Our Hidden in Plain Sight series covers some lesser-known D.C. landmarks and historical sites. To celebrate the spookiest holiday, we’re examining some of the lesser known haunted aspects of our nation’s capital.
Nellie’s Sports Bar, and the Ghost of Addison Scurlock
At the turn of the 20th Century, a young North Carolina-born photographer made a name for himself in LeDroit Park. At the ripe, old age of 21, he began his own photo-portrait studio in his parents’ basement. At the age of 23, he had his own storefront at the corner of 9th and U.
Addison Scurlock specialized in portraits of the burgeoning African-American high society in the District. Look around D.C., in any Black-owned business that’s been around since the 1920’s. You’ll find a photo from the Scurlock studio. His portraits, his studio, and his very name became synonymous with the documentation of turn-of-the-century U Street. His studio’s camera was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, and is now proudly on display.
Some years after his death, the family sold the business, and then sold the building. It changed hands a few times, eventually landing squarely in Doug Schantz’s lap. Years of renovation efforts, a lot of elbow grease, and a lot of patience have turned the dilapidated photo studio into the Nellie’s we all know and love. It’s the best party on the block. It makes 1905 look pretentious, it makes Velvet Lounge look like a cesspool (not tough to do), and it makes Brixton look downright pedestrian. Nellie’s is fun, and full of life.
The daytime bartenders don’t like working alone, though. Ask around, and you’ll hear stories about footsteps, voices, furniture being moved… y’know, the run-of-the-mill “our bar is haunted” shit. When Eddie Powers, a fresh-faced 20-something day-shift bartender started at Nellie’s in 2008, he chose to ignore the stories. At least until a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. In between drags of Marlboro 27’s, and sips of Maker’s, here’s how he tells it.
“It must have been two-thirty, three in the afternoon, sometime in early February, and completely overcast, with absolutely no one in the bar but me. We had some electrical trouble that winter– a busted fuse on the heating unit would cause short-circuits every four days or so. On this Wednesday, though, the lights weren’t flickering; they flashed, like a camera would. I could hear the filament in a bulb going off. We don’t have incandescent bulbs at Nellie’s. We’ve always had fluorescent overheads. I went to the circuit breaker, turned off the main, and then saw the brightest flash of light I’ve ever seen, with the same sound, like a an old flash bulb.
“That’s when I heard the voice say ‘that’s good! Hold still for another, please.’
“I looked out from the closet, and into the bar, and saw a forty-something, balding Black man, with a three-piece suit and a close-trimmed mustache, standing at an enormous camera.
“One more blinding flash of light, one more bulb pop, and the lights all came back on.”
Addison has made a few more appearances over the years at Nellie’s, but the staff rests quietly assured he’s just there to keep taking pictures, like he always has.
Blood from the Lion’s Mouth at the Spanish Steps
Robert E. Cook was commissioned by the District government in 1911 to build an ornate, Beaux-Arts-style staircase in Kalorama, at 22nd and Decatur. City Boss Andrew Shepherd’s “City Beautiful” movement was in full-swing, turning the backwater, sleepy Federal City into the District of Columbia we walk through every day.
The Spanish Steps, named after a similar staircase in Rome, features a sweeping, elegant set of balustrades, stretching up the hill, and terminating at a crescent-shaped pool, with a bronze lion’s face as a fountainhead. The steps have become a quiet, secret spot for members of the Cosmos Club and Society of the Cincinnati, whose headquarters are on either side of the stairs.
In 1999, two tourists were killed in a car accident near the steps. A Penske movers’ truck had a faulty parking brake, and went flying down the backside of Mitchell Park, speeding backwards with five tons of cargo in the back, and no one in the driver’s seat. The truck collided with a 1992 Mercury Colony Park, carrying Stephen and Judy Carraway, cross-country road-trippers making their way down the East coast. When the truck reverse-T-boned the Mercury, the rear bumper got under the frame of the station wagon, flipping it over and over down the Spanish Steps.
Judy was killed instantly, when the steering column smashed her nasal cartilage into her brain. Stephen broke more than half the bones in his body, puncturing several organs. He also suffered six separate contusions to the skull, one for each time the car flipped, knocking him into a coma, where he lingered for fifteen days before his heart gave out.
Almost a year later, Stephen and Judy’s son took the Penske rental dealership to court over the faulty parking brake. The judge couldn’t find conclusive proof that it was a case of neglect on the dealership’s part. The dealership’s manager forced the family to agree to a $3,500 structured settlement.
The night after the trial, Evelyn Steele, an afternoon docent at the nearby Woodrow Wilson House, walked to her car alone after staying later than usual at the museum. When she got to her car, just across the street from the fountain, she saw the Lion’s Mouth fountainhead streaming blood into the pool below. She thought it was a trick of the sodium streetlights, and the algae-green fountain basin, but she walked closer, and smelled iron. Blood, without doubt.
