Five Spooky & Mysterious Sites & Stories to Explore Around DC this Halloween Season

[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” ]


An Attorney General’s missing skull, a former first lady interred in a public vault for two years, a forsaken ghost town that was formerly a booming industrial town, intricately carved chainsaw sculptures in a local cemetery, and signs of the occult at the White House. Below are five fascinating sites and stories to uncover as you set out to explore the mysterious, bone-chilling, and downright spooky side of DC and its surrounding area this Halloween season.

Check out Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to learn more about the hidden histories below as well as to discover dozens of additional gems and off-the-beaten path locales in and around the Washington, DC, area.


Congressional Cemetery: “Head’s Up: The Case of An Attorney General’s Missing Head”

Imagine receiving a phone call where the caller asks, “Would you be interested in getting William Wirt’s head back?” Such was the mysterious call that a Congressional Cemetery manager received in 2003.

William Wirt served as Attorney General under Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Wirt holds the title of longest serving attorney general
 in United States history, and he is also credited with turning the position into one of national importance. In 1853, Wirt’s son-in-law built a massive family vault near the highest point of the cemetery, so large that it remains the biggest and most visible monument on the grounds.

Following the puzzling 2003 phone call, the cemetery manager decided to probe further. The lock had been removed from the door, and the vault had indeed been vandalized. It was eventually determined that Robert L. White had collected Wirt’s skull, adding to his bizarre collection of 40-some skulls.

Read All About It: Learn more about the bizarre case of Attorney General William Wirt’s missing head on pages 150-151 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Congressional Cemetery is open daily from dawn to dusk.
Where: Congressional Cemetery is located at 1801 E Street SE.

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Congressional Cemetery: “Keep It in the Vault”

Over 3,000 individuals have been interred in the Congressional Cemetery’s Public Vault, including three presidents, one vice president, and two first ladies. Many stay here for only one to two days since it was never intended to be used for long-term stays. So, why was Dolley Madison interred in the Public Vault for two years, making her the longest known interment of the vault?

Dolley Madison was a trailblazer. She helped define the role of First Lady, was often credited with helping advance James Madison’s career, and perhaps most notably, saved a historic portrait of George Washington from being burned by British troops during the War of 1812. While the Madisons were among the elite, they weren’t immune to falling on hard times. As James Madison’s health began to deteriorate, he prepared his presidential papers to help secure financial security for Dolley after his death. Their son Payne’s recklessness, however, destroyed their finances.

Read All About It: Learn more about the Madison family’s financial woes and Dolley’s two-year stint in the public vault on pages 36-37 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Congressional Cemetery is open daily from dawn to dusk.
Where: Congressional Cemetery is located at 1801 E Street SE.

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The Ghost Town of Daniels, MD: “Ghosted in Daniels”

When visiting a ghost town, it’s often difficult to imagine what stood there before. Signs of desertion and decay often cloud our ability to envision the possibility of past life and vibrancy. Daniels, once a booming industrial town in Ellicott City, Maryland, is now one of the most mystifying ghost towns in the DC area. An abandoned shell of its former self that’s faded away in a deep wooded forest, the ghost town of Daniels is now sadly characterized merely by rotting wood and crumbling stone.

Straddling the Patapsco River, the town of Daniels was originally settled in 1810 when Thomas Ely and his family moved here to establish a textile mill. The area around the mill became known as Elysville. Over 40 years later, the town was bought by the family of James S. Gary and renamed Alberton in recognition of their son Albert. The mill stayed within the Gary family for nearly a century until the Daniels Company came along and purchased the entire village in 1940. $65,000 bought them 500 acres and the right to change the town’s name from Alberton to Daniels.

Read All About It: Learn more about the ghost town of Daniels and its history on pages 70-71 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The forsaken town is free and open dawn to dusk.
Where: Remnants of the ghost town of Daniels can be found in present-day Ellicott City, MD.

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Glenwood Cemetery: “Sprucing Things Up with Some Chainsaws”

Since 1852, Glenwood Cemetery, a historically private and secular cemetery, has been characterized by elaborate Victorian monuments and its notorious residents. It is the final resting place of George Atzerodt, a co-conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and the infamous murderer Frederic De Frouville. More recently, however, the countless graves have been joined by less typical cemetery inhabitants: towering intricately carved wooden sculptures emerging out of the ground.

Faced with many aging and dead trees, along with those severely damaged in heavy storms, Glenwood Cemetery decided to turn an eyesore into creative art. The cemetery contacted a professional chainsaw artist, Dayton Scoggins, to transform the deteriorating trees into unique wooden sculptures. Inspired by passages in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, Scoggins used four large oak trees to carve the soaring sculptures.

Read All About It: Learn more about the four intricately carved chainsaw sculptures on pages 84-85 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The sculptures are situated behind the cemetery’s Romanesque mortuary chapel.
Where: Glenwood Cemetery is located at 2219 Lincoln Road NE.

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The White House: “As White as a Ghost”

The White House, often regarded as the People’s House, boasts the most recognizable address in America. While the stately residence symbolizes power, patriotism, and the American people, it has also been connected to the occult and is considered by many to be quite haunted, with countless sightings of former presidents, first ladies, and White House staff members.

One of the most frequent ghostly sightings is that of First Lady Abigail Adams. Adams used to hang laundry in the East Room, the warmest and driest room of the White House. Her apparition has been reportedly seen walking toward the East Room dressed in a lace shawl and cap with outstretched arms like she’s carrying laundry. President Andrew Jackson has been said to haunt the Rose Room as well as the halls of the president’s chambers. The Rose Room served as Jackson’s bedroom and is believed by many to be one of the White House’s most haunted rooms.

Without a doubt most persistently reported ghost sighting has been of President Abraham Lincoln. Many psychics believe that Lincoln’s presence has remained in the White House to serve as an aide during crises as well as to finish the work that was interrupted by his assassination.

Read all about it: Discover more about which famous White House ghosts have been sighted on pages 166-167 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Public tour requests must be submitted through your Member of Congress. These self-guided tours are generally available on Fridays and Saturdays.
Where: The White House is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

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JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is her first book.

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