The Fortean White House, Part 1
I confess that I am useless at the connect-the-dots games and the mathematical mysteries which obsess the students of sacred geometry. And I have difficulty getting excited about the precise nature of our Hidden Overlords, whether Masons, Illuminati, Templars, Reptilians, or the guys with the flaming owl. They would only kill me if I revealed the Truth…
So this post is not Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I have no codices, no Holy Grail, and no embalmed head of Abraham Lincoln to offer.
The Kennedy/Lincoln coincidences, the Zero-Year Curse, and the ghosts of the White House are, of course, well known. Dolley Madison may be found in the Rose Garden; Old Hickory is heard swearing in the corridors; and Abraham Lincoln has been seen pretty much all over the place, although reported most frequently in the Lincoln Bedroom and the hall outside. But while the spirits are the biggest paranormal draw for the executive mansion, there is a modest collection of lesser-known Fortean oddities in the White House and its grounds. Let’s start with a Fortean standby—mystery stones.
One would think that the cornerstone of such an historic building could not be lost, but…
White House Cornerstone Mystery to Historians
Washington, D.C., Oct. 16. That early American mystery—what’s become of the White house cornerstone? Casts an historical cloud over the executive mansion.
Historians say a group of nation-makers gathered here “on or about October 13, 1792” and shoved into place a slab of what they called the president’s palace.
But who was the chief shover, honorary or actual, and what did he do with the cornerstone?
Captain Edwin P. Locke of the United States engineers scraped paint off suspicious looking White house stones and came to three conclusions: The cornerstone is the second one from the ground on the northeast corner.
It bears no inscription nor did it ever.
The tell-tale inscription—probably on a metal plate—is stuck away behind it…. Omaha [NE] World Herald 17 October 1937: p. 12
Embarrassingly, it took another 12 years to find the actual stone:
Solve Mystery of White House Cornerstone After 157 Years
Washington, Nov. 11. After 157 years and the use of an army mine detector, the mystery of where they put the White House cornerstone back in 1792 finally has been solved—it’s on the southwest corner.
On top of the cornerstone was laid a polished brass plate with the inscription:
“This first stone of the President’s house was laid the 13th day of October, 1792, and in the 17th year of the independence of the United States of America. “George Washington, President/Thomas Johnson/Doctor Stewart/Daniel Carroll, Commissioners. James Hoban, architect/Colleen Williamson, Master-mason. Vivat Republica”
The cornerstone was discovered after a White House architect, Lorenzo S. Winslow, read the Charleston, S.C., “Gazette” for Nov. 15, 1792. The newspaper account placed the stone at the southwest corner.
Previously it had been believed that the cornerstone was on the northeast corner, because that was the practice of the Masonic order—and George Washington was a Mason.
But as it turns out Washington wasn’t even there when they laid the cornerstone. Historians say he was in Philadelphia at the time.
Winslow called in the army to corroborate his find and the mine detector was put on the trail. The army reports that it got the loudest “buzz” on the detector at about a three feet height at the southwest corner.
Since the White House is undergoing a thorough remodeling job anyway, the brass plate put on top of the cornerstone 157 years ago may be taken out and dusted off. Register-Republic [Rockford, IL] 11 November 1949: p. 1
A series of stones marked with strange symbols were found in the foundation of the White House basement. See this link for more information.
This is a transcription of a label on an exhibit from The Masonic Library Museum of Pennsylvania. Thanks to Nicholas Reiter of the Avalon Foundation for the photograph.
THE WHITE HOUSE STONES
The house of the President was built between 1792 and 1799 and was destroyed by fire set by the British during the war of 1812. It was repaired in 1814 and painted white to obliterate marks of the fire. In due time the building came to be known as the WHITE HOUSE to the exclusion of the House of the President, and it is so known today. The structure was completely renovated during the years 1943 and 1952, during which numerous stones were found in a wall in the basement, each bearing a Masonic mark of some character. At the direction of President Harry S. Truman, the stones were carefully cleaned and distributed, one stone to each Grand Masonic Jurisdiction in the United States with a letter of presentation.
Collection of the Grand Lodge F & A M of Pennsylvania,
On deposit with The Masonic Library Museum of Pennsylvania.
I am not familiar enough with Masonic symbols to know if these stones were marked with simple builders’ signatures, “Kilroy was Here” doodles, or magickal runes. If they truly were mystic runes placed in the foundation of the White House to hold the Republic together, shouldn’t they have been left in place? [Cue the ominous voice-over….]
An earlier renovation of the White House found something more sinister than stones in the basement.
WHITE HOUSE HID HUMAN SKELETON
Workmen Startled by Strange Discovery Deep Down Under Basement.
Washington, D.C. Aug. 3. Workmen employed in tearing out the interior of the White House last week unearthed, deep down under the basement, a portion of a human skeleton. The discovery created consternation among the colored laborers who are of a superstitious nature, and they were only kept at work with difficulty.
Strenuous efforts have been made to keep the discovery a secret pending a more careful investigation of the bones exhumed from such an unlooked-for but historical resting place. The workmen have been cautioned not to discuss the subject and the most rigid regulations have been adopted to prevent persons not actually employed in the mechanical work from entering the building.
The mysterious discovery was made while the laborers were engaged in excavating a vast pit or sub-cellar below the floor of the basement for the new heating apparatus. After going down about ten feet a massive stone vault was encountered. It proved to be what was apparently the foundation wall of an old house that had evidently stood on the same spot where the White House was afterwards erected.
In this same excavation was found an immense oven imbedded in the one wall and in close proximity to the oven was found the bones. It was the discovery of the bones in conjunction with the oven that terrorized the workmen and caused them to believe that they had unearthed an ancient tomb.
During the tearing out process many other interesting discoveries have been made. For instance, in the famous east room, evidences of the fire of 1814, when the mansion was destroyed by the British were disclosed. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 4 August 1902: p. 1
The story was denied the same day by Foreman Dan Robinson in the Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 4 August 1902: p. 7, who claimed that there was absolutely no foundation for the story and that it was probably started as a joke by one of the laborers. An article in the Montgomery [AL] Advertiser 26 October 1902: p. 23 quotes a policeman as saying the “recently the workmen engaged in the renovation of the White House found deep-buried in the basement a bone, whereupon certain newspapers had printed a startling story that a “human skeleton had been unearthed in the basement of the White House.” I leave it to you to decide if this smacks of a cover up.
Naturally there have been deaths in the White House including Presidents, First Ladies, presidential children, and staff. There was a particularly dramatic, public death on New Year’s Day in 1885.
The reception had just begun. The Diplomatic Corps, the first to have an audience, were about to be presented to the President [Chester A. Arthur] in the red parlor. The East Room was thronged with rank and fashion. A thousand visitors stood in line from the porte cochere to the eastern gate. Then came a dull crash—a sudden rattle of sword and scabbard—a half suppressed cry, and the anteroom door was thrown open, and there upon the floor a dead man lay. Upon the splendor of the scene death had suddenly stalked. And the man lay there in his gold lace forever hushed while the awe stricken New Year’s crowd filed rapidly and silently by, glancing uneasily at the anteroom door, the entertainment having been instantly dismissed. New York [NY] Herald 5 March 1893: p. 13-14
The dead man was the 78-year-old Mr. Elisha H. Allen, representing the Hawaiian kingdom and one of the longest-serving members of the Diplomatic Corps. He was born in Salem, Mass, but became a subject of the Kingdom of the Sandwich Islands.
I previously mentioned the supposed Zero-Year or “Tippecanoe” curse, where presidents elected in years divisible by 20 would die in office. President Arthur was certain that his administration was cursed.
It is a secret that can be no longer kept that the President is in a very bad condition of health,and that he is anxious to get away from the White House. He complains that he cannot stay there, and that if he stays there he will die. He is become possessed with morbid fancies and believes that his administration is an ill-fated one. [Supposedly he and staff members have seen apparitions including President Garfield.] All this is probably idle gossip, but the truth is very well established that Arthur cannot sleep of nights and that he is very much cast down in spirits. He was very deeply affected by the death of Postmaster General Howe and to have remarked when the fact was announced to him, that nothing but gloom had followed him since his residence in the White House. The President is a man of refined sensibilities, and the sad event which made him President has never lifted its shadow from his spirits. Then there has been a succession of deaths calculated to impress him. His New Year Reception was the scene of the tragic death of the Minister of the Hawaiian kingdom. [8 more deaths are listed] and Secretaries Folger and Frelinghuysen have been ill most of the time. It is an ill-fated administration and the gloom that overshadows it is sufficient to give the President the horrors and people the White House with spectres. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 28 March 1883: p. 1
The White House was filled with spectres, including these lesser known apparitions reported by White House staff members in this 1897 article:
Old Jerry, who has been employed as a general utility man about the white house since President Lincoln’s Administration, has told several stories….
The principal place of abode of the spectres is in the attic. Strange noises have been heard frequently proceeding from this unused garret, and have often been very audible in the offices on the floor below. These have been attributed to rats, with which there is no doubt the old building is infested.
