CLOSE
Original image

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

Original image


Wikimedia Commons

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


Wikimedia Commons

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.

Original image
NASA // Public Domain
arrow
Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
Original image
NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
arrow
This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios