Woodlawn Plantation Stately 19th-century home of the foster daughter and nephew of George Washington, haunted by several ghosts. Most of the ghost stories date to the turn of the 20th century; some are older.
Woodlawn Plantation sits atop a beautiful hill near Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, located in Virginia, south of Alexandria. It is a national historic site, visited by thousands every year.
Washington never had children of his own. When he married Martha Custis, she was a widow with a boy and a girl, Jackie and Patsy, whom he raised. Jackie married and had four children, including Eleanor (Nelly). When Nelly was two and a half, Jackie died. His wife took Nelly and one of Nelly’s siblings to Mt. Vernon to be raised by George and Martha.
When Nelly grew up, she married Washington’s nephew, Major Lawrence Lewis, in 1799. As a wedding present, Washington set aside 2,000 of his 8,000 acres for the building of their family estate, to be inherited upon his death. The newlyweds did not have long to wait, for within a few months of the wedding, Washington passed away.
Construction on the home was begun in 1800 and finished in 1805, done entirely by slave labor. It was elegantly decorated, and the Lewises enjoyed lavish entertainment. They had eight children, five of whom died at home. When Lawrence died in 1839, Nelly moved to Audley, a plantation built by her only surviving son, and lived there until her death in 1852. Only one of her children survived her.
The house passed to a succession of owners, was damaged by a hurricane in 1896 and for the next six years was empty. It was restored, and in the mid-20th century was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today it is much like it was during the height of the Lewises’ life there. Only 127 of the 2,000 acres remain.
Ghostly phenomena have been reported since the early 20th century, when restoration work was begun on the house. Activity has been reported throughout the house but is often concentrated on the south side, where an open basement well is located (see WELLS). The well, now in part of the gift shop, once went up into the kitchen. It is speculated that restless spirits come up through the well and into the house.
Phenomena include footsteps, slamming doors, banging sounds and whispers. Objects fall off shelves and tables, sometimes smashing into pieces; pictures mysteriously fall off walls. A ghost walks up and down the stairs at night, making a distinctive thumping sound. The ghost is believed to be either John Mason, a previous owner who lived at Woodlawn during the American Civil War and who had a wooden leg, or Lawrence Lewis, who suffered from severe arthritis and gout.
Upstairs, the Lafayette bedroom is especially haunted. Chairs are mysteriously rearranged, extinguished candles relight themselves, and items disappear or are found in disarray. A figure has been seen standing in the window when the house is empty. According to one story, the owners of the house experienced a strange event in the 1930s. The wife put her baby to bed in a crib in the Lafayette room. Soon she heard her baby crying. She found the infant on top of the dresser.
Also upstairs is Lorenzo’s room, once belonging to the Lewises’ first child (born in 1803) and only son to survive infancy. Lorenzo had to sell Woodlawn after his father’s death and build Audley for his mother. He died at Audley of pneumonia in 1847. The armoire doors in his old bedroom have been witnessed opening by themselves. Odd noises and ghostly taps on the shoulder also are experienced here.
Downstairs in the master bedroom, the lights go on by themselves and cold rushes of air are felt. Animals avoid the center hall, where ghostly lights and forms are reported.
Throughout the house, filmy shapes are seen floating about. Staff and overnight visitors have reported awakening to see shapes of men in period clothing.
The ghost of Washington is believed to be present at Woodlawn. He is also seen on moonlit nights outside, riding his ghostly white horse on the grounds.
- McElhaney, Judy. Ghost Stories of Woodlawn Plantation. McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1992.
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007