On the banks of the Potomac River, Georgetown has had three centuries to accumulate ghoulish tales and venerable apparitions to haunt its cobbled streets and mansions. In this historic Washington, D.C., neighborhood, the eerie moans of three sisters herald every death on the river, and on R Street, President Lincoln is rumored to have witnessed the paranormal at a seance. Along the towpath of the C&O Canal, a phantom police officer still walks his lonely beat, and on moonlit nights, he is joined by a razor-wielding ghoul. From the spirit of a sea captain who lingers in the Old Stone House to the strange ambiance of the Exorcist" Steps, author and guide Tim Krepp takes readers on a chilling journey through the ghostly lore of Georgetown."
|Publisher:||History Press, The|
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About the Author
Tim Krepp is a professional tour guide based in Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Krepp is a contributor to The Hill is Home, Greater Greater Washington, and the Huffington Post. He is also the author of Capitol Hill Haunts. Louis Bayard is a New York Times Notable Author. He has been nominated for both the Edgar and Dagger awards. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Salon, and Nerve.com.
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THE HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS OF GEORGETOWN
Three rocks, spired and gloomy,
Gray as a stormy sky,
Sprang from the depth of the whirlpool,
Where the Indian sisters lie,
Ever at night they ring,
Like a sad cathedral bell,
Echoing far on the waters,
They sound the warning knell.
–unnamed ballad of the Three Sisters
Like many East Coast cities, the reason Georgetown exists in the first place is a geographical feature known as the fall line. Some 300,000 years ago, the area we know as Georgetown was the coastline of a much higher Atlantic Ocean. Today, it is where the coastal plane meets the rockier piedmont. This fascinating geological trivia aside, it means that Georgetown was the highest navigable point for oceangoing vessels, and it is why the town developed to allow tobacco farmers to ship their product for export.
In the Potomac, the increasingly shallow waters are marked by three islands known as the Three Sisters. This was as far as British explorer John Smith could sail during his 1608 expedition before leaving his boat to travel farther upriver. He noted in his diary, "Having gone so high as we could with the bote, we met divers Salvages in Canowes, well loaden with the flesh of Beares, Deere and other beasts, whereof we had part, here we found mighty Rocks."
Like Smith, other voyagers also found the Three Sisters to be the limit of safe navigation, and a small trading post sprang up. By 1751, it had grown enough that the Province of Maryland authorized the creation of George Town, presumably named after King George II of England.
THREE SISTERS ISLANDS
While civic progress continued to be made, the portion of the river near the Three Sisters acquired an ominous reputation. The waters themselves are treacherous, sucking in swimmers and boaters even in present days. But cagey locals began to suspect something more, something beyond what mere fluid dynamics could explain.
On a hot Thursday morning in late May 1889, eighteen-year-old Samuel Graff left his downtown home to beat the heat on a fishing jaunt on the Potomac with three friends. They rented a boat from Johnson and Baker's boathouse, just above the Aqueduct Bridge (a few hundred feet upstream of the current Key Bridge), and paddled out to the Three Sisters. The boys spent the morning fishing (history fails to record if they caught anything), but by midafternoon, the skies had darkened and they decided to continue their attempts from the shore.
They had but one boat; a skiff that could seat only two of them. Samuel volunteered to ferry the others, and the first two trips went without incident. Unfortunately, the wind picked up, and he "was on his last trip with the third one when, by an unexpected, quick, treacherous movement of the boat it was so far careened as to throw Graff into the water, while his companion succeeded in retaining his seat."
Samuel had the only paddle, and his friend could do nothing but watch helplessly as he slipped below the waters. His body was recovered below Alexandria, Virginia, three weeks later. All in all, a sad but hardly remarkable occurrence on the river.
Seven years later, the tale (somewhat altered) was expounded on by American writer and folklorist Charles M. Skinner in the fifth volume of his nine-volume work Myths and Legends of Our Own Land. In his tale "The Moaning Sisters," Skinner related that the night "before a human life is to be yielded ... this low wailing comes from the rocks, and when, on a night in May, 1889, the sound floated shoreward, just as the clock in Georgetown struck twelve, good people who were awake sighed and uttered a prayer for the one whose doom was so near at hand."
