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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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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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