Knock, Knock! Whoooo’s There? Spooky Stories from Children of the White House
by Reneé Critcher Lyons
In the White House, Margaret Truman constantly heard floors popping, doors knocking, and drapes sidling back and forth. Her father President Harry Truman described the mansion as “haunted, sure as shootin’.” Margaret decided to get to the bottom of the bizarre rap-tap-tappings, and one night, on a dare, slept in the Lincoln bedroom, the room haunted most by eerie thumps and bumps. President Truman (1945-1953) must have known of his daughter’s ghostly quest, for the only “ghost” to appear that particular night was a White House butler donning a top hat, a prank played by a lighthearted father. But Margaret’s “ghosts” persisted, prank or no prank, prompting her father to order renovations!
Margaret and her father are not alone when it comes to hearing spooky noises in the White House. Jenna Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush (2001-2009), awoke to music from the 1920s, describing, “I was asleep. There was a fireplace in my room, and all of a sudden I heard 1920s music coming out. I could feel it. I freaked out and ran into my sister’s room.” Jenna’s sister, Barbara, believed the story to be malarkey, real rubbish! But, when Jenna dared Barbara to sleep in her room the following night, both heard an ear-splitting opera blaring from the exact same fireplace! No warm, cozy sleep for either that night! At first light, White House workers spilled the beans to the shivering, shaken sisters, stating “they heard it all the time.”
Other ghostly noises linger along the gates and upon the doors of the White House’s North Portico. Legend says the banging is the ghost of Anna Surrat rattling the doors and gates, pleading for her mother’s life. (Anna is the daughter of Mary Surrat, hanged in 1865 after her conviction as a conspirator in the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Mary became the only woman ever executed by the U.S. government). Anna’s weeping swells throughout the White House’s entrance hall, even with the doors shut! And on July 7th each year, the anniversary of her mother’s execution, Anna’s ghost paces back and forth on the front steps, supposedly awaiting the arrival of President Johnson. (President Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) became president after Lincoln’s assassination. Anna visited the White House one last time on the morning of July 7th, 1865, in a last-ditch effort to save her mother.)
Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford (1974-1977), ran smack-dab into the specter of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), alongside the fireplace in the Lincoln bedroom. Scared to return to the room, Susan never entered again until, on a dare, she and a friend decided to sleep in the selfsame bedroom on her father’s last night as president. The girls hoped to see Lincoln putting on his boots, just as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s (1933-1945) clerks had seen. The risk paid off, but in an unexpected way. Susan awoke to see her mother, Elizabeth, dressed in a sheet, reciting the “Gettysburg Address.” “We were like, yeah mom, we’re a little too old for that,” Susan joked. Similar to Susan, Maureen Reagan bumped into Lincoln’s spirit, waking one morning in the Lincoln bedroom, in the words of her father President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), “to a figure standing at the window looking out. She could see the trees right through it. Again, it turned and disappeared.” Apparently, the Reagan’s dog, a spaniel named Rex, also sensed Lincoln’s ghost, barking frantically near the door to the bedroom, but never setting foot inside! Rex even barked at the ceiling for no reason as the Reagans watched TV.
Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter to President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), met, and maybe even spoke to, the spirit of a fellow child of the White House, Willie Lincoln. (Willie was Abraham Lincoln’s son, and died from a fever at the age of 12). In fact, Willie’s ghost visited Lynda in the very room in which he passed on. Willie’s spirit, like that of his father, seems to flit and fly all around the house, dropping in on several White House staff members over the years, including a maid during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).
Amy Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s (1977-1981) daughter, did not witness Lynda, Maureen, or Rex’s fun. One Halloween, wishing to “call upon” Lincoln’s ghost, Amy and her friend, Claudia Sanchez, dared to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom, consulting a Ouija board before falling off to sleep. As Amy’s mother Rosalynn joked, “Of course they heard the ghost,” for mother and maid (Amy’s nurse Mary Fitzpatrick) pulled a hair-raising hoax, and covered with sheets, “burst into the room to the young girls’ screams.”
