I have no idea if the U.S. Capitol is haunted.
It may be. But take your pick of most historic, cavernous, ornate, 200-year-old buildings and you’re bound to find a tale or two of the macabre. Craggy castles in Scotland. Opulent opera houses in Paris. Drafty churches in New England.
The U.S. Capitol is no different.
It’s the time of year when the press posts stories about phantasms that supposedly inhabit the Capitol.
And we’re not talking about former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., either.
There’s the apparition of the Demon Cat. The frightening feline usually shows up before a national tragedy.
People observed the demon cat before the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. There’s the shadow of President and House member John Quincy Adams supposedly lurking around Statuary Hall as though trying to give a speech.
Soldiers are sometimes spied marching around the same room -- which doubled as a hospital during the Civil War. One may hear the sound of Sen. Boies Penrose, R-Pa., in a squeaky rocking chair echoing throughout the Senate wing of the Capitol as he culls through legislation -- despite having passed away in 1921.
You may even spot the late Rep. Preston Taulbee, D-Ky., lurking around a House stairwell, searching for a newspaper reporter who shot and killed him near that spot in 1890. Taulbee’s blood stains are supposedly visible on that marble staircase.
Usually, it’s politicians who want to shoot the reporters.
True or not, these tales from the Capitol crypt add to the allure of Congress at Halloween. As former colleague Todd Zwillich pointed out in a series of radio reports some years ago about congressional myths, the people who perpetuate the yarns are none other than the U.S. Capitol Police and lawmakers themselves.
Let’s look for a moment at non-ghost stories in the Capitol, many of which are embroidered with hyperbole.
There is a legion of stories about the time the British burned the Capitol. The British soldiers were supposedly such skilled horsemen that they even guided their steeds up a circular stairwell near the Speaker’s Office.
No one knows if that’s true. An inspection of the stairs makes it hard to believe. But, it’s a great story. People today refer to that turret stairway as “the British steps.”
An elegant chandelier hangs in the “mini” Rotunda near the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
There are all sort of narratives about the history of the chandelier. People speculate it hung on a pirate ship or in a brothel. The reality is that it came from an opera house in Baltimore. But who wants to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The same applies to the Capitol’s ghost stories.
After all, this is what we do in Washington. Spin. Embellish. Exaggerate. Anything to make the story more appealing. People on Capitol Hill are masters of these skills. It doesn’t matter whether they’re talking about a piece of legislation or a ghost story in the Capitol. And, like many other things in Washington, it’s hard to discern between what’s fact or fiction.
Could it possibly be any other way? Especially at Halloween?
You know that weird scratching sometimes heard inside the Capitol walls? Well, that’s the spirit of a stonemason who got sealed up in the foundation in the late 18th Century as they built the place.
That strange scent of soap that emanates from the old Senate baths? That’s likely Vice President Henry Wilson -- preparing some suds when stricken by a case of pneumonia before he died in his Capitol office.
Maybe your olfactory nerves don’t detect anything, but you hear whizzing and sniffling. Yep, that’s also Wilson, stricken with his croup.
This is the allure of attractions like this almost everywhere. People flock to haunted houses this time of year because they want to be surprised. Spooked. Have Leatherface jump out from behind some corner and chase you with a chainsaw. You don’t know specifically where or when this will happen. You just know that it will. And you will be scared.
Visits to the Capitol don’t quite work that way. OK, OK. Time for everyone to chortle and insert some line about the halls of Congress resembling a haunted house, too.
You know, all of the ghouls who work there and frighten the American people. But seriously, the Capitol is a living museum. It’s been there for a while. A lot of American history. And some grisly history, too. This merely enhances the allure of the Capitol.
It stands as this citadel of democracy -- and yet it’s home to bizarre lore which is somehow out of place.
At the end of the day, the Capitol is an old building. And old, historic structures accumulate supernatural mythology after a while.
One of the reasons people enjoy haunted houses is because it’s exhilarating to be scared in a “safe” situation. A well-done haunted house makes people feel like there is risk -- but there really isn’t.
The Capitol is an extremely, safe environment. It’s well-guarded. Lots of police. Professional, educated people with decades of expertise in policy areas work there. It’s an imposing, physically impressive structure. Most of what goes on inside the Capitol deals with the mundane mechanics of government and legislation.
So when visitors, aides and lawmakers hear about congressional ghost stories, they rationalize. How bad can it be really? It’s the seat of government. They debate and make law there. There may be ghosts.
But this isn’t some abandoned, dilapidated old house out in the countryside somewhere. The Capitol is a known quantity. So, the “threat” posed by any of the Capitol’s ghosts is limited.
By the same token, reports of hauntings at the Capitol defy nature.
Ghosts aren’t supposed to be there. But the Capitol can’t be that scary because it’s a known, bustling structure. The activity that unfolds inside is 180 degrees away from anything paranormal. The report of ghosts somehow doesn’t fit. That simultaneously contributes to the intrigue.
So it’s impossible to determine if the U.S. Capitol is haunted. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. And even if it’s not, haunted, it makes for a good story.
And that always works in Washington.