The Octagon House, located in Washington D.C, United States of America is, despite its name, shaped like a hexagon. In the center of the building is a large winding staircase, which serves as a corridor leading to the rooms. It was built to maximize space on the small lot on which it is built. The Octagon House, as it came to be known, was completed in 1801 in the very early days of the new federal city. Constructed for John Tayloe III and his wife Ann Ogle Tayloe, and designed by Dr. William Thornton—the first architect of the Capitol—the house was a prominent statement of support for the new capital city from one of Virginia’s most prominent families.
The house served as an important social center in Washington’s early years, and when the British burned the White House in 1814, President Madison and his family lived in the Octagon for six months as the city rebuilt. It was here that President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815, formally ending the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States.
The Tayloe family lived in the house until Anne’s death in 1855. By that time, the neighborhood around the house had changed significantly as factories and breweries filled the Foggy Bottom waterfront. After Anne’s death, her sons rented the house, first to a Catholic girls school, and later to the federal government for office space. By the 1880s, the building housed numerous poor families as a tenement.
Around that same time, the American Institute of Architects, which had been headquartered in New York City, began looking for a new national headquarters location in Washington, DC. In 1898, the AIA rented the Octagon, and the organization purchased the building in 1902.
Major restoration efforts were undertaken in the 1960s and the 1990s, which returned the Octagon to its Tayloe-era appearance. Currently operated by the American Institute of Architects Foundation, the Octagon Museum offers self-guided tours, permanent and changing exhibitions, public programing, and guided tours by appointment.
The Octagon House is rumored to be home to several ghosts.
Dolley Payne Todd Madison (May 20, 1768 – July 12, 1849) was the wife of James Madison, President of the United States from 1809 to 1817. She was noted for her social gifts, which boosted her husband’s popularity as President. In this way, she did much to define the role of the President’s spouse, known only much later by the title First Lady—a function she had sometimes performed earlier for the widowed Jefferson.
Dolley Madison also helped to furnish the newly constructed White House. When the British set fire to it in 1814, she was credited with saving the classic portrait of George Washington. In widowhood, she often lived in poverty, partially relieved by the sale of her late husband’s papers.
Dolley and James Madison resided in the Octagon House from September of 1814 through March of 1815, after the White House was burned by the British.
According to legends, Dolley Madison's ghost is sometimes seen down in the drawing room of the Octagon, and that the scent of Lilacs often accompanies her ghost.
The oldest recording of the spirit of the First Lady is from 1912, when the Washington Herald reported that “…between midnight and dawn…there is a low hum of pleasant conversation, the sound of silver and the clink of glasses as a splendid company with gay liveried men drive up and take away the departing guests,” in reference to the ghostly continuation of one of Dolley’s famous parties.
In 1937 the book “Washington: City and Capital” stated that, “At midnight Dolley Madison is believed to hold court again among the shades of pretty women and stately men”
The 1941 book “Ghosts that Still Walk: Real Ghosts of America”, by Marion Lowndes, describes ghostly receptions held by Dolley, states that Dolley has been sighted in the front hall, and says that the smell of lilacs is noticeable whenever Dolley is present.
The Bethlehem Globe-Times in 1949 reported a story in which the mortal Dolley (while she was still alive) was distressed at the ghostly sounds in the Octagon and reportedly told her husband, “James sir, we’re going to move”.
Jacqueline Bouvier (later Kennedy) wrote an unpublished article about the Octagon in 1952 in which she reports that “in 1939 the wife of an army general stationed in Washington, on a tour through the house, smelled lilacs ‘so strong, so suffocating, wherever I turned that I could hardly breathe.’”
Octagon Museum visitors and staff have occasionally reported smelling lilacs in the drawing room of the house.
By far the most intricate legends connected with the Octagon are those that concern its two staircases, particularly the main staircase, which spirals up three floors. These legends are the most developed and circulated that visitors to the house who have hard the legends are thoroughly convinced that they are based on fact.
A brief run down of the legend:
Two of Colonel Tayloe’s daughters are said to haunt The Octagon. The first allegedly died before the War of 1812. Colonel Tayloe and his daughter quarrelled on the second floor landing over the girl’s relationship with a British officer stationed in the city. When the daughter turned in anger to go down the stairs, she fell down the stairs (or over the railing; stories differ) and died. Her spectre is allegedly seen crumpled at the bottom of the steps or on the stairs near the second floor landing, and sometimes exhibits itself as the light of a candle moving up the staircase. The other death, stories claim, occurred in 1817 or shortly thereafter. Another of Colonel Tayloe’s daughters eloped with a young man, incurring her father’s wrath. When she returned home to reconcile with her father, they argued on the third-floor landing. This daughter, too, fell to her death down the stairs (or over the railing), and her shade is alleged to haunt the third floor landing and stairs between the second and third floors.
There is no historical evidence to support these stories. Variations of the stories have been recorded since 1908, but NONE of the Tayloes’ daughters ever died in the Octagon. One daughter did die in 1815 at the age of 18, but family records indicate that she died at the family plantation, Mount Airy, in Richmond County, VA. The Octagon Museum is actively trying to figure out where this legend started, and are actively trying to stop people from spreading the legend, since it is very clearly not historically based.
