Octagon

Octagon, The Elegant and odd-shaped house in Washington, D.C., reportedly haunted by numerous Ghosts, including that of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, the third president of the United States. The Octagon is said to be the site of the most hauntings in Washington, save for the U.S. CAPITOL BUILDING and the WHITE HOUSE.

The three-story house was built in the early 1800s for Colonel John Tayloe, a Virginia plantation owner and friend of George Washington, on an odd-shaped piece of property near the White House. It was designed by Dr. William Thornton, the architect of the Capitol Building, who gave the house six sides in order to fit its unusual property (even though only six-sided, the Tayloes dubbed the house “The Octagon”). Its features included a stunning, oval central staircase, odd-shaped rooms and closets, and rear tunnels said at one time to have led to the White House.

The Tayloes and their 15 children (eight daughters and seven sons) lived in the house until 1855, with the exception of a period during the War of 1812. The first spirit said to haunt the house was that of one of the daughters. According to lore, the Tayloe daughters indulged in some stormy love affairs, and the house was often the scene of arguments and broken hearts. One daughter fell in love with a British officer in the early 1800s, but John Tayloe would not allow the man to even enter the house. One stormy night, so the legend goes, Tayloe and his daughter had an argument over the matter, which ended when she took her candle and fl ounced upstairs. Suddenly there was a piercing shriek, and the daughter tumbled over the railing and down the stairwell to her death. It is not known whether she tripped and fell, or whether she fl ung herself over the railing in SUICIDE.

Her restless spirit soon haunted the house. On some nights, the shadow of a fl ickering candle moved slowly up the wall along the staircase, followed by a shriek and the sound of something heavy hitting the bottom of the stairwell.

During the War of 1812, Tayloe moved his family to his plantation and rented the house to the French ambassador to the United States. The Octagon was one of the few buildings spared by the British during the fighting.

The White House was burned down during the war, and Tayloe then lent The Octagon to the Madisons during the reconstruction of the presidential home. The Madisons moved in during 1814 and remained through the end of Madison’s second term. Dolley, a gracious woman who loved the scent of lilacs, hosted huge and frequent parties.

After the Madisons left, the Tayloes moved back in. Much to Tayloe’s horror, the staircase claimed the life of a second daughter. She had eloped against his will and had returned to ask his forgiveness. They met on the staircase, and the angry Tayloe tried to move the girl aside to pass by her. She lost her footing and, like her ill-fated sister, fell to her death. Her ghost, too, is said to haunt the scene of the tragedy.

After Mrs. Tayloe died in 1855, John Tayloe sold the house. It had a succession of owners, who let it deteriorate. Shortly before the Civil War, a gambler was killed on the upper floors during a dispute over his alleged cheating. He grabbed the bellpull as he was shot to death. His ghost reportedly has been seen reenacting his final moments over and over again.

During the latter part of the 19th century, numerous witnesses reported glimpsing Dolley Madison’s ghost, clad in elegant fashions of the day, and smelling of lilacs, standing or dancing in the house. Witnesses also reported seeing the apparitions of footmen attending to ghostly carriages. Other Haunting phenomena have been reported over the years, some well into the late part of the 20th century: thumpings within the walls, moans, screams, sighs, and clanking of swords, Smells of phantom food cooking in the kitchen, the scent of lilacs, and the appearance of human footprints in otherwise undisturbed dust. Other reports include unearthly presences sensed in the bedroom used by Dolley Madison, and ghostly shapes fl itting through the rear doors to the gardens and walking up and down the staircase.

The thumping within the walls, which plagued residents of The Octagon for more than 100 years, is attributed to a legend that during the French occupancy of the house, a British soldier killed his slave girl lover and interred her body within an unknown wall. Another legend holds that during the Civil War, the tunnels of the house were used as part of the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves, and also housed wounded and dying Union Army soldiers.

The Octagon House is now a museum.

Further Reading:

  • Alexander, John. Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories. Arlington, Va.: Washington Book Trading Co., 1988.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written byRosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007
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