So who was this moaning that presaged death on the Potomac? Skinner attributed it to a tradition more than one hundred years old:
[A] boat in which three sisters had gone for a row was swung against one of these rocks. The day was gusty and the boat was upset. All three of the girls were drowned. Either the sisters remain about this perilous spot or the rocks have prescience; at least, those who live near them on the shore hold one view or the other, for they declare that before every death on the river the sisters moan, the sound being heard above the lapping of the waves. It is different from any other sound in nature.
Skinner left unsaid who the three sisters were, except that they had gone for a "row," implying at least that they were not native to the land (canoes are paddled). But the consensus among others was that the stories were even older — that they were early native Americans who once lived here. A Washington Post article in 1907 tells the tale:
Three maidens, it is said, of the Anacostan tribe, were loved by three Powhattan braves, and it was arranged that the girls would, on a certain night, embark in canoes, cross the river, and become the wives of the enemy of their tribe. Legend says they were three sisters and daughters of the chief. The medicine man of their tribe found out the secret of their conspiracy, and followed them along the shore. The girls were decked in their best garments, ornamented with many shells and feathers, which hampered their paddling. A fierce wind was blowing down the Potomac, and a store was threatening as they started. They paddled some distance up the Maryland shore to a point agreed upon for the crossing, and as the canoes glided along the hair of the maidens floated far behind in the wind.
Just as they turned the canoes toward the Virginia shore the medicine man called a warning to them and declared that if they did not return the hour of their death had come. The maidens, in fright, pulled strongly at the paddles and reached midstream. But curious lights played about the canoes, and spiritual voices seemed to shout their doom. Thoroughly frightened at the unusual display of lightning and thunders, which they attributed to the supernatural power of the medicine man, the three sisters plunged into the waters of the river and were drowned. The following day, according to the legend, the three great rocks, now called the "Three Sisters" projected up from the bottom of the river, marking the spots where the girls one after the other plunged to their death.
The three "Indian princesses" fleeing their tribe in pursuit of true love would become the standard tale, being told and retold down the years.
The Three Sisters were again in the news in the 1960s and '70s. There had been proposals for a bridge at the site going back to the initial plans for the city drawn up by Pierre L'Enfant, but the project had never progressed. The increasing suburbanization of the Washington region after World War II added a new impetus for the idea, and in 1957, legislation was introduced in Congress requiring the District of Columbia to build a bridge as part of an Inner Loop freeway system. Representative William Natcher of Kentucky even went so far as to block funding of the Metro system for several years until he was decisively defeated in a 1971 vote. The bridge was tremendously unpopular with D.C. residents, as it would require demolishing city neighborhoods to build freeways.
A few footings and piers had been started but were left abandoned when they were swept away in June 1972 by Hurricane Agnes. John Alexander, in the bible of Washington ghost books Ghosts: Washington's Most Famous Ghost Stories, saw the failure of the bridge as evidence of the curse of the Three Sisters, but it was hardly a curse that caused 85 percent of the city of Washington to vote against completing the bridge. That said, if ever you hear the "slow chiming of a cathedral bell" across the waters, you may wish to stay off the river that day.
THE DRUMMER BOY OF LITTLE FALLS
The mysterious moaning is not the last spirit an intrepid traveler comes across as he continues upriver. Once the river passes Georgetown, there is a strip of land between it and the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal. In earlier times, it was used for watering cattle on the way to the Georgetown market and was known as the haunt of a headless horseman who "stampedes the cattle browsing along the river riding at breakneck speed over the rough and broken bowlders" along the Potomac and rides "where it would be death for a mortal horseman to venture in broad daylight."
Farther up, as you approach the Maryland border with the District of Columbia, the river becomes increasingly rocky. This stretch is known as Little Falls, differentiating it from Great Falls fourteen miles farther upstream. Here, the river is spanned by Chain Bridge, which is named for the third of the eight bridges on that site, a chain suspension bridge built in 1810. When the water is low, it is possible to make it all the way across, leaping from stone to stone.
