The White House Shadowgraphs: The Fortean White House Part 2

(l. to r.) Secretary Hayes, Teddy Roosevelt, bird with spread wings

The White House Shadowgraphs: The Fortean White House Part 2 (l. to r.) Secretary Hayes, Teddy Roosevelt, bird with spread wings

A previous post on the Fortean White House covered mystery stones, ghosts, skeletons, and the Fortean flora and fauna of the executive mansion. It looks as though White House weirdness is trending with the recent news of an intruder who rammed a jeep through security, then jumped the fence because he wanted to spray-paint the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake somewhere on the White House grounds. 

To my regret, in researching the Fortean White House I found no Holy Grails or Templar Baphomets walled up in the White House Press Room. This post deals with strange examples of pareidolia/simulacra in faces and images found in shadows on the columns of the White House from May through October of 1901. 

Mystic Shadows on White House Pillars Change.

Where Once Was Shown McKinley’s Face in Outline There Now Appears That of Theodore Roosevelt.

Washington, Oct. 3. The shadowgraphs on the white pillars of the White House have changed. As was told in The Sunday Republic last May, they have shown outline portraits of “Mother” McKinley, President McKinley, John Sherman and a quaint old woman at a spinning wheel.

All but one of these faces gave way to other forms, so distinct, but most of them meaningless.

The one which remained clear and plainly marked was that of President McKinley.

Since the Buffalo tragedy, that has changed—

And in its stead is a remarkably forceful outline of the new President, in Rough Rider hat, with flaring mustache and slightly open mouth.

The likeness is surprising; the outline, as it is thrown against the white pillar, is as clear as a silhouette.

What does it mean?

There are many and various guesses. But they are guesses—nothing more.

Some read portent of further evil.

For on another pillar, not far removed, is a distinct outline of the hand of a man holding a pistol.

Interpretations of the shadows’ meanings have varied from time to time. On the occasion of the appearance of the profile of Mrs. McKinley, mother of the President, which took shape shortly after the passing of that lady, there were not wanting those who were ready to assign ominous readings to the mute suggestion. Said a gentleman who witnessed the coming of the shadowgraph of the departed woman:

“When a guard who received the first sad intelligence from Canton had ushered the messenger up the stairway he leaned for a moment in the embrasure of the hall window. Casting his eyes upward he observed a strange shadow outlined sharply on a white column of the stately entrance. Plainly silhouetted as by an artist’s brush was the form of an elderly woman, the profile turned toward the White House doorway.

“The strangely marked features at first suggested President McKinley, but every moment the figure took on more feminine guise. As the guard watched it, the shadow, growing more feminine each instant, turned slowly away, as if looking back over its shoulder and disappeared. It had lasted during 25 minutes.

“Nothing more suggestive of the gentle woman who had passed away could be imagined—a visitant born of sunlight and sentiment, shadowing the snowy columns in weirdly tender guise—a spirit of watchful mother love and yearning farewell.”

As the profile of “Mother” McKinley and the profile of Queen Victoria were observed after the deaths of these women, and not before, even the most superstitiously inclined and determinedly pessimistic have been unable to extract from the shadowy appearances any tangible sign of mishap or ill. At the same time they are unwilling to admit that the manifestations are without some hidden and, mayhap sinister meanings. Just what this meaning may be, there has yet arisen no Daniel to make plain.

Not alone, however, are the croakers interested in this matter. Since the death of President McKinley the shadows have so changed their forms as to make them the subject of very general comment and study by the Washingtonian. The native of the capital has grown somewhat used to the comings and goings of the shadows. He had marveled at the old woman with the spinning wheel, the “pointing hand” and at the many and varied reproductions of the facial characteristics of men of prominence in the nation. But, as he had never been able satisfactorily to explain to himself or anyone else the origin and destination of the immaterial showing, he gradually gave over going to the White House in search of new finds, leaving this work to the visitor within the gates, to whom it would come with the force of a new and fashionable amusement.

