Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, but some have said that his spirit has lingered on—and not just figuratively, either. Over the years, there have been multiple purported sightings of his ghost—at the White House and Ford’s Theatre where he was assassinated, at Fort Monroe in Virginia, and at his tomb in Springfield, Ill., according to a 1999 Skeptical Inquirer article by Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a group that investigates and often debunks paranormal claims.
The epicenter for Lincoln sightings, not surprisingly, is the White House, where he lived during the last four tumultuous years of his life. The 16th President’s apparition reportedly has been seen at the White House by a long list of people, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to President Reagan’s daughter Maureen.
The notion of Lincoln’s wraith roaming the rooms of his former residence is in some ways ironic, since Lincoln himself wasn’t a strong believer in an afterlife, according to his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, she recounts how years before Lincoln assumed the Presidency, one of his Illinois neighbors asked him whether he believed in a future realm. “I’m afraid there isn’t,” he responded. “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die, that is the last of us.”
Indeed, while Lincoln’s wife Mary did dabble in spiritualism and even once held a séance in the White House, Lincoln himself wasn’t much interested in such matters, though he did attend at least one such gathering with her—presumably to humor an emotionally fragile First Lady traumatized by the death of her son Willie, according to Nickell. That said, Lincoln did claim to have strange seemingly prophetic dreams. According to his friend Ward Hill Lamon, a short time before his assassination, Lincoln dreamed that he had awakened to discover a wailing crowd in the East Room, once of whom told him that they were mourning the president’s murder. On the night before his death, he reportedly dreamed that he was in a mysterious boat or ship, “sailing toward a dark and indefinite shore” —a scene that is depicted in the 2012 Steven Spielberg film Lincoln.
Here are some of the most famous Lincoln sightings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
- The first person to report a sighting of Lincoln’s ghost in the White House was Grace Coolidge, the first lady from 1923 to 1929, who believed that she saw him looking out the window of the Oval Office.
- During a state visit to the U.S. in 1942, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands reportedly opened her bedroom door at around midnight, in response to a knock, and saw Lincoln’s ghostly figure. She was so frightened that she fainted, according to a 1973 New York Times article on paranormal happenings at the White House.
- First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s maid, Mary Eban, reportedly looked into a room and then fled “terribly wrought up” after seeing Lincoln sitting on a bed, pulling on his boots, according to the Times article.
- While staying at the White House in the 1940s, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill—who disliked sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom—emerged naked from a bathtub and walked into an adjoining room. There, he supposedly ran right into Lincoln, who was leaning on the mantle above the fireplace. They looked each other in the face, to Churchill’s embarrassment, and Lincoln abruptly vanished, according to an account in Mark Nesbitt’s book Civil War Ghost Trails: Stories from America’s Most Haunted Battlefields.
- Clergyman Norman Vincent Peale didn’t actually see Lincoln’s ghost himself, but he claimed that a prominent actor, whom he declined to name, had told him that he’d awakened during a White House stay to hear Lincoln’s voice pleading for help. The actor sat up to see “the lanky form of Lincoln prostrate on the floor in prayer, arms outstretched, with fingers digging into the carpet.”
- President Reagan’s daughter Maureen recounted that she occasionally had seen Lincoln’s ghost—“an aura, sometimes red, sometimes orange” during nighttime stays at the White House, as had her husband, Dennis Revell.
Paranormal investigator Nickell writes that such sightings might be explained by “waking dreams”—that is, hallucinations that some people experience when they are drifting off into sleep or awakening. Such experiences actually are relatively common, though most of them don’t involve Lincoln. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that in telephone survey of nearly 5,000 people in Great Britain, nearly half reported experiencing such hallucinations. The incidents were most common among people with symptoms of insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness or mental disorders.
That’s probably little comfort, of course, to those who’ve believed that they experienced a face-to-face encounter with a ghostly version of the Great Emancipator. And there have been others—President Harry Truman, for example—who reveled in the idea that Lincoln might still be dwelling in the White House. As Presidential daughter Margaret Truman Daniel once wrote, her father told her that when he heard noises in the White House, he imagined that another President—perhaps Andrew Jackson—was roaming the halls. “I’m sure they’re here,” President Truman supposedly explained. “...I won’t lock my doors or bar them if any of the old coots in the pictures want to come out of their frames for a friendly chat.”