Sasha and Malia Obama used the White House ghosts for some fun with friends as well. During a slumber party, as they ate late night snacks—chocolate covered pretzels and flavor blasted goldfish—Malia started telling her friends about the spooky presidents of the past, now roaming the halls as ghosts. As the girls grew quieter and quieter, they heard a whisper…the ghost of George Washington. He told Malia how great a job her father was doing in office and how proud she should be of him. Just like the Ghost Busters, and “not afraid of no ghost,” Sasha crept to the kitchen, from where the whispers seemed to be coming. Crash, Clang, Kaboom—all the pots fell. As she turned on the lights, Sasha discovered the source—of both the clanging and the whispering. There was her dad, Barack Obama (2008-2016), or should we say the “new” George!
Just like Sasha, Malia, and their friends, most kids in the U.S. search far and wide for spine-tingling ghost stories. Rumor has it that one recent group of student visitors to the White House saw the ghost of each and every president past on the back lawn! It must be time to write your congressman and ask for White House tour tickets. It seems young visitors are welcome, as ghosts are gathering!
- Almost heeeeaaaarrr specters speaking from the page, and discover President Truman’s opinion about White House hauntings, in M.T. Anderson’s “The House Haunts,” found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Don’t miss a transparent Abigail Adams floating through the White House with her load of laundry in Mark Teague’s complementary illustration.
- The very first presidential children to live in the White House are featured in Russell Freedman’s “High Spirits in the White House,” found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out.
- Learn more about the White House bedroom of Lynda Johnson Robb (and Willie Lincoln, too!) in “My Room,” an essay within Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Also discover the view from Lynda’s bedroom window in Jane Dyer’s accompanying illustration.
- See the White House bathed in the light of a full moon in James Ransome’s “The White House by Moonlight,” an illustration brightening the pages of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Describe a time when you heard or saw something which could not be explained. Have you ever given up searching for the answer? Why do you believe humans are so curious about inexplicable events?
- What is the “Gettysburg Address?” Why is it so important to U.S. history? How has the address improved our collective liberties? Our pursuit of happiness?
- Why are there so many fireplaces in the White House? Can you trace the development of fuel sources which have provided heat within our homes over the years?
- Tell a ghost tale to a classmate, friend, or teacher this Halloween! Where did you hear the tale? Why do you like the tale enough to share it?
Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- What happened to your body the last time you heard an unexplained knocking in your house? Did your eyes get bigger or your heart start racing? Read “Being Afraid” and “Fears and Phobias” on the KidsHealth.org website and learn how and why our body reacts to fear or excitement. Then, act out a “scary” scenario or ghost story. Discuss how the acting differs from the “real thing.”
- As an exercise in math or engineering, build an actual model of the White House to scale using construction paper or foam board. You could also choose to build a model online using Sketch-up.com. Helpful resources include C-Span’s Room-by-Room Tour of the White House, the article Inside the White House on WhiteHouse.gov, SketchUp for Education’s 3D Modeling Tools,and the instructions in How to Build a Model of the White House.
- Perhaps the most famous ghost in American children’s literature is the Headless Horseman! Visit your school or public library to check out and read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. After reading Irving’s spine-chilling story, analyze character traits. (You may use the graphic organizers included in the EnchantedLearning.com website). Then, based upon your analysis of Irving’s characters, make an educated guess as to the identity of the Headless Horseman!
- Write your local Congressman and ask for tickets to tour the White House. Make sure you use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. For complete instructions on planning your visit to the White House, check out “Field Trip Guide: Visiting the White House.”
- Find a book of local ghost stories at a school or public library and visit the actual locale featured in the story. Good Luck! (with hopes you return)!
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Hammour, Nour. “A Haunted White House: D.C. Ghost Tour Highlights Ghoul Hot-Spots.” George Washington Hatchet. George Washington University. 30 October 2006. 20 September 2012.
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Nelson, Sara. “Fright House: Jenna Bush on the Ghostly Music Playing in the Presidential Home.” Mail Online. Daily Mail. 5 November 2009. 17 September 2012.
Schmidt, Colleen. “Ghosts at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.” Scribbs Howard Foundation Wire. Scribbs Howard Foundation. 28 October 2002. 18 September 2012.
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©2016 by Reneé Critcher Lyons; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance