Hi, and welcome to a Halloween edition of Mythbusting! This week, I’ll see if my mythbusting skills can translate to ghostbusting. I’m going to tackle three different spooky DC myths and see if I can find any validity in the legends. Sound good? Let’s get started.
The Demon Cat in the Capitol: First off, let’s tackle one of the most widespread haunted myths of our city: the Demon Cat. There are so many ghost stories involving a black cat who appears in the Capitol as an omen before national tragedies like presidential assassinations. Legend has it that the cat has appeared before the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, before the stock market crash of 1929, and even on September 10, 2001. Apparently, there are even permanent paw prints in the Capitol that show the presence of the Demon Cat! So is there really a Demon Cat?
Most likely, no. According to an article posted by the US Capitol Historical Society that first appeared in Roll Call, there’s a reasonable explanation for everything. First of all, there certainly used to be cats in the Capitol as a means to control rats, and one stepped in cement way back when, and now there are permanent paw prints. Steve Livengood, Chief Tour Guide of the Capitol, says that the legend started back in the 19th century. Livengood claims that an inept and drunk security guard fell over while on duty, and a cat came over to lick his face. The guard, thinking that he was still standing up, saw the growing figure of the cat and figured it was some sort of demon. Other guards heard the story, and learned that they could get a day off if they claimed to see the Demon Cat, so the legend grew. This myth isn’t completely bustable, but that sounds to me like a pretty rational explanation for such a widespread rumor. So let’s call this one busted, unless one of you has actually seen and documented the Demon Cat and can provide photo evidence to the contrary.
The Ghost at the National Theatre: Legend has it that the National Theatre is haunted by the ghost of John Edward McCullough, an actor who was shot backstage in 1885 and hastily buried beneath the theater. The ghost of McCullough supposedly roams the theater on opening nights and once appeared in the audience. This legend is quite persistent, and it’s even referenced on the National Theatre’s website! But is it true?
Nope, this one is busted too. John Edward McCullough’s last acting performance was in Chicago in 1884, when he broke down and couldn’t recite his lines. This was the first sign of general paresis, a condition which eventually killed him in 1885. He spent his final year in an asylum in Philadelphia, and a chronicle of his death was published in 1894. So Mr. McCullough was certainly not shot by a fellow actor, and he is certainly not buried underneath the stage. Busted!
The Ghost Suite at the Omni Shoreham: One final legend to consider, this one about a haunted suite at the Omni Shoreham. This hotel opened in 1930, with the generous backing of minority stakeholder Henry Doherty. Once the hotel was built, Doherty, his wife, his daughter Helen, and a housekeeper named Juliette all moved in to a beautiful suite of rooms on the eighth floor. One morning in 1930, Juliette awoke feeling ill, and tried to call for help, but she was dead by the time help could arrive. Helen was found dead shortly thereafter as well. The Doherty family moved out in 1973, but rumor has it that the suite is still haunted: lights and televisions turn on at 4 AM (when Juliette died), objects are moved inexplicably, and visitors report feeling breezes, as if someone is walking right by. Is there really a Ghost Suite at the Omni Shoreham?
There sure is, and the Omni is proud of it! The hotel tells the story of the Doherty suite on its website, and it encourages visitors to stay in the Ghost Suite, which it lists on its “ghost-folio of properties.” When the hotel was redesigned in the 1980s, this once-abandoned suite was restored and is now a presidential suite offering fantastic views of the city. Is it really haunted? I can’t say for sure, but this account of a Washingtonian writer staying in the suite is pretty creepy.
So there you have it! I’ll call the Demon Cat myth almost totally busted, the National Theatre Ghost myth completely busted, and the Omni Ghost Suite myth plausible (if you believe in that sort of thing). And that’s just three of the dozens of legends of haunted places in the city. For more haunted places in DC, check out the Haunted Traveler or Shadowlands.