DeFlip Side #89: Dead Presidents


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

In the spirit of President’s Day, I’d like to invoke some presidential spirit. No, not the kind of joyus good will that has ushered Barack Obama into his historic term in office. I mean actual spirits from actual past presidents—you know, the dead ones who we commemorated by taking Monday off. There’s a wealth of lore concerning presidential hauntings, and it’s only fitting that I start with the father of our country, George Washington.

Okay, to be honest, George Washington doesn’t have a very exciting ghost—just some mundane Mc-hauntings in hotels and woods around Virginia. But there is one really cool story that has Washington’s spirit manifesting during the Civil War, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, swooping in on a dazzling white stallion, sword upraised, rallying a group of Union soldiers to fix bayonets and charge Confederate troops trying to take a hill called Little Round Top.

Thanks to Washington’s otherworldly prodding, Union soldiers drove the Confederates into full retreat, or so the story goes. Hell, if a dead guy with wooden teeth and flaming sword materialized and started yelling at me, I’d probably hightail it and take my chances with the enemy as well. Sometimes Washington’s ghost still gallops across the battlefield at Gettysburg, so some people claim.

Ironically, the one place you never hear of Washington haunting is Washington, D.C.; most likely because he never lived there. But other dead presidents take up his slack.

The ghost of John Quincy Adams has been seen in the U.S. Capitol Building, in Statuary Hall, supposedly standing in the exact spot where his desk was located when he was an aged Congressman serving in the House of Representatives long after his presidency ended. He collapsed there on the verge of making a speech and died a few days later.

President James Garfield’s spirit was also reportedly roaming the Capitol while his body lay there in state following his assassination.

And Henry Wilson, vice president to Ulysses S. Grant, also lingers in the Capitol building, having died in office from catching pneumonia after bathing in the marble tubs installed in the Capitol’s basement. Security guards have heard unexplained sneezing and coughing outside of his office, accompanied by a damp chill and a scent of old soap. Hey at least he’s a hygienic haunt with courtesy to freshen things up a bit.

You can’t say the same for the ghost of President Andrew Jackson, who has long menaced folks visiting the Rose Room in the White House. Old Hickory slept there, and he apparently doesn’t like people traipsing through his bedroom. The cranky old bastard has also been heard roaming the halls, stomping and cursing—by no less reputable a witness than Mary Todd Lincoln. Unfortunately, it seems she was a bit of a crank herself, a real spiritualist kook who frequently held séances in the White House.

But other first ladies have gotten more credibly in on the act. Abigail Adams has been sighted in the East Room, arms outstretched as if carrying in a load of laundry to hang, as she did there in life. Another story says that a full-bodied apparition of Dolly Madison actually chased off a gang of workers who were hired to dig up the White House Rose Garden, which she planted. The garden is still there, a favorite spot for presidential photo-ops.

But no former White House occupant is more associated with the paranormal than President Abraham Lincoln. Good old honest Abe couldn’t disentangle himself from the spirit world, even when he was alive—thanks in no small part to his creepy wife Mary.

One famous story recounts how Lincoln once saw a double reflection of his face in the mirror, one normal and one wispy and pale. According to Mary’s interpretation, the vision meant that her husband would serve out his first term, but not make it through his second. Gee, thanks honey. That’s just what I wanted to hear…

But Lincoln had a darker side too, if his close personal friend Ward Hill Lamon is to be believed. Lamon claimed that in 1865, Lincoln told him of a dream in which the president wandered through the White House, drawn on by the sound of grieving mourners. He eventually stumbled onto a wake. “Who is dead in the White House?” dream Lincoln demanded of one of the soldiers flanking the coffin. “The President,” answered the soldier. “He was killed by an assassin.”

Stories like these probably paved the way for the numerous accounts of Lincoln haunting the White House after his assassination. Sightings were once so frequent that there was apparently something wrong with you if you DIDN’T trip over his ghost while visiting.

Just ask Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, awakened by a knock on her bedroom door and opening it to find honest Abe staring at her from the hallway. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Secretary Mary Eben also claimed to have seen Lincoln sitting on the bed in his old bedroom, pulling on his boots as if getting ready to go somewhere. Many staffers have seen him sleeping there as well.

And Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, claimed to see Lincoln’s ghost in the Oval Office, standing contemplatively at a window gazing out over the Potomac and the civil war battlefields beyond.

But the funniest story has to be of Winston Churchill’s brush with Lincoln. While staying at the White House one night during World War II, Churchill entered his bedroom freshly naked from the bath, only to see Lincoln leaning by the fireplace. “Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” Lincoln smiled slyly and disappeared.

This story obviously has much more to do with propagating Churchill’s wily legacy than it does Lincoln’s. But if it’s true, think about it. Incorporeal Lincoln lying in wait to surprise a naked man? What the hell happened there?

“Honest Abe’s a mo, that’s what happened!”

That was Lincoln’s ghost making an appearance in a recent episode of The Venture Bros.; our most supernaturally-active president endures in the annals of Science Fiction almost as much he does in the history books. From his 1949 appearance on the radio drama Quiet Please that aired here on Destinies last week, to his guest shots on modern cult favorites like Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the aforementioned Venture Bros., Lincoln’s genre resume includes stints on Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, The Time Tunnel, Futurama, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, Red Dwarf, even Sabrina the Teenage Witch. He has a more extensive IMDB page than most A-list actors.

And the specter of Lincoln looms larger than ever on the advent of his 200th birthday this month. Obama-mania has sent us into Lincoln overdrive lately, with endless allusions to Lincoln’s legacy on ending slavery, and to the similar challenges facing both presidents upon assuming office.

Lincoln’s spirit is actually one of Obama’s few boons these days–he’s got much scarier ghosts lurking around the White House: fallout from the failures and lies of George W. Bush and his gang of crooks.

Maybe we should leave Lincoln to his sly homoerotic smiles and gentle contemplation and re-invoke the vengeful spirit of Andrew Jackson instead. Set Old Hickory to stomping and cursing his way through the halls once again, and everyone will clean up their acts in no time.

Happy President’s Day!