Now, however, since the fading away of the original groupings and the arrival a totally new and dissimilar set, the native Washingtonian is again to be found in attendance at the White House, viewing with his country cousin for a sight of the latest marvels. He is not always successful in his quest, for the hour of the shadow’s arrival on the white column no man knoweth. These shadows and fitful things, capricious as the winds, variable as the clouds, and may never be depended upon to arrive on a schedule. So the curious have to wait with what patience they can bring to bear. When one of these realizes that an “important” shadow is taking shape he is quick to communicate his discovery to the others who eagerly look around the particular pillar honored by the mystic visitor.

Whenever the pillar bearing the outline of President Roosevelt’s face is fruitful there is sure to be a large and enthusiastic crowd in attendance. These see in the profile nothing to warrant fear of ill fortune to come. Rather do the majority of the shadow hunters lean to the view that he sign is one of good portent to the rapidly advanced young man from New York. It would be hard to imagine a more clearly outlined suggestion of the President than is thrown by the sun and the cornice in partnership. There used to be a man who did business in the hotels along Pennsylvania avenue, a dark, nervous, quick witted, rapid fingered genius who would take a pair of scissors and a sheet of black paper and cut out your silhouette about as  fast as you could cut the pages of a book, by which he rolled up quite a competency, because he was, in his particular and rather odd line, a thorough artist. He never did anything in this connection that could throw into the shade the silhouette of President Roosevelt as lined up against the White House pillar. Hardly a distinguishing outward characteristic of the President is lacking. There is the famous mustache, the well-defined nose, the mouth slightly “ajar,” and, of course, the celebrated Rough Rider’s hat. As if to carry the illusion still further, there depends from the shoulder of the figure what might very well pass for the stock of a gun.

The outline of Secretary Hay’s face, seen first at one hour, then at another, but never twice at the same hour, is almost equally excellent as a likeness. Even those unfamiliar with Mr. Hay, from actual sight of the Secretary, are invariably able to recognize the silhouetted figure form the frequency with which the features of the State Department’s head have appeared in the newspapers.

An amusing oddity is “the hand holding a pistol.” This is not quite so successful a reproduction as are some of the others, and requires a little aid from a responsive imagination before it can be properly catalogued in the list of White House pillar wonders. The hand is not so distinct as it might be, there can be no doubt as to the weapon which extends diagonally down across the column. To be sure, the revolver is suggestive of the “British bulldog” pattern, a variety which we believe not now to be in popular use. It may be that the nations which govern the partnership of the sun and the cornice in their relations to the columns are a wee bit old fashioned. Certainly no up-to-date silhouettist would cast a pistol of such ancient and pudgy form as the one here proudly thrown.

Another of the newcomers in shadowland is the winged figure, or, rather it’s a substantial portion of a winged figure. Were the pillars of the White House portico only a trifle larger and offering broader surface, it is safe to assume that the figure in its entirety would be shown. However, with the limited pace at command, the winged one comes out surprisingly well.

By far the prettiest shadow of the collection is that of the little dove with the outstretched wings. This well favored bird rests near the top of the column, its flying apparatus apparently in readiness for immediate flight. Fortunately, the photographer has been able to gather a very fair idea of the dove before its actual departure.

These are the latest shadows cast on the now famous porticos. There are other figures which come and go, but the recurrence of the pictures mentioned is most frequent and gives rise to most talk. The White House attaches say the intangibles are responsible for a large increase among visitors. As for the distinguished subjects of the sun’s sport, they are as much interested as the rest of the world. The St. Louis [MO] Republic 6 October 1901: p. 42

The Cincinnati Enquirer added a few more images to the list:

President Roosevelt, Secretary Hay, a man holding an outstretched revolver, a portion of a winged figure, and a dove with spreading wings—these are the queer signs and portents which daily take shape on the east portico of the rambling old building fronting Pennsylvania avenue. Less than six months ago the cold and polished surface of the stone reflected other faces and other forms. It was in May of this year that the Sunday Herald called attention to the puzzling portraits silhouetted against the stately columns. At that time the profile of President McKinley was the most noticeable of the shadowgraphs. The clear cut features, sharp, incisive, masterful, were faithfully reproduced in marble.