But rats did not cause the strange apparition that greeted old Jerry a few nights ago, when he happened to be sent to the attic upon some errand after dark. As he entered the room a shadow seemed to advance from one corner, and as it neared him gradually took the shape of a man.
Approaching very close to the now thoroughly frightened servant, it motioned with an imperious gesture for him to leave. He needed no second bidding, but came down the stairs several steps at a time.
The next day the old negro, while going through the house, happened to see the portrait of ex-President William Henry Harrison. At once he threw up his hands, said: “My Lord, that is the man I saw in the attic!” Whether it was on account of the pale and somewhat peaked face of the illustrious slayer of Tippecanoe that suggested to Jerry a likeness to the shadow he had seen, or whether as a fact the restless old warrior now roams the attic of the White House, where he lived but one month fifty-six years ago, it is impossible to say.
[The article goes on with stories of the tramp of spectral feet ascending the stairway leading to the President’s office on the east side of the building.]
But the strangest and most sensational of all the apparitions reported to have been seen at the white house was told by a policeman who formerly patrolled the white house grounds. The conservatory is not open to visitors except upon occasions of a public nature, such as the president’s receptions. Ordinarily it is unlighted at night, and no one ever enters it after the president’s family has retired.
The policeman mentioned was walking past the conservatory about 1 o’clock one morning, when he saw a light moving about among the flowers. He knew that this was unusual and supposed that some servant had succeeded in gaining entrance and was culling the choice flowers and possibly appropriating some of the valuable plants. He peered into the window, but the light seemed to be upon the other side of the conservatory, so that he could not tell who it was that held it. He entered the conservatory by means of the steps leading from the tool-house underneath, and immediately in front of him was a tall, beautiful lady, dressed in the fashion of the early part of the century. He spoke to her and she disappeared, seeming to go behind one of the large palm trees. He followed, and a musical laugh greeted his ears, but the form had vanished, and a thorough search of the conservatory failed to reveal any visitant. He tried the door which leads from the conservatory into the corridor, but it was locked and would not yield to his pressure. There were no other means by which the lady could have made her exit except by passing him and going down the steps up which he had come. This he was thoroughly satisfied she did not do. The conservatory continued to be lighted by a strange phosphorescent glow for some time, but this gradually faded away.
By this time the policeman was thoroughly frightened, and making no further attempt to locate the mysterious intruder, beat a hasty retreat.
The next night he watched for a return of the lights and the form, but neither came. Everything was dark and appeared as usual for two or three weeks. He had made up his mind that he had in some unaccountable way been the victim of an optical illusion, and that the light had come from some decaying portion of a plant in the conservatory. But one night, about a month after this occurrence, at about the same hour he again saw the light. Pinching himself to see whether he was really awake he again entered the conservatory in same way as before, and at once felt a rush of air and heard the same musical laugh that had greeted him upon his previous visit. He saw no form, but the laugh rang out clearly in the night air, seemingly from different parts of the conservatory at the same time. Almost paralyzed with fear he started to retreat without making any further investigation when he felt a hand pressed upon his shoulder, and turning quickly, he saw the mysterious lady, dressed as before. She smiled upon him and he sank to the floor unconscious. When he regained consciousness the conservatory was dark and no sound could be heard. He dragged himself down the steps and out into the yard. Try as he would, it was impossible for him to gain sufficient control of himself to remain on duty and he went home.
The next day he was discharged. He would never tell the story of his gruesome experiences, hoping that he might be reinstated on the force and assigned to some other post, but now has succeeded in obtaining other employment and has told the story to a number of friends. The Saginaw [MI] Evening News 6 November 1897: p. 8
A mildly interesting coincidence arose in connection with the death of Mrs. Polk.
An Odd Incident
A strange coincidence was noted Saturday, August 15th, by the employes at the White House at Washington, in connection with the death of Mrs. James K. Polk. The morning’s mail brought to the mansion, among other packets, a letter addressed to that lady, “care of the White House.” It was forwarded without attracting any particular notice beyond the comment that it was odd that any one should send mail matter to Mrs. Polk here, after forty years had elapsed since her occupation of the President’s mansion. But when later in the day the death of that estimable lady was announced, the oddity of the incident was doubly impressive. Troy Times San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 27 August 1891: p. 1
During the tenure of Grover Cleveland, someone seems to have made a life-sized poppet of that portly president. But to what end? This is, frankly, one of the oddest Fortean White House incidents I’ve seen.
