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The White House of Horrors: 4 Ghosts Haunting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue


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Sure, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn't exactly the Amityville house, but that big, drafty mansion is one of the most haunted of houses in America. Over the decades, and particularly in the early ones, the presidents and families who have called the White House home suffered the turmoils of war, illness, depression, and even death. So it's no wonder that some tortured souls might want to return for unfinished business.

After moving into the White House in 1945, Harry Truman wrote to his wife Bess about their spooky new abode: "I sit here in this old house … all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth—I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt]."

Who, exactly, is wandering the White House's cavernous halls? Here, a rumored rundown of the ghosts lurking at the country's most famous address.

1. Abigail Adams


John and Abigail Adams were the first residents of the White House, which was still under construction when they moved in at the turn of the 18th century. While they didn't live there long (Adams wasn't re-elected), Abigail—or at least her ghost—made a lasting impression on the house. With most rooms still being built, the First Lady preferred to hang her wash in the East Room as it was the warmest and driest available. In later years, this room would be used for receptions, and members of the Taft administration reported seeing a ghostly Mrs. Adams, clad in a cap and lace shawl with arms outstretched as if carrying laundry, saunter through. Others noted a light soapy fragrance drift through the room.

2. Andrew Jackson

It was actually during Lincoln's presidency that the ghost of Andrew Jackson, the country's seventh president, returned to the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln said in 1865 that she actually confronted his "cantankerous" ghost in his former bedroom, the Rose Room. Argumentative and fiery in life, Jackson's ghost was just as boisterous in the hereafter. Mrs. Lincoln reportedly heard Jackson "stomping about" and even "cussing" in his old room. His hauntings persisted, and by the 1950s the Rose Room earned the reputation as the most possessed location in the White House. Visitors have reported the sound of loud laughing and unexplained cold spots in the creepy space.

3. Dolley Madison


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Dolley Madison, the wife of our country's fourth president, James Madison, had her eyes set on the White House garden from the get-go. It was Dolley who planted the original, now famous White House roses, and it is believed that her spirit continues to return to check on her beloved flowers. Nearly a century later, when First Lady Edith Wilson attempted to remove the garden, workers reported seeing a "very angry" Dolley apparition and quit the job immediately.

4. Abraham Lincoln

Honest Abe is considered the most common White House ghost, but the Lincolns' connection to the spiritual world began while they were still alive. In 1862, after losing a second son, Mary Todd Lincoln was so distraught that she turned to spiritualists in an attempt to communicate with her beloved Willie. She held seances and "sittings" in the White House, which Abe reportedly joined, despite an outward show of skepticism.

For his part, Lincoln is considered our most "otherworldly" president. In an 1842 letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln wrote, "I always did have a strong tendency to mysticism." Later, he foresaw his death in a dream. And it is that abbreviated second term that draws Lincoln back to the White House. A number of White House residents who came after reportedly saw his lanky figure or felt his presence. Calvin Coolidge's wife Grace saw him standing, looking out a window of the Oval Office across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields. Other First Ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt—who used Lincoln's bedroom as her study—and Lady Bird Johnson, reportedly "felt his presence." When Winston Churchill visited the White House during World War II, the British Prime Minister reportedly came out of the bath to find a ghostly Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room. Later, Ronald Reagan told the story of how his grown-up daughter, Maureen, and her husband, Dennis, had both witnessed, at different times, a transparent figure wearing a stove-pipe hat standing by the window of the Lincoln bedroom where they stayed. But fear not, visitors. It's believed Lincoln's spirit is a good one and sticks around only to be of help during times of crisis.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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