One such time was a hot, dry day in August 1814 during the poorly named War of 1812. Many miles away, just past the northeastern outskirts of the city, a probe by the British decisively defeated a numerically greater force of Americans at the Battle of Bladensberg. The victorious British marched into Washington to burn the Capitol and the White House, while the panicking Americans attempted to regroup on the high ground above Georgetown.
Throughout the night of August 24, the British, exhausted but victorious, methodically destroyed the public buildings of the District, their work illuminated by the burning Navy Yard, which had been torched by the retreating Americans to keep it out of British hands. Georgetowners huddled in their houses, terrified of marauding Redcoats and the much more palpable threat of packs of their very own countrymen looting abandoned buildings. Such military leadership as could be found struggled just to rally the troops to fortify the very defensible high ground of Georgetown, much less drive the British out of the city.
Many Americans, however, wanted no part of this and kept going as far as their legs would take them. The beaten and exhausted soldiers felt that things would be a whole lot safer with a river between them and the British. Dispirited and bedraggled militiamen flooded across the Potomac River at Little Falls. History mustn't be too hard on them, as the president himself elected to leave Tudor Place, the fine home in Georgetown where he initially sought refuge, and flee to Virginia. According to some accounts, he actually used the Chain Bridge.
Legend has it in the midst of this chaos a "plucky little drummer boy" took position on the rocks and beat a steady tattoo to guide and rally the retreating Americans as they swept across Chain Bridge. Throughout the dark chaos of the night and into the increasingly hot day of August 25, his drum led scared troops to the crossing and gave them courage. Alone among those many years his senior, he found the courage to stand up.
But then, as so often happens in summertime in Washington, the skies darkened and storm clouds gathered. Unforeseen to the young drummer and the fleeing troops, this would be a storm that few of those who lived through it would ever forget. As if to punctuate the devastation of the British attack, a mighty wind erupted that tore houses down and knocked chimneys off the roof of the Patent Office. Even Admiral Cockburn himself, the leader of the British expedition and no stranger to mighty storms, exclaimed to a Washingtonian, "Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed to in this infernal country?" Admiral Cockburn had had quite enough of America and Americans by this point.
When the rain stopped and the wind calmed, among the many other casualties in this cataclysmic storm was our young drummer boy. He had valiantly stuck to his post until the bitter end and was swept away by a flash flood roaring down the Potomac.
Yet death did not fully prevent him from remaining at his post. He is never seen, but on "stormy nights his drum is heard above the roar of the falls, and quite distinct from the rushing of the water, beating out a ghostly long roll that sends a thrill to the heats of the listeners, and is supposed to betoken misfortune to the one who is so unfortunate to be an audience to the spectral serenade."
Other articles have placed the drummer boy in the Revolution or even as far back as the French and Indian War, when the British general Braddock and the Virginia militia colonel George Washington marched to disaster from a point just downriver of Georgetown. One article written in 1854 even places him in a nearby but undefined house, where the poor drummer boy had been murdered sometime in the previous eighteen years. Residents of the house "were often disturbed by his irregular habits; for the noisy drummer boy, although no longer material, could not forget his old vocation, and having forgot to take his kettle drum to the other world, very rudely, and drummer boy like, was accustomed to practice the reveille on the best mahogany table in the house."
Believe what you wish, but now you know the truth. The plucky little drummer boy provided courage and hope to Americans on a day they particularly needed it. Fortunately, he is still there if you listen for him.
OLD STONE HOUSE
Within a few years of its founding, Georgetown became a regional hub specializing in shipping fur, initially, and then tobacco from the surrounding Maryland countryside overseas in return for rum, finished goods and, of course, slaves to provide labor for the growing plantations.
The tobacco was packed in giant barrels known as hogsheads, each of which held upward of one thousand pounds. They would then be turned on their sides, a long pole was inserted through as an axle and rolled or, if necessary, pulled by horse and oxen to market. The roads leading into George Town (or, as we now must call it, Georgetown) became known as "rolling roads" for the frequency of this trade, with present-day Wisconsin Avenue being the main one.
