Our Hidden in Plain Sight series covers some of the 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.
Garfield’s Ghost at the National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of President James Abram Garfield. The Gallery is the former site of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, where Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau at exactly 9:30 a.m. on July 2nd, 1881. Garfield was scheduled to deliver an address at Williams College, his alma mater, before beginning his first summer vacation as president. He was accompanied by two of his sons, and Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln. He had been in office for only 100 days.
During the construction of the National Gallery of Art, John Russell Pope and his builders reported on multiple occasions hearing “hysterical voices and weeping” in the halls, where the former train platforms once stood. The most unsettling part of the story is that when they heard the weeping, they heard three distinct voices, all male.
Even stranger, the noises would only be heard from 9:30 a.m. until about 9:45 a.m., which is around when Garfield was carried to the nearest hospital. It is for this reason the Gallery doesn’t open until 10 a.m.
Sulphur, Bruises, and Eyes at The McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site
Frederick Allen Amerson was a first generation American, born in 1887 to a Northern Irish mother and an Austrian father, and grew up in the tenements on the Southwest Waterfront of Washington, D.C. As a child, he excelled in school, enjoying math far more than a child his age should. During his teenage years, he took an interest in engineering, and began to make a name for himself. His school’s headmaster sent word to some prospects shortly before his Amerson’s senior year, and secured an apprenticeship through the Army Corps of Engineers at age 19.
In 1906, he began hist first year with the ACE, working close to home at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. His job was to learn how the facility worked, maintain operations, and learn as much as he could from the older engineers on staff.
Years later, during a routine maintenance check, he smelled a strong sulfur odor, like rotten eggs, coming from one of the sand storage chambers under the Site. The sand used for the filtration system was stored underground in vaults, with a layer of topsoil and grass over the whole Site, turning it into an open-air park. These vaults were accessible only by manholes, located over the chambers. Amerson took off the cover to Vault 67, where he thought the foul smell originated, slipped, lost his balance, and fell into the hole. Luckily, one of his supervisors saw the accident from a few dozen yards away, and ran to get help.
Only five minutes had passed by the time the team could get the ladder they’ve used countless times to pull people out of the vaults, but the smell became overpowering for some of the crew. A few vomited from the stench of sulfur rising up from the vault. When they finally retrieved Amerson from the depths of the vault, he was pale as a ghost, unconscious, bleeding from the nose, and half-naked. His uniform’s workshirt seemed to have ripped away. His upper body was covered in bruises. All Amerson could stammer, before being carried away to the hospital was, “He’s down there. His eyes saw me.”
He recovered quickly from his wounds, returning to work the following week. He never spoke of the event to anyone ever again, explaining to his superiors that he slipped and fell. The manhole cover to Vault 67 remains welded shut to this day.
The Laughing at John Mercer Langston School
John Mercer Langston School is a three-story, red-brick school building, built in an ornate Italianate style, with wide open windows in the top floor. It was built as a Blacks-only elementary school, during the years Washington DC Public Schools were still segregated. The school suffered severe over-crowding, with up to forty students for every one teacher. The conditions were miserable for everyone, particularly the staff; There was simply no way to keep an eye on all of the students at any one given time. While most students were able to stay in class, there were always a handful who would run wild through the halls.
Shortly after 1954, when DC Public Schools were fully integrated, and the student population was more evenly spread out across the District, the student population at Langston began to decline. By 1997, the school closed for a year, and was converted into a temporary homeless shelter. This shelter lasted only a couple years, as stories began circulating about some disturbing events.
Many reported hearing children’s laughter up and down the halls. Some of the homeless who spent the night at the shelter woke up to the furniture being re-arranged, or to doors being propped shut with chairs. Some even swore they could see children in school uniforms ducking in and out of classrooms. The orderlies at the shelter didn’t believe the stories, so the homeless just stopped going. The site has been closed to the public since 2000, with no plans for renovation.
Bloodstains at The Willard InterContinental
The Willard was in dire straits from the middle of the Great Depression. By 1946, the owners sold their final share of the business, and by 1968, the hotel closed for good. Mismanagement, economic stagnation and decline, and outright lack of upkeep all played factors in the closing. It wouldn’t re-open for almost another twenty years.
During the Willard’s dark years, in the middle of the Cold War, the building was used as a training space for young FBI recruits. The empty hallways, cavernous basements, and towering ceilings in the ballrooms made for suitable proving grounds to get FBI cadets up to speed. Everything from hand-to-hand combat, shadowing, wire-tapping, and even live ammunition firearm training took place at the Willard.
One young recruit, who has still gone unnamed by the FBI, was killed in a training exercise at the Willard in 1975. What some FBI sources have claimed, though not confirmed, is that during a knife defense exercise, the instructor’s knife slipped, puncturing the cadet in the upper thigh, directly into the femoral artery. Because the elevators weren’t functioning, and the recruits were training in one of the upper floors, the cadet bled to death before medics could arrive.
The carpet was replaced in 1985, during the Willard’s first major renovation. The staff at the Willard claims the carpets have been replaced at least six times since then, and each time, the bloodstain comes back from underneath. It will not wash out.
Post Script: All of these stories are complete bunk.
Well, not complete bunk. James Abram Garfield was indeed shot at the railroad station where the NGA stands today, individuals did fall into the sand pits at the McMillan Filtration Site with some regularity, Langston School was briefly converted into a homeless shelter after the school closed and the Willard was extensively used for FBI training during the 1970’s.
Beyond that, it’s all bunk. Happy Halloween.