The unearthly chants, muffled trumpeting and sharp, repetitive knockings that characterized the séance tactics of 19th century mediums to summon ghosts for the likes of Jane Pierce and Mary Lincoln were silenced by the early 20th century, and yet several First Ladies of that era nevertheless admitted to suddenly experiencing an immediate, visceral sense of spirits in the old house.
Eleanor Roosevelt went on the record to publicly state that she did sense some type of “presence” while working in solitude in one of the presidential family rooms in the White House private quarters, leading her to believe she was not alone.
She was careful, however, not to say she saw an apparition or to use the word “ghost.”
It may be no coincidence that claims that some of her immediate predecessors saw or sensed ghosts in the White House stem from this same immediate period in history, when ludicrous Victorian tactics used to prove there was a “spirit world” had given way to efforts introducing “science” into the debate.
By the time of World War I, new allegations of “proof” emerged, no longer indicting anyone who believed in ghosts as irrational. The great wave of White House ghost sightings came during the three decades following, approximately 1919 to 1945.
At least two claims were patently false.
The legend that Edith Wilson’s plan to landscape a portion of the South Lawn until she was spooked by the ghost of Dolley Madison, who protested the change to what had been her old rose garden is a great story, but easily dismissed.
In fact, it was not Dolley Madison who created the first White House Rose Garden but rather the first Mrs. Wilson, Ellen Axson.
A claim that Lou Hoover saw the ghost of Abigail Adams approaching the doors of the large and long East Room, where she had famously had her servants hang her family’s laundry to dry on ropes emerged years after she’d hosted a wedding shower there for one of her secretaries with laundry set up on clothing-lines there as a theme.
As the story about the party was repeated, it was recast as having a more secretive, ghoulish origin.
One story might be true.
Years after the fact, White House seamstress Lillian Rogers Parks reported that unearthly cries of childbirth pain were heard in the west end in the second floor presidential family living quarters of the “old mansion,” meaning before its Truman Administration renovation.
Later, more fanciful versions state that it was Bess Truman who heard these cries and told her husband about them. In letters to her when she was back home in Missouri, the President’s proclivity to believe in White House ghosts of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln was evident; the later, elaborated tales suggest that it was really he who declared the cries to be those of the ghost of Frances Cleveland, the only First Lady to give birth there, to daughter Esther in 1893.
If there was any truth in this, the ghost didn’t have much time to haunt: former First Lady Frances Cleveland died in October of 1947 and the Trumans moved out months later, during the 1948 presidential campaign, so the massive renovation of the old White House could begin. In fact, they had both first met Frances Cleveland just months before in Princeton – when she was alive.
The sounds Truman reported as being those of ghosts were more likely those of the old building’s structure giving out.
Claims of four living First Ladies sensing the spirit of one dead President are, however, authentic, being made by the women themselves.
In a series of American Magazine articles she authored about her life as First Lady, Grace Coolidge confessed to once glimpsing the ephemeral image of President Abraham Lincoln standing by a window in what had been his office (the present-day Lincoln Bedroom).
His momentary manifestation, Mrs. Coolidge reported further, had him looking out a window at Virginia in the distance, where he could once see across the Potomac River to a Civil War battlefield.
The room where Eleanor Roosevelt often worked, just to the west of the present-day Lincoln Bedroom, was a private study in the day of Lincoln, with a door connecting both places, a partitioned path permitting the President to move inconspicuously.
Eleanor Roosevelt had furnished this room with durable wood pieces made by the Val-Kill Factory, the upstate New York furniture enterprise she had helped create. It was while working here alone and late at night that she felt Lincoln’s presence.
Perhaps it was the power of suggestion but two prominent European visitors who were overnight guests in suites at the east end of the second floor, near where the American First Lady worked, also felt what she did.
When she heard a knock on her bedroom door, Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina rose to answer it and claimed to see the ghost of Lincoln and fainted in reaction. Given the same suite to use during his visits, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was entering the bedroom from the bathroom and told of seeing Lincoln’s ghost seated beside the open fireplace.
Once, after watching a television documentary about Lincoln, admitted Lady Bird Johnson, she strongly sensed his presence in the long hallway of the private quarters, which ran from the west end of the family quarters to the east end where, in Lincoln’s day, his office had been located.
In 1961, during an interview with Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy said that while the President she admired the most was Thomas Jefferson, that it was Lincoln for whom she felt the greatest affinity.
She added that she often went alone to sit quietly in the Lincoln Bedroom and find solace amid the craziness of public life by being in his presence.
By the end of the 20th century, First Ladies no longer needed spiritualists or mediums to contact the dead. In fact, one particular First Lady proved rather successful in calling to mind the spirit of another First Lady.
It was not the return of Eleanor Roosevelt in ghost form at all, but the “spirit” of the woman that Hillary Clinton sought to draw from as an inspiration, upon the recommendation of Jean Houston, a psychologist who had also studied theology and leader of the “human potential movement.”
The two women were working together on a book project of the First Lady when Houston suggested that she imagine how Mrs. Roosevelt, who Mrs. Clinton especially emulated, might react to any number of obstacles that she encountered as First Lady.
When the public first learned of this, however, the story which hit the media was that Hillary Clinton was regularly channeling the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt for conversations.
Knowing the best way to dismiss a wild story was to use self-deprecation, the First Lady began cracking that she had just talked over with Eleanor whatever issue the press asked her about that day.
As she noted in a July 23, 1996 letter to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “Given the latest flap over my ‘imaginary conversations’ with Mrs. R, I’ll be sure to pass on your greetings the next time we talk!”