Haunted by tragedy…or eccentricity?

Any Castle worth its sandstone has to be at least a little bit haunted. Our own Castle has seen more than its fair share of sudden death, apparitions and things that go bump in the night.


Dramatically lit Castle at night

The Castle’s dramatic lighting is not supernatural, but preparation for a 2008 film shoot for “Night at the Museum.” Photo by James Di Loreto.

An 1847 decision by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and building committee led to unforeseen disastrous results. In order to reduce construction costs of the Smithsonian Building (now known as the Castle), architect James Renwick Jr’s plans for the interior were considerably altered by replacing iron beams and brick vaults with wooden columns and rafters.

On the evening of February 29, 1850, as the wooden structure was being erected inside what is now the Great Hall, the floor began to sink. Within seconds a huge portion of the structure collapsed into the basement. Miraculously, no one was injured although several people had just passed through the room on their way to the Library in the West Wing after attending a lecture in the East Wing. A special committee was established by the Regents to examine the cause of the collapse and it concluded that “…the interior of the main building is defective in the kind of materials originally adopted….” The Regents decided that the remaining wood structure would be removed and the interior rebuilt using more durable and fireproof materials as originally intended by the architect.

Renwick sketches of the Castle

These are the earliest known (1846) sketches of the Smithsonian Institution Building. James Renwick, Jr., began his design of the Smithsonian Institution Building with a Gothic castle and eventually reworked it into a Romanesque castle. This later scheme won him the competition in 1846 to appoint an architect for the design of the Smithsonian’s first building.

By late March, workmen were busily engaged in removing the damaged woodwork from the cavernous space. Twenty-six year old William H. Page, a sailor in the US Navy, was among them, working high atop a scaffold on the morning of March 29. Although forewarned that he was standing in a dangerous and precarious position, Page lost his balance and fell, striking his head on a large piece of timber. The National Intelligencer reported that he “… so dreadfully fractured his skull as to cause almost instant death.”

Page was buried in Congressional Cemetery on March 31 by the society of Odd Fellows. However, less than two and a half months later, according to cemetery records, a Miss Ann Page had his grave opened to have a child named Rebecca F. Smith buried with him. Could Ann have been William’s sister? The 1850 US Census for the District of Columbia lists an Ann Page, age 30, sharing a house with two other young women, Mary Allen, age 20, and S. Smith, age 35; could the little girl have been William’s daughter? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions might never be known. The census was recorded after both deaths and the reference to the relationship is itself circumstantial.

neglected graves

The neglected Congressional Cemetery in 1972.

Page’s violent and tragic demise was the first death to occur within the building; the second was the sudden death of William Henry, the only son of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, in 1862. Will, as he was known, was employed in the Smithsonian’s library and had returned early from a family vacation when he was suddenly struck by jaundice and died within days in the family’s quarters in the Castle.

damaged photo of young man

Possibly William Alexander Henry (1832-1862) son of Harriet Alexander and Joseph Henry (1797-1878), physicist and first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1846 to 1878. Photographer unknown, ca. 1865, via Smithsonian Institution Archives

Another rumored ethereal presence is paleontologist Fielding B. Meek, who lived in in the Castle with his cat. His first residence was under one of the Castle’s staircases before an 1865 fire forced him to move to one of the towers, where he died of tuberculosis 1876. Joseph Henry himself died of Bright’s Disease in his Castle residence in 1878.

It is perhaps no wonder that the building is rife with ghost sightings and strange occurrences after the midnight hour. Some of the alleged sightings were thought to be of Meek, but most have been of James Smithson, the Institution’s benefactor and namesake, whose remains are interred in a specially constructed chamber at the north entrance to the building.

Night watchmen have reported doors opening and closing by invisible hands, books moving off the shelves in the Library, and lights going on and off in the middle of the night while the building was closed and presumably uninhabited. Strange sightingsunseen presences, and ghostly screams heard in the building prompted one Castle staffer to host a séance or two in the Regents’ Room in the 1980s.

Marble crypt

James Smithson’s crypt at the north entrance of the Castle. Photo via Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Stories appeared in the local press as early as 1900. A Washington Post article from May 13, 1900 reported guards telling of strange footsteps in the lonely corridors of the building created by unseen feet while husky voices break the night stillness. Night watchmen at the time claimed that they came face to face with the spirits of both Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird, the second Secretary,  still supervising the affairs of the Institution.

There is no report of whether either of these worthies moved across the Mall along with the National Museum collections when the new National Museum of Natural History opened in 1910, but apparitions continued to trouble the staff. Sometimes the apparition turned out to be an eccentric employee. Jessie Beach was a Museum Aide in the Department of Paleontology, known for her rather dyspeptic personality. As the legend goes, at one point in her life, she began building a home in Arlington, Virginia. Construction dragged on as she got into disputes with contractors. She had given up her lease, in anticipation of the house being completed, but that never occurred. So she took up temporary residence in the museum that stretched into years as the house stood unfinished and empty. One can imagine the reaction of new night guards who encountered her tall white-haired figure in a long white dressing gown floating down the deserted hallways of the museum in the middle of the night.

Fossils in early photo

The Dept of Paleontology, where Jessie Beach worked (and possibly slept) in the Museum of Natural History, 1926. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

To this day, guards and staff alike continue to feel the presence of unseen individuals and to hear breathy utterances in offices, towers and darkened hallways during and after hours. As far as we know, no one is still living under the stairs.

This article is an edited version of posts by Richard Stamm, curator of the Smithsonian Castle Collection, and historian Pamela Henson, originally published by the Smithsonian Institution Archives blog, The Bigger Picture.



Posted: 1 April 2016
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