The first reported sighting of the Man in Black ghost was by a doctor who visited the Octagon on a house call. After that time it seems to have been seen exclusively by the maintenance men who work in the house late at night.
In the late 1940s (the story first appears in 1949), a doctor who had made a house call to the Octagon had a strange encounter on the stairway. Caretaker James Cyprus had summoned the physician for his ailing wife. The doctor was preparing to leave when he mustered up enough courage to ask Cyprus if there was a costume party going on that evening. When Cyprus told him that there wasn’t, the doctor looked perplexed and told him of encountering a man on the stairs just a few moments before who had been dressed in a military uniform of the early 1800s.
A maintenance man from the 1970s was working at the house late one night, vacuuming the stairs between the first and second floor, and saw a man wearing dark black clothing, late nineteenth century, and a tall hat walk up the stairs. The man in black tipped his hat, continued past the maintenance man, and disappeared.
A maintenance man in 1981 was on the second floor landing one night and heard a noise on the first floor. When he looked over the bannister he saw a man in black walking through the stairhall. He also reported that there is a step as you’re heading downstairs from the second floor landing to the first floor that he would misstep on every time.
Another elaborate Octagon ghost story, with no clear origin, involves a female quadroon slave, who is identified as an octoroon in some of the variants.
A 1892 legend mentions an alleged clause in Col. Tayloe’s will that forbade his heirs from opening a certain closet:
“Mr. Tayloe… owned a quadroon slave, of whom he was very fond. During a visit from his friend, a captain in the English army, he conceived the idea that said captain was in love with the quadroon… The host slew his guest in an upper room, with only the quadroon as witness. Mr. Tayloe gave himself up to the law. But the unfailing plea of self-defense won the case, the only witness in denial of this plea being the quadroon, whose testimony as a slave was invalid. After the trial and acquittal she mysteriously disappeared, and was never again heard of.”
A 1929 variant of the story claims that this is “one of the most famous” of the Octagon tales, and claims that proof of the story came in a body having been discovered in the house:
“… an octaroon, a favorite of the lord of the manor. She was murdered, through jealousy, by a young English naval officer whose ship was at anchor in Georgetown, not a suburb of Washington. This story is based on the actual finding of such a body in one of the odd wall closets that abound in the Octagon House. The story as related is that the crazed lover committed suicide by leaping over the balustrade from the top landing, falling to the hard, stone floor below.”
These variants were both included in a 1934 article entitled “Octagon House Ghost Stories” by Virginia Faulkner.
In 1937 the ghost’s activities are defined:
“…a murdered slave girl, another suicide, and the ghosts of slaves wander screaming through the house and grounds”
Jackie Bouvier, in her unpublished 1952 essay about the house, related a variant of the story very similar to the first version. She identifies the murderer, however, as “one of the Tayloe boys, a young blood with his father’s passion for horses and a few passions of his own for gambling and wenching.”
In 1956 the legend of “the ghost of the slave girl, also a suicide, supposed to run screaming through the garden” was dispelled by the AIA’s resident historian, a Mr. Saylor.
Elizabeth Ford, in her 1957 article “Lively Ghost, Secret Tunnel at Octagon” exhibited a definitely skeptical attitude when she wrote that:
“… an octaroon, contrary to her wishes, was buried alive inside the walls. Another legend says that a slave was locked in the attic and was never heard from after that except at 12:01 AM.”
Recent variants of the quadroon’s legend have tended to be short, and are usually mentioned in relation to the (historically impossible) staircase legend.
A variation of the legend from 1980 reduces the legend to “a servant girl who had an unhappy affair with a military officer is said to have met death in the same way [suicide].”
Reports of the slave girl's body being found in the house (walled up in a closet, the attic, or a chimney) have no basis in fact. There are no reports of a body ever being found in the house during the restorations undertaken in the 20th century, or before then.
The oldest of the ghost legends seems to be one which deals with the mysterious ringing of the servant’s call bells.
The earliest variant of the Bells Legend is purported to have been recorded in the diary of a daughter of President Monroe, Maria Hester Monroe Gouveneur. She is said to have written that in Washington the Octagon was generally thought to be haunted because of the violent and unexplained ringing of the service bells.
Virginia Tayloe Lewis, a granddaughter of John Tayloe III, grew up in the house, and recorded this family memorate in an unpublished manuscript:
"The bells rang for a long time after my Grandfather Tayloe’s death, and every one said that the house was haunted; the wires were cut and still they rang… Our dining room servant would come upstairs to ask if anyone rang the bell, and no one had."
By 1874 the bell legend was well established. Mary Clemmer Ames wrote about it:
"It is an authenticated fact, that every night at the same hour, all the bells would ring at once. One gentleman, dining with Colonel Tayloe, when this mysterious ringing began, being an unbeliever in mysteries, and a very powerful man, jumped up and caught the bell wires in his hand, but only to be lifted bodily from the floor, while he was unsuccessful in stopping the ringing. Some declare that it was discovered, after a time, that rats were the ghosts who rung the bells; others, that the cause was never discovered, and that finally the family, to secure peace, were compelled to take the bells down and hang them in different fashion. Among other remedies, had been previously tried that of exorcism, but the prayers of the priest who had been summoned availed nought."
