The usually shaped and aptly named “Octagon House” sits just a stone’s throw away from the White House, and indeed once served as the temporary residence of former president James Madison right after the British destroyed the White House during the War of 1812, and in fact it was one of the only buildings spared by the British during their sacking of Washington DC. It was originally built in 1801 as a residence for wealthy Virginia plantation owner Colonel John Tayloe III, who wanted a second winter home near his political friends in Washington, including his good friend George Washington himself. Although it is called “The Octagon,” the residence had only 6 sides, and its unusual architecture was for the purpose of fitting the house on a strangely shaped plot of land. The three storied brick structure has a distinctive 6-sided design, along with various strangely shaped rooms all arranged around a central oval staircase, and it also was known for its underground network of tunnels that connected with the nearby White House. The home certainly has its share of history, but in addition to this, it has also earned a reputation as being absolutely crawling with ghosts, and is in fact often mentioned as one of the most haunted buildings in Washington DC.
Although it was meant to be just a temporary winter home, John Tayloe would move there with his wife, Ann Ogle Tayloe, and their fifteen children permanently, and would continue to live there until 1855, only vacating the premises during the War of 1812, during which time they rented it out to various dignitaries and to president Madison. The house served as an important center of the social scene at the time, and was famous for entertaining numerous diplomats and important figures. After Ann’s death in 1855, the Tayloe family would sell the residence and move, and in 1902 the house would come into the possession of American Institute of Architects, becoming their headquarters for a time and then a museum.
Some of the most pervasive ghost stories associated with the Octagon House have to do with Colonel Tayloe’s daughters. One of the more well-known of these stories is said to have occurred sometime during just before the War of 1812, when one of Tayloe’s daughters allegedly had an affair with an enemy British soldier. She was according to the story caught in the act by her own father, who confronted her on the oval staircase, where the two then had an argument and the daughter lost her balance to fall to her death. This tale would become the basis for the house’s most famous ghost, said to be that of this daughter, often seen variously walking up and down the staircase aimlessly with a candle for light, plummeting from the top landing, or crumpled up at the bottom of the stairs. Interestingly, another one of Tayloe’s daughters had a similar demise, when she was confronted by her father for running off to elope with a young man. Once again, an argument ensued and the young woman fell to her death from the third-floor landing of the central staircase. Along with her sister, she too haunts the staircase, most often seen on the third-floor landing from which she dropped to her doom. It is not known if either of these two events ever really happened at all, as there is no documentation for it and it appears that none of Tayloe’s daughters actually ever died on the premises at all, but the tales have stuck, and the staircase is said to be one of the most haunted places in the building. The supposed haunting of the oval staircase is the most well-known place of paranormal activity in the house, but is by far not the only one, and the house has long been plagued by various other specters and strange phenomena.
Probably the oldest of the house’s weird anomalies dates back to the early 1800s, and takes the form of the sounds of ghostly bells that echo through the halls and which sound like the servant’s call bells once used during the time when slaves were kept at the residence. These bells would ring out from seemingly nowhere, would ring out even when all of the bell ropes were checked, indeed even after the wires that connected them were cut, and were experienced by numerous high profile guests to the estate as well. The 19th-century American journalist, author, and poet Mary Clemmer Ames would once write of these phantom bells:
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.
The bells would eventually only go away when all of the slave summoning bells were removed once and for all. Another resident ghost at the Octagon House is the wife of former president James Madison, Dolley Madison. Well known around time as a socialite and hostess, as well as an instrumental figure in the restoring work done to the White House after it was destroyed by the British. She lived at the Octagon House with her husband from September of 1814 through March of 1815, while the White House was being rebuilt. She supposedly still roams about in several haunted locations around Washington DC, and at the Octagon House usually appears as an apparition in the front hall and drawing room, usually between midnight and dawn, her presence always imbued with the scent of lilacs, her favorite smell in life. Dolley’s ghost is also sometimes known to hold ghostly receptions and parties, during which the murmur of disembodied chatting can be heard, and her presence is frequently reported all the way up to the present.
There are numerous other ghosts who also call this house home. Another ghost said to dwell at the house is that of a gambler who was apparently once shot to death during an argument. There is also the ghost of a murdered slave girl whose body was hidden within the walls of the house and who pounds on the walls at all hours, another of a slave who allegedly committed suicide in one of the rooms, and there are various other less-defined specters. A more mysterious and unidentified ghost is the ominous presence of an apparition dressed in dark black clothing, a hat, and sometimes with a cloak, and is referred to simply as the “Man in Black.” This particular entity is very grim and imposing in appearance, but usually reported as actually being quite polite, often tipping its hat before vanishing. It is unclear who this ghost is supposed to be, but he is frequently sighted by maintenance workers late at night. Another unidentified presence is that of a phantom young man in a US military uniform from the early 1800’s who like to hang around by the stairs, and there is another ghost that apparently will clean the place up and lock the doors at night.
In addition to all of these myriad ghostly apparitions, there are miscellaneous anomalous noises, disembodied footsteps and voices, moving objects, thumping on the ceiling and walls, smells that appear and disappear from nowhere, such as the scent of cooking from the kitchen when no one is there, roving cold spots, and various other paranormal phenomena that plague this place. Considering all of this intense paranormal activity there have been numerous investigations of the Octagon House over the years. One of the earliest of these was an excursion carried out in 1888, when a group of skeptics went to the house in order to debunk all of these tales, but came away with strange stories to tell. One report of the investigation says:
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.
How is it that this one building could be such an incredibly intense vortex of ghostly activity? Is it simply the history of this place, the 6-sided shape of the structure being somehow conducive to the phenomena, or some other quality of this location? The building is currently a museum of the American Architectural Foundation, and one can book tours of the premises, so perhaps if you are ever in the vicinity you can check it out for yourself.