Even at the time, it was decried for its vilification of people of color and glorification of the KKK… but, uh, President Woodrow Wilson still reportedly said “enthusiastically” after viewing it during its screening at the White House, “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.”
Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. So much nope. All aboard the nope train to Nopesville.
8. There’s An Escape Tunnel From The East Wing To The Treasury
You might know that, in 1941 — shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack — construction on a bunker intended to protect the president in a state of emergency began in secret. The East Wing was built on top of it in order to conceal the bunker’s construction from the public; these days, though, many are familiar with its existence. It’s the President’s Emergency Operations Center; Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other officials of the George W. Bush administration were rushed to it during the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
What you might not know, however, is that while the bunker was being built, a stop-gap measure was put into place: A tunnel connecting the East Wing area and the Treasury Building was built, with several of the Treasury Building’s sturdy vaults being made into reinforced living quarters that could be retreated to for safety if an emergency situation were to arise.
The tunnel ran in a zig-zag pattern to make it less likely that the thing would be destroyed in a single bomb hit; there were also rooms shooting off from the tunnel that could be used for additional shelter if needed. It’s not really used anymore, but I find its existence a little bit spooky all the same. Something about whole areas that have been largely abandoned and forgotten just freaks me out.
9. The “Red Phone” Doesn’t Exist… Technically Speaking
Rumors of a “red phone” — a bright red telephone that connects two of the world’s biggest nuclear powers — have persisted for decades. Unfortunately, the phone itself never existed — but a wire telegraph circuit that did what the phone was purported to do certainly did. A Smithsonian Magazine explains, the circuit was developed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a way to ensure better communication between the United States and Russia. On June 20, 1963, both nations signed the “Memorandum of Understanding,” which stated, “For use in time of emergency the Government of the Untied States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have agreed to establish as soon as technically feasible a direct communications link between the two Governments.” A 10,000-mile-long transatlantic cable was subsequently used to send messages from Washington to London to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Helsinki to Moscow, and back the other direction as well.
A form of it is still in place today. It functions via emails sent over a secure satellite connection. President Barack Obama used it in October 2016 to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin not to use hackers to meddle with the U.S. election.