Other oddities of a changing collection of art were an old woman seated at a spinning wheel, a most marvelous and startling reminder to the most aged of the visitors to the mansion; the head of Senator Hanna, large, round, shrewd, apparently just about to indulge in one of those hearty laughs for which the Buckeye Senator is noted; the profile of Queen Victoria, a picture which came to be known as “the pointing hand;’ the profile of John Sherman and the fleeting semblance of “Mother” McKinley. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 October 1901: p. 12

This article from May of 1901 was one of the first to discuss the mystery and meaning of the shadows:

Long before the death of Senator John Sherman the profile of his face was noted among the shadowgraphs. Even after the death of the original the presentiment continued. Indeed, so long did it remain that attaches and visitors of the White House came to regard it as a permanency. But one day it vanished, passing from the sight of men as suddenly as it had arrived and as thoroughly lost to view as the actuality of the man it represented. Now it is a memory.

These instances, in the minds of most observers, now grown curious and most fearful of the next manifestation, were sufficient to stamp the shadow as a necrological eccentricity. To offset this theory and prove the shadows to be as uncertain of significance as they were of appearance, came, during the busy season of the last campaign, the McKinley outline. The Napoleonic contour of the president and the candidate was plainly cast upon the marble. Interpretation varied according to the temperament of the persons putting them forward. With the remembrance of the previous shadows and their meaning fresh in mind, there were not wanting those who predicted the defeat, at least, of Mr. McKinley. On the other hand, friends of the president construed it as a favorable omen…The victory of the president set a new mark for consideration of the shadows. Not all meant fatality. However, the next tracery was unmistakable and admitted of no two constructions. Coming at the time of the serious illness of the then queen of England, the pillar showed the familiar lines and curves of Victoria Regina. “’Tis a sign,” cried the superstitious, and they declared themselves not surprised when the cable brought the tidings of the death of the much beloved sovereign. 

The shadow visitants to not run according to schedule. The time of their appearance is as variable as the winds of heaven. They may appear at 11 o’clock in the morning, making use of the central pillar on the east side. When this happens the White House employes who have been lingering in this part of the establishment in the hope of shadow reward hasten their companions and visitors to share the marvel. Again, the fantastic creation may choose the central pillar of the west side for its resting place, and then it is another set of attaches that carries the news. If the latter location is selected by the capricious shadow the time for such preferment is usually in the afternoon, between 1 and 2 o’clock.

While the great majority of those who have viewed the shadowgraphs elect to regard them in the light of the uncanny, there are such materialists in Washington who would account for the appearances by the most natural of agencies. These latter are of the opinion that the shadows are cast by the cornice of the building, and that the difference in the sun’s position through the changing seasons causes the change of location from the east pillar to the west.

To the many, however, this explanation is simply a mistaken attempt to interfere with what is fast becoming a cherished institution. As a nation, there is little place for the mysterious. We are not so old as to be able to afford abandoned castles and the amiable ghosts which are the accepted and logical appurtenances thereof. We are not so young as to pin our faith to witchery. Few luxuries in the line of mystery are at our command. Wherefore, plead the believers in signs and tokens, let there be no scoffing over the appearance of the White House shadows, which have been and are and ever shall be marvels, mysteries and passing phenomena. Omaha [NE] Daily Bee 30 May 1901: p. 6

The word “shadowgraph” was also a term for x-rays and for shadow-play entertainments or tableaux if you go looking for more information. One of the articles suggested that similar images had been seen since the time of the Lincoln presidency, when they also were believed to presage death. I have not been able to corroborate that statement. If you have information on that point or anything else on the White House shadowgraphs (do they still occur?) enlighten me at Chriswoodyard8 AT

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 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.

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