In 1881 an exhibition to benefit the Washington Training School for Nurses was held in the vacant house. A newspaper of the account included a reference to the legend of the bells. It speculates that the haunted nature of the house is part of the reason that the house had suffered from stretches of vacancy.
Frank Carpenter included the bell legend in his book, “Carp’s Washington”, published in 1883.
"Now and then I hear tales of the ancient ghosts in the Octagon House. Ringing bells was the way they used to haunt the old mansion, and every night at exactly the same hour their din would be heard."
By 1889 the bell ringers had been given an identity:
"The story goes, that the spirits of the slaves whom death released from their chains, visit the old home and announce their coming by the ringing of bells."
In 1892 it was written:
"Friends and reason ascribed it to the electricity while fable told the tale of an old white woman in Virginia who made a request of said Mr. Tayloe, which he refused. The old woman went back to her Virginia home sullenly remarking, ‘Never mind, he’ll pay for ‘dis.’ Soon after the clatter of the bells began and continued until the annoyance was so great that they were taken down. About this time the family left the home, and ever since it has virtually been unoccupied."
Variants of these stories appeared again in newspapers in 1892 and 1908.
In 1911 Marian Gouverneur, the daughter-in-law of Maria Monroe Gouverneur who was one of the original proponents of the legend, wrote of the Octagon and the bells in her memoirs:
“I have been told by the daughters of General George D. Ramsay that upon one occasion their father was requested by Colonel John Tayloe… to remain at the Octagon overnight, when we was obliged to be absent, as a protection to his daughters… While the members of the family were at the evening meal, the bells in the house began to ring violently. General Ramsay immediately arose from the table to investigate, but failed to unravel the mystery. The butler, in a state of great alarm, rushed into the dining-room and declared that it was the work of an unseen hand. As they continued to ring, General Ramsay held the rope which controlled the bells, but, it is said, they were not silenced.”
The legend of the bells then faded until 1952, when it appeared in an unpublished manuscript by Jacqueline Bouvier who wrote that Mrs. John Tayloe had the bell wires cut after her husband’s death in 1828 because she felt “that enemies were trying to drive her from the house”.
The legend appears again in 1975, in “Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories” by John Alexander.
The servant’s bells are no longer in the house, so there are no reports of their continuing to ring today.
The Octagon was firmly established as a haunted house by 1888, when, it is reported, twelve men decided to spend a night in the house in order to expel the ghosts or prove the legends wrong. A first-hand account was printed in a local newspaper, and this was subsequently quoted or paraphrased in articles printed in 1892, 1934, 1941, 1950, and 1969.
“The hours wore quietly on. The party were dispersed from garret to cellar. At the hour of midnight, as I and two others were crossing the threshold of a room on the second floor, three feminine shrieks rose from the center of the room. Aghast we stood. From all quarters the party rushed… Too brave to desert, yet cowards at heart, we watched the gray light of morning dawn, and each man of us thanked God his night among ghosts was past. After those screams our band was closely knit together… collectively we listened through the waning hours of night to the clanking of sabers and tramping of footfalls.”
There are numerous reports of occurrences in the Octagon that were supposedly caused by the household ghost. The sound of rustling silk is to be heard on the main staircase, the hanging lamp in the main hallway swings by itself, there is a spot at the foot of the main staircase that one is forced to avoid, and one curator is reported to have found the “tiptoeing tracks of human feet in the undisturbed dust of the top floor landing” (John Sherwood, The Evening Star, 1965).
Additionally, there have been reports of odors of cooking food coming from the kitchen downstairs.
A 1912 newspaper article related the story of a man who had stayed for a month in a room in the Octagon which he claimed was visited nightly by the spirit of a man who was killed over a card game held in the room. (Mary Kouncelor Brooks, Philadelphia Evening Telegram, 1912)
In 1982 there was a report that the Washington D.C. Police had been involved in some problems with the Octagon, in which in the evening when all the employees had gone home and the house had been locked up tight, lights out, windows closed, that about 10, 11 o’clock at night the police would be going by the front, door would be standing open, some upstairs windows would be open with curtains flying out, and that happened several times.
One person reported hearing what she described as a woman’s voice diagonally across the room. Kind of a low moan, repeated twice, it wasn’t a word just a guttural sound. She “heard a distinct moan repeated twice and was so scared she took one bound across the dining room and ended up out in the stairhall”
A former secretary said that she heard what sounded like the rustling of silk skirts coming up the stairway. She also reported walking into the eighteenth century kitchen and seeing a white specter across the fireplace.
An intern working at the museum late one night had a black Labrador Retriever with him. He took the dog down to the basement, and when they got to the bottom of the stairs the dog started to growl, lunged for the only spot of light in the room, and sat there cowering until they went back upstairs.
A docent reported seeing a white shape move in front of the fireplace in the drawing room during one of her tours.