Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Who's Haunting the White House?

Who’s Haunting the White House: The President’s Mansion and the Ghosts Who Live There by Jeff Belanger , Illustrated by Rick Powell

2008 has been a year of noteworthy ghost books. I’m not usually a fan of this genre, but they keep coming at me this year. Over Thanksgiving break I tuned in to a show on the History Channel called The White House Behind Closed Doors, with First Lady Laura Bush as the host. (I just happened to have the ghost book with me-another one of those coincidences.) During the program the First Lady retold a story about a famous overnight guest at the White House at the time of World War 2 that suggests the place is haunted. I’ll get back to this in a bit, but I can say for now that it does confirm something told in the book I read.

In the book, Who’s Haunting the White House, there is an extensive section on Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. You could say they experienced a “dark cloud” over their lives during their stay at the executive mansion. There was the heavy burden of the Civil War, with all of its death and destruction weighing heavily on the President. And then their son Willie died while they lived there. Mary Todd Lincoln would later claim that after Willie’s death she was regularly visited by her son’s ghost [p.25]. Another strange and dark incident involved the President himself. One day he glanced at a mirror in his office and noticed a double image of himself. The second image looked deathly pale, almost as if he were dead. President Lincoln also remarked to his wife and bodyguard about a dream he had in which he attended his own funeral. Shortly thereafter Lincoln would be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

After President Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln sought out the famous “spirit photographer” William Mumler of Boston to bring her some comfort. Mumler made a fake photograph showing a faint image of a tall bearded man in the background apparently meant to be Lincoln’s ghost. (Mumler would frequently hire actors to pose for pictures he later used in his “spirit photographs.” )

To this day the rumor continues that the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House is haunted by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. When President Reagan was in office, his little dog Rex would walk down the hallway and would stop and bark just at the door of the Lincoln Bedroom, as if sensing something.

Tony Savoy, formerly a White House operations foreman, commented:

“I used to come in early and turn the lights on. When I turned the light on one morning, he was sitting there outside his office with his hands over the top of each other, legs crossed, and was looking straight ahead. He had a gray, charcoal pin-striped suit on, and he had a pair of three-button spats turned over on the side with black shoes on. He was sitting there, and he startled me and I stopped. And when I blinked, he was gone.”

Well, this brings me back to Laura Bush’s story. During World War 2, Winston Churchill who was Prime Minister for Great Britain at the time, was a frequent overnight visitor at the White House. One night, after taking a bath with his ritual cigar in his mouth, he stepped out of the bathroom, naked, to find himself in front of Lincoln leaning on the mantelpiece. Churchill, who was of course startled but known for never being at a loss for words, said:

“Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Churchill would stay overnight at the White House again, but he would only sleep in the map room in the White House basement, as far away from the Lincoln Bedroom as he could get.

(For more on "Spirit Photographers" see the blog entry about the book: Seer of Shadows by Avi.)

I would also like to recommend the book, Our White House: Looking In Looking Out.

It's a book containing both true and fictional short stories about the Presidents and their families that made the White House their home. Some of my favorite sections include: a true story about Thomas Jefferson and his collection of fossil bones he spread out over the whole floor of the White House East Room, a section on the Presidential pets-including the "First Cow," how FDR made rain miraculously fall from the sky, and of course the part on White House hauntings.

I've got one more for you. I would also like to recommend, Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered by Barry Denenberg.

A biography of Lincoln is presented in newspaper format. The oversize book with pages made to look 140 years old works well as an attempt to take readers back in time. At first glance I bet some readers will think the book is a primary source. Anyone interested in American history and the life of Abraham Lincoln will enjoy this book.

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