A very strange thing has happened at the White House. It occurred a few days ago, and all Washington has been talking about it ever since, but the mystery remains unsolved to this hour. It seems that in the early gloaming of the morning light, when but few people were stirring abroad, the apparently stuffed figure of a man of about 200 pounds weight and dressed in a green suit of clothes, a black slouch hat and a paper collar, was plainly seen leaning against the trunk of a tree in front of one of the entrances to the White House grounds. After a brief exhibition of itself it disappeared, nor has it been seen by any one since that time. What it was or who it may have been and what might have been its mission none can tell, but the fact that it was there is in itself a very singular incident, happening as it did while the Master of the White House is away on a shooting trip and cannot have been within many miles of the capital. The general supposition is that the thing was a dummy of some human construction and merely the result of a silly prank; but this is purely an assumption and without proof to establish its correctness. Thoughtful people are inclined to a belief that it was a case of spiritualistic duplication in which, as some persons hold, it is possible for the soul-essence or phantom portion of a man to be in one place while his bodily part or physical self is in another, and the best philosophy bears them out in this theory. Whatever it may have been, the appearance of the apparition was certainly a remarkable coincidence, and the subject should, without delay, be submitted to the consideration of people who make such phenomenon a special study. Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ] 23 March 1895: p. 2
The papers seemed particularly interested in the fauna of the White House, reporting with relish on rat infestions where the giant rodents dragged off live chickens and food from the kitchen while it was being prepared and speculating about the disappearance of an important ratting ferret with ghoulish detail:
A ferret expert who was among the callers at the White House volunteered the theory that it had sucked the blood of so many rats that it had gone to sleep in some nook until it revived from its over indulgence. This theory gave but little satisfaction, inasmuch as live rats scampering about the establishment would not be half so bad as dead ones under the flooring. Washington Post. Titusville [PA] Herald 4 November 1889: p. 3
Of course there had to be a hoodoo involved:
WHITE HOUSE DESERTED
BUT FOR THE “HOODOO”
Washington, D.C. Sept. 26. The practically deserted white house seems to be “hoodooed” these days while the President is away. First, there is a fire which threatens to deprive the President of his home, and this is followed by a report circulated by the white house policemen that the historic mansion is infested with large gray rats.
The first, which occurred yesterday, and which was reported to have been caused by a defective flue, will be thoroughly investigated by the district fire marshal tomorrow. Augusta [GA] Chronicle 27 September 1909: p. 6
[Previous rat infestations were reported under Presidents Grant and Cleveland.]
The story of The Mystery Bug of the White House was widely syndicated.
MYSTERIOUS BUG ATTACKS WHITE HOUSE FURNITURE
Some Call It Cigarette Bug; but Authorities Differ
Washington, April 28. A peculiar beetle of undetermined species has been playing havoc with the hair padding of the costly furniture in the red parlor of the White House and bug experts of the agricultural department have been called for relief. The red parlor bug is mottled with small spots of light brown and dingy white, and has wings. Furniture men said that the insect was known as the cigarette bug, but the agricultural department believes that is of another class. The experts there are inclined to think that the beetle will be identified as the dermestes. All the red parlor furniture will be reupholstered. Boston [MA] Herald 29 April 1915: p. 2
An unknown, bud-eating bird received far fewer column-inches.
STRANGE BIRD ON WHITE HOUSE LAWN
Washington, April 26. A strange bird has descended on the White House grounds and threatens to ruin the foliage. The birds have appeared in the last week in large numbers, and seem to feed entirely on the buds of trees. They are partial to the great elms on the north lawn.
Policeman Curtis, who is an expert on squirrels and birds in the grounds, never saw this particular bird before, and is unable to give it a name. It is about the size of a bluebird, and the feathers of the body and wings are those of a bluebird. The head, however, is brown, shading to a reddish brown at the neck.
The new bird is belligerent, and is making existence miserable for the other feathered tribes of the White House Grounds.
It is probable that Col. Cosby, superintendent of buildings and grounds, will call in a government expert on birds this week to identify the bud-eaters and to devise some plan to get rid of them. Grand Forks [ND] Herald 27 April 1909: p. 4
There was also an interest in the White House flora. Judging by the papers, purely ornamental trees were not permitted in Washington unless they had some symbolic value or an historic pedigree.
WHITE HOUSE TREES DIE
Washington Dispatch to New York Tribune:
Ethan Allen Hitchcock, ex-secretary of the interior, called on the president today and told him that he would make a third attempt to break the “hoodoo” which seems to hover over or under, the eastern terrace of the White House, and has thus far killed two “Washington oaks.” If the third succumbs Mr. Hitchcock says he will give it up.
