Historic Haunts

Five ghost tours that are all a short drive from Bethesda

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Illustration by Mary Ann Smith.

 

Do you believe in ghosts? According to a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 45 percent of adults do, and nearly a third of those surveyed report they’ve actually seen a specter.

Whether you’re a believer or not, fall is the perfect time to take a ghost tour, especially when the moon is full and leaves crackle underfoot. You probably won’t meet any actual spirits on these five walking tours, but you will hear stories about the houses, streets, taverns and hotels they’re said to still inhabit—and along the way, pick up some juicy gossip about historic places. “Our ghost stories center on unfinished endings, broken relationships, things left unexplained,” writes Colin Dickey in his book Ghostland, a study of haunted places in America. “They offer an alternative kind of history.”

It’s true, for example, that when the U.S. Capitol was being constructed in the 1790s, cats were brought in to control a growing rat problem. But does one demonic black cat remain, terrorizing security guards by growing to tiger size and springing at them with a roar, only to vanish when they scream? Whether fact or fancy, it’s a tale worth pondering while you stroll through the shadows on a chilly evening. Put these tours on your seasonal “fun things to do” list.

 


 

Capitol Hill

If Capitol Hill isn’t haunted, it probably should be, considering all the momentous events that have happened there. Part of the fun of the Capitol Hauntings tour is the novelty of seeing the U.S. Capitol deserted and glowing from within after dark, or sitting on a bench outside a spooky-quiet Folger Shakespeare Library long after everyone else has left for the night.

The lights in the library are routinely turned off when it closes for the day, according to one Washington Walks tour guide. If you happen to notice them burning late at night, it might be the work of Henry Folger, who, along with his wife, Emily, curated the world’s largest collection of books relating to William Shakespeare, including 82 copies of the playwright’s 1623 First Folio of plays. The Folgers built the library to house their beloved book collection, but Henry died before the building was completed in 1932—and some workers say the oil baron turns the lights on sometimes to view his finished project. It may help that Henry and Emily are still present in the building, as their ashes are interred inside the reading room, behind a bust of Shakespeare.

This walk stands out for how much interesting American history is hidden inside the ghostly tales. Other stops on the same tour include a former trolley stop, the Library of Congress, a district police station and the oldest house on Capitol Hill.

Washington Walks offers its Capitol Hauntings tour only in October, on Friday and Saturday nights. The two-hour walk leaves from the Capitol South Metro station at 7:30 p.m. No reservations are necessary but arrive a few minutes early to pay your $20 fee, or book and pay online. Those with a military or federal government ID receive a $5 discount, and both cash and credit cards are accepted. The walk departs rain or shine. For more creepy D.C. tales, try the company’s Most Haunted Houses tour, also scheduled for Friday and Saturday nights in October. Call 202-484-1565 or visit washingtonwalks.com.

 


 

Old Town Alexandria

This quick, one-hour tour in Virginia is so popular that on weekends around Halloween, several different guides from Alexandria Colonial Tours lead concurrent groups around Old Town, using multiple routes. No matter which route you take, you’re guaranteed to end your evening by being abandoned in a graveyard. (Old Town has several historic resting places.) Each route features its own set of stories.

Dressed in period costumes and carrying swinging candle-lit lanterns, the guides tell ghost stories from the town’s Colonial history, as well as tales collected from local residents about their centuries-old homes. Fans of the PBS series Mercy Street might get to visit the site of the real Civil War hospital profiled in the show, a hotel-turned-hospital that stood in front of the Carlyle House on North Fairfax Street. (Unlike the U.S. Capitol, the Carlyle House is not believed to be haunted by a cat, although the remains of one were found in the building’s foundation during renovation work in the 1970s. At the time the house was built, 1751-53, the British custom of burying a cat was thought to bring good luck.)

Some tours pass by Gadsby’s Tavern, where in 1816, a young woman died of cholera soon after arriving in town. Her grieving husband refused to reveal their family names, so her tombstone in the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex reads, “To the memory of a female stranger.” You can still see her grave today, although the townspeople who erected the elaborate marker got a surprise when it was finished—the banknote the man used to pay for the work turned out to be forged.

Alexandria Colonial Tours runs its Original Ghost & Graveyard Tour from March to December. In October, the tour takes place every night at 7:30, with an extra walk leaving at 9 on Friday and Saturday nights. Tours begin at the Alexandria Visitor Center at 221 King St. in Old Town. Tickets are $15; $14 for seniors and military; $10 for children; and free for kids 6 and younger. Children must be accompanied by an adult; the company says the tour is most appropriate for ages 9 and older. You can reserve and buy tickets online,
or pay in person at the visitor center. Call 703-519-1749 or visit alexcolonialtours.com.

 


 

Gettysburg

On July 1, 1863, the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg was overrun by Union and Confederate troops, fighting what turned out to be one of the key battles of the Civil War. The battleground is now a national park, but the streets of the town, which formed a no-man’s land between Northern and Southern troops during the battle, has stories of its own. Writer Mark Nesbitt claims that Gettysburg is one of the most haunted places in America. The ghost stories he’s collected from people around town now fill seven books, so it seems like plenty of others agree.

Nesbitt’s company, Ghosts of Gettysburg, offers several tours, but the most in-depth is the Carlisle Street tour, which lasts almost two hours and winds past the house where Abraham Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. On your way to the Gettysburg College campus, where the oldest building served as a makeshift Civil War hospital, you may hear a story about a recent visitor who entered the back room of a local museum and was delighted to find a group of Union generals discussing battle strategy. He was so impressed by the realism of the reenactors that he complimented an employee on the way out—only to discover that no such reenactment had been scheduled. When they returned to the room together, it was empty.

Ghosts of Gettysburg has four walking tours to choose from (including shorter and longer options) for $11 (free for ages 7 and younger). The tours run from March through November. Walks can sell out, so the company recommends reserving in advance by phone or online. Tours start at the company’s store at 271 Baltimore St., but plan to arrive 15 minutes early to redeem your reservation. Call 717-337-0445 or visit ghostsofgettysburg.com.

 

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