Of course, once the tobacco warehouses and wharves were built, any number of trades popped up to support them. Merchants, craftsmen and others flocked to the town, and the port was a hub of all sorts of trade, not just tobacco. Flour became increasingly important, especially as wheat began to replace nutrient-depleted tobacco fields. And, of course, taverns boomed, what with all the sailors coming and going. They were critical social spaces, often acting as post offices, meeting halls, courthouses and traveler lodging, as well as simple watering holes.
Among those who came to the new town was cabinetmaker Christopher Laymen. Laymen was originally from Germany, had settled in Pennsylvania and moved to the new town of Georgetown to try his luck. In 1764, he purchased the lot on the north side of what's now M Street between 30 and 31 Streets and soon after started construction. He passed away shortly after and the house was completed by his wife, Rachel, by 1766, if not earlier.
Obviously, it was not known at the time by its current moniker, the Old Stone House, yet the stone was and is its distinguishing feature. It is solidly built of blue granite and fieldstone quarried from a few miles away, with walls up to two feet thick. Hardly the first building built in Georgetown; it may very well be the first one built to last — evidence of the town's transition from rough-hewn trading post to established colonial shipping hub. Either way, it's known today as the longest-standing building in the District of Columbia.
Rachel quickly remarried after Laymen's death and sold the house a few years later to Cassandra Chew, a reasonably wealthy lady of the town and presumed mistress of Georgetown's eventual first mayor, Robert Peter. Chew listed Peter on her will, granting him the house if her daughters died without heirs. Peter also provided for her two girls in his will, with both real estate and slaves.
It was during Ms. Chew's time that the rear kitchen was added, before she passed away in 1807. While she owned the place, she rented a room to John Suter Jr., a watchmaker whose father owned Suter's Tavern, alternatively known as the Fountain Inn. Suter's Tavern is known for being the location where George Washington and Peter L'Enfant met to develop plans for the design of Washington, D.C. A clock in the dining room built by John Suter Jr. is the only original original piece left in the house today. Remember the Suter name — it'll be important later.
Cassandra Chew's daughter, Mary Smith Brumley, inherited the house, and it was used for any number of commercial purposes over the next century and a half, including for a tailor, a hatter, another watchmaker's shop and, allegedly, a bordello.
Today, the backyard of the house is a tranquil English garden, a welcome respite from the hustle of M Street. In colonial times, it would have been a working part of the household, with vegetables gardens, livestock, quarters for the slaves, outdoor fires for laundry and cooking in the summer months. Over time it would be used for any number of other utilitarian purposes until ending up a used car dealership, Parkway Motor Company. That's how we rolled back then.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ghosts of Georgetown"
Copyright © 2013 Tim Krepp.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Louis Bayard 5
Part I The Highways and Byways of Georgetown 13
Three Sisters Islands 14
The Drummer Boy of Little Falls 17
Old Stone House 20
The Stagecoach of the Damned 25
The Vanishing Sister of New Cut Road 27
Part II Court End 30
Key Mansion 31
Prospect House 35
Benjamin Stoddert's Halcyon 39
Slave Tunnels 41
The Very Strange Mr. Clemons 42
Ben and Bert's Wild Adventure 46
E.D.E.N. Southworth 49
Part III The Streets of Georgetown 53
Daw's Fence 53
St. John's Church 56
The Ghostly Dansantes of Forrest Hall 58
Mr. Henry's 60
Part IV The Slums of Georgetown 63
Dead Man's Beat 64
The Troublesome Ghost of Brown Street 67
Sybil of Hungry Hill 73
A Devastating Loss of Virtue 74
Part V The Houses of Georgetown 78
The Lincoln Séance 78
Ten o'Clock Ritual 82
Slave Hunter's Hell 86
The Many Haunted Houses of Georgetown 90
Part VI Ghosts of Higher Learning 93
Original Ghosts of Old North 95
Haunted Healy 97
Witch's Heads 100
Wilhelmina Jones, Come Out! 104
The Exorcist Steps 107
Part VII Final Rest 111
Body Snatchers 112
Headless Horses 114
Joseph Pozell's Tale 117
About the Author 128