When Mr. Hitchcock was ambassador to Russia he picked up a handful of acorns from beneath the “Washington oak” that Charles Sumner had planted in the Peterhof grounds. The acorns picked up by Mr. Hitchcock were taken to his summer home in New Hampshire and there grew into sturdy little trees which are now about ten years old.
Soon after President McKinley invited Mr. Hitchcock into his cabinet the latter noticed a large bare plot of ground near the eastern gate of the White House grounds, and asked the president if he would not plant one of the little “Washington oaks” on the spot. President McKinley said he would be glad to do so, and one afternoon handled the spade at the tree planting ceremony. For a time the tree flourished; then it withered and died without apparent cause.
After President Roosevelt succeeded President McKinley another of the oaks was planted, the president wilding the spade. It did well for a time then drooped and died. Now, to prove that he is not superstitious, Mr. Hitchcock will send to new Hampshire for a third tree. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 3 May 1908: p. 9
Charles Sumner (of Alaska purchase fame) kicked an acorn from a tree growing over Washington’s tomb and sent it to the Czar of Russia, who had it planted at the Peterhof Palace.
The White House also had a weeping tree.
A STRANGE TREE
It is in the White House Grounds and Exudes Moisture.
There is a phenomenon near the northeast corner of the White House, which has attracted the attention of several people, notably the policemen who do duty on the grounds. It is a black elm tree, and stands on the side of the asphalted sidewalk, which leads from the northeast gate to the White House. During the warm, clear days of the past few weeks it has been noticed that that pavement under the tree was wet, as if it had been sprinkling. Investigation revealed that the water or whatever kind of fluid it is comes from the tree. It always falls in the driest of weather and keeps the pavement well sprinkled.
Various reasons have been given for the phenomenon, but so far none of a scientific nature. The humorists say that the tree is weeping in sympathy with the disappointed office seekers who stop under its sheltering boughs, and look back at a wreck of ambitious hopes and blighted prospects. The expectation is that the tree will surpass itself this week, if it is really of the sympathetic kind. The departure of the President for Nashville will leave the office seekers a long stretch of waiting and weeping. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 8 June 1897: p. 5
The hoodoo number 13 was obsessively connected with the White House. Popular headlines focused on how the number 13 figured prominently in the new White House china service with its many symbols of the original thirteen states. The china was ordered by the Roosevelts (whose names—Theodore and Annie—had thirteen letters between them) and it was delivered on a Friday the thirteenth. It must have been a slow news day.
There was also much journalistic discussion about the “Hoodoo” wedding (the 13th held in the White House) of Miss Jessie Wilson, the second daughter of Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson regarded 13 as his lucky number because he became 13th president of Princeton in his 13th year at the university and he became President of the United States in 1913. (He also liked to site in the 13th row in the theatre.)
In this spirit Miss Wilson defied convention to have a Hoodoo luncheon:
There were thirteen guests, including the bridesmaids, thirteen bouquets of flowers, thirteen candles as a part of the table decorations, thirteen miniature wedding bells hanging from the chandelier and thirteen miniature Dresden china favors, showing a bride and bridegroom.
A feature of the occasion was the presentation by Miss Genevieve Clark, daughter of Speaker Clark, to Miss Wilson of a small stone cross attached to a chain. It came from Virginia, where the stone is regarded as a ‘luck piece.’” Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 November 1913: p. 2
The bride’s birthstone was the opal and she received many as wedding gifts. Traditionally the stone was considered an unlucky one, unless it was one’s birthstone. While Mrs. Sayre accomplished much, campaigning for women’s rights and working with the League of Nations and the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, she died unluckily young, aged 45, after surgery.
I have lost whatever source I ever had for the following “curse” story from the White House: Mrs. Caroline Scott Harrison, who updated the White House family quarters, was the first to introduce twin beds into the White House. She was in frail health and, due to her illness, slept in a separate bed. She died of tuberculosis in one of her new beds.
The same bed was used by Mrs. Harding, who became gravely ill with nephritis, and nearly died in the White House.
This same bed was also where the first Mrs. Wilson died of Bright’s Disease. (The original story also mentioned that Calvin Coolidge Jr. died in the bed of blood poisoning, but he actually died at Walter Reed Hospital.)
Now this may be complete nonsense that I dreamed up, but usually my complete nonsense has at least some grain of truth behind it. Any tips on beds in the White House? (Other than the obvious: a large donation will procure a spot in the Lincoln bed.) Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Part 2 of The Fortean White House, about the White House Shadowgraphs, which portended death, is here.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.