The DC Water workers would later tell her there was likely a hard water clot in one of the pipes, maybe mixed with some clay and some rust, which would turn the water red, under the right light. Evelyn told the workers she knew what she saw.
The next morning, the Penske dealership manager was found naked, bleeding, and dead on the floor of his bathroom. Judging by the way his body was splayed, he likely slipped on the slick tile after his shower. What the coroner couldn’t understand is how he managed to suffer six separate contusions.
Shep’s House, On the Banks of the Potomack
It’s an old story. The way J.H. Smoot would tell it, closing his shop, late at night by the braziers and the hogsheads on Rolling Road over the Canal, it all happened when he was just fifteen.
John Henry Smoot, or just Smoot to his friends, came to the port of Georgetown before he was even born, in the summer of 1822. His father found work as a farrier, while his mother cleaned the halls of the Indian King’s Club. He grew up hard, going to work on the canal barges only a year after it opened.
He was wiry, quick on his feet, and could balance himself on the beam connecting the barge and the mule team pulling it. Barge captains would hire him for a day at a time, making the trip from the port, up to Shepherdstown, then back again the next morning. For a day’s work, he earned $1.10, which he brought back to his family.
Late one afternoon, after a couple slow days, he was hollered down from the High Street bridge to the barges below. A red-faced, staggering drunk barge captain needed another hand on the boat for a quick hump up to Fletcher’s Cove. The sun was already setting over the Aqueduct, and the thought of helping a drunk captain steer his barge around the bend at Fletcher’s Cove in the failing light didn’t seem appealing. He needed the money, though. They set off west, as the sun settled behind the treeline.
Smoot handled the beam fine, walking back and forth between the mules and the barge, calling the directions out to the rudder man, all while the captain, reeking of gin, slept in canvas chair on the deck. It was nearly midnight and pitch black when the Lockkeeper’s House at Fletcher’s Cove came into view, its lantern light making it dance over the Canal.
When the barrels of tobacco and cotton were unloaded, and the money was counted, the captain thanked Smoot for his work, paid him a single dollar, and left him to walk back alone to Georgetown in the dead of night. That’s when the rain started. In the dark, and in the mud, Smoot lost his footing on the towpath, and fell down the ravine, into the woods between the Canal and the river.
Without light, and without any sense of direction in the thicket, Smoot was hopelessly lost. He climbed through the dark, stumbling over branches and brush, cutting himself on thorns and the jagged stones along the banks.
And then he found the house.
Under the cover of a leviathan weeping willow, there was a squat wooden cabin with a stone chimney, and a flicker of orange firelight through a window. Smoot knocked on the door. Not a moment later was it thrown open by a tiny old man in his nightgown, with an even smaller old woman just behind him. Soaking wet, shivering and injured, Smoot explained the night’s events on the doorstep, was hurried inside, wrapped in a soft quilt, and put into a wood and wicker rocking chair by the fireplace.
Shep, as the old man introduced himself, had lived with his wife, Cora, on the banks of the Potomac before Washington was ever laid out. He told Smoot of the days when the Canal was just a dream, when all his tiny fishing village cared about was the next day’s catch. As he spoke, the warm fire and the pipe smoke made Smoot’s eyes heavier by the breath. River mud in his hair, and the old man’s stories in his ears, he fell asleep in the rocker, still wrapped in the quilt.
In the morning, Smoot awoke across the room from the old couple’s wooden bed. He could hear Cora snoring gently. Quiet as a mouse, he crept to the mantel over the fireplace, and left the single silver dollar he was paid from the night’s work as thanks for the couple’s generosity. He left through the door, waiting to put his shoes on until he was outside, and far out of earshot.
Upon seeing her son come home, Smoot’s mother alternated between hitting him and hugging him, demanding to know where he had been all night, and elating aloud in her joy of seeing her son alive. When he told her about the little wooden house in the woods, and the old couple who took him in, she turned angry, and accused him of lying. When he pleaded, and told her where he had stayed, she said it couldn’t be so; the house he spoke of burned down with the old couple still inside it more than ten years earlier.
Smoot found the nearest barge headed toward the Cove, followed the ravine, trying remember where his feet had taken him the night before. Suddenly, he saw the old chimney, but standing by itself, with no house around it, under what was left of a massive willow. Walking closer to the remains of the house, perplexed, he saw the silver dollar, still resting on the mantel.
Post Script: These stories are complete bunk.
Well, not entirely bullshit…
Nellie’s Sports Bar was indeed the former studio of DC hero-photographer, Addison Scurlock. Doug Schantz was the one to get the historical plaque on the outside wall. No sightings of Scurlock, though.
The Spanish Steps were the site of an auto accident in 1999, but the only thing that got hurt was a balustrade. It’s since been repaired.
John H. Smoot owned a dry goods store on High Street in Georgetown in 1858, according to this October 28, 1854 edition of the Evening Star. There is also a 19th-Century chimney in the woods between the Potomac and the Capital Crescent Trail. It is unlikely Smoot and the chimney have anything to do with one another.