The White House telephone operators are legendary for their ability to reach anyone in the world, no matter how remotely out of touch they may be.
A number of First Ladies, however, have seemed to do even better with their ability to reach those out of this world and in that mystical realm which is so much a part of the ghoulish pranks and traditional celebration of Halloween.
Halloween was not celebrated as a fun holiday at the White House until First Lady Mamie Eisenhower hosted a 1950s luncheon and had the state floor reception rooms decorated with paper and cardboard witches, black cats and skeletons, corn stalks and pumpkins.
An entire century before that, however, there were tales of ghosts rising in spirit form, beckoned by the bells, horns, rapping, letters, prayers, dreams and beseeching hysterics of several First Ladies.
It is perhaps unsurprising that it was during the Victorian Age, when a societal preoccupation with death and mourning took root and questionable methods arose to provide the inconsolable with methods to contact dead loved ones on the “the other side.”
None who lived in the White House were as obsessed with thoughts of a morbid nature than was Jane Pierce.
From an early age her letters to family members fixate on illness, debility and death. When her two youngest sons died, a morose pall settled on her, but she lived in a permanent state of depression after the horrific death of her eleven-year old son Bennie. The trauma occurred after her husband Franklin Pierce was elected President in November of 1852 but before his March 1853 Inauguration.
The boy and his parents were traveling a short distance by train in Massachusetts, when their rail car overturned into an embankment.
All the passengers were thrown from their seats but metal and wood smashed the skull of the president-elect’s son,, killing him instantly.
Mrs. Pierce briefly glimpsed her dead son in this condition, a sight which haunted her thoughts as long as she lived.
Beyond the grief of personal loss, however, Bennie Pierce’s death left his mother overwhelmed with guilt.
Nothing distracted Jane Pierce from a determination to contact her dead son and convey the depth of her love and beg his forgiveness for withholding the fullest measure of it when he was alive.
The First Lady’s initial effort to contact Bennie seemed to be a psychological beckoning in the form of one long, emotionally wrought letter to him, composed in January of 1853, asking him to come to her so she could further explain her failings as a mother.
She then invited the famous young spiritualists of the era, the Fox sisters, to hold a White House séance so she could reach Bennie.
Whether it was her letter or the séance, Mrs. Pierce did find relief. She would soon report to her sister that her dead son came to her in two successive nights of dreams.
Jane Pierce shared the grim experience of losing a young child to death with the very next presidential wife, Mary Lincoln.
Like her predecessor, Mrs. Lincoln had already suffered the trauma of losing a young son before becoming First Lady.
In February of 1862, while her husband led the Union during the Civil War, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln watched helplessly as her eleven year old son Willie died of typhoid fever: there was little public sympathy for her, the rational being that she had the privilege of at least being with her son when he died while most of the nation’s other mothers were losing their sons to battlefield death.
Responding to the loss as Jane Pierce had to hers, Mary Lincoln began consulting a series of mediums, attending the séance circles of Cranston Laurie, and inviting Nettie Colburn Maynard, William Shockle and another identified in the record only as “Colchester of Georgetown” to conduct these “calls to the dead” in the White House Red Room.
On at least one known occasion, President Lincoln was in attendance.
Laurie was apparently the most successful in uniting the First Lady with her dead son’s spirit because he was permitted to became intimate enough with her to use clairvoyance, detecting that there were enemies around her who must be replaced: to the politically keen Mary Lincoln this claim served to bolster her sense that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase was being disloyal to the President.
While Jane Pierce reported that her son did return to her in dreams, Mary Lincoln claimed that the spirits of her dead sons took actual ghost form and manifested in her White House bedroom.
As she wrote her sister Emilie about Willie: “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he has always had; he does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”
The assassination of her husband led Mary Lincoln to find her only solace in an even more adamant belief in spiritualism.
She reportedly joined a “spiritualist commune” for several days during a New England trip, and famously posed for “spirit photographer” William Mumler, who then created an image of her husband’s ghost with his hands protectively on her shoulders.
Offering her the only comfort she experienced in her years as a widow, Mrs. Lincoln believed it was authentic.
“A very slight veil separates us from ‘the loved and lost,’” she wrote to a friend, “though unseen by us, they are very near.”