Ghost Stories: Washington, DC's Octagon House

During our country's earliest years, the founding fathers and other Washington elite often frequented galas at one of Washington DC's most elegant and modern homes, Colonel John Tayloe's Octagon House.

In the late 17th century, Tayloe was perhaps Virginia's wealthiest man, and the owner of the Mt. Airy Plantation. But he and his ever-expanding family of his wife and 15 children rejoiced in the social life of the Capital, and at the turn of the century, turned Dr. William Thornton's design into their part-time city residence. Erected a mere block from the White House, constructed of brick, timber, iron
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and sandstone, and furnished with the finest decorating elements and furniture imported from England, the Octagon House's unique desig and overall opulence soon turned it into a landmark in the USA's cultural, political, and architectural history. Among its many claims to fame was its temporary use as the residence of President and Mrs. Madison following the 1814 burning of the White House by the British. In fact, the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed by Pres. Madison in the Octagon House's upstairs parlor.
A fitting structure, surely, for a secondary history of mayhem, murder, and repeated ghostly events.

The dark history of the Octagon House began with Col. Tayloe himself, and his iron-fisted rules that restricted the social life of his daughters. These events are related slightly differently by numerous storytellers, and we have pieced together as accurate a description as we can from the numerous tales of the building's early years. Integral to all versions of this history are 1) the residence's grand staircase, which rose from the ground floor up to the equally opulent third floor, and 2) Col. Tayloe's virulent hatred for the British.

And so it came to pass that Tayloe's beautiful daughter, Anne, fell in love with a British soldier. Their meetings were clandestine, but
the Colonel was no dumbbell, and came to suspect the worst, and when his spies confirmed his suspicions, Anne was banned from leaving Octagon House.

Unwilling to give in to her father's commands, she still managed to find ways out of the residence, for meetings with her lover. After one such tryst, she was sneaking back in late one evening when, as she ascended to the top level of the grand staircase, she saw the Colonel before her. An argument ensued, which only ended as Anne toppled over the banister, falling to her death three stories below. Different versions of the fall concluded with Anne either accidentally falling, committing suicide, or being
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murdered by her father. While the prevailing view at the time was that she died at the hand of her father, Colonel Tayloe himself insisted to his dying day that Anne's death was accidental.

Ever since that fateful eve, numerous witnesses have sworn to have heard or actually seen the ghost of Anne Tayloe. They have related stories of a ghostly presence re-enacting Anne's death, including the girl's screams, and a sickening thud, presumed to be her tumbling body hitting the ground floor from high above. Reports have been made of the sight of a flickering light, a candle light, as if it were being used by a young woman feeling her way up the grand staircase, in the otherwise dark of night.

After Anne's death, the Taylor family moved for a time back to their Mt. Airy Plantation, leaving the Octagon House in the hands of their French servant. Pity the poor, unsuspecting woman. Anne's British lover, unaware that the family had left Washington, came to the house to confront the Colonel, and was apparently attacked by the servant. Whether in self-defense or not, the soldier struck back
at the servant with a knife, killing her. He chose to hide the body. Behind a wall of the house.

For the next century, visitors to the house reported the sounds of thumping from within the house's walls. Repeated searches over decades never found a source of the noise, but eventually a major renovation of the structure was begun, and behind a section of ancient plaster, the skeleton of a young woman was found, found with clenched fists, as if she had died pounding on the walls.

But back to the early 1800s, and the sadness of history repeating itself. Another of the
Colonel's daughters also was to fall in love with a Brit, and as some tales relate, they ran off and got married. Unfortunately, their marriage lasted only a brief time, and the daughter returned to Octagon House to attempt a reconciliation with her father. They found themselves, of all places, on the grand staircase, and as once before, a violent argument followed and again, a Tayloe daughter fell to her death, this time tumbling down the staircase, breaking her neck.

Few people believed the Colonel's protestations that this, too was an accident, and he soon left Washington, DC forever. The ghost of his second dead daughter, however, remained in Washington, and remained in Octagon House, also, according to witnesses, causing other-worldly events in the building. Reports have been frequently made that a dark shadow was seen on the spot where Miss Tayloe had landed, as have reports of heavy footsteps heard on the stairs, when no one was there - perhaps from yet another ghost, that of Colonel Tayloe walking off the grief of the deaths of two of his daughters?

Other visitors to the Octagon House have also reported visions of Dolly Madison wandering the house while wearing her famous turban. No sinister explanation for her presence has ever, to our knowledge, been put forth.

In 1902, the American Institute of Architects purchased the Octagon House, and restored it to its original appearance. It is open to the public for tours.

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