Sunday, February 27, 2011

Washington's Ghosts

It was the spring of 1973 when a co-worker friend of mine at WMAL Radio, John Alexander,  mentioned  that he was thinking about writing a book on ghosts in Washington and asked me if I would be interested in doing the photography for it.

I wouldn’t be paid though, unless he could find a publisher for it, etc, etc.

John Alexander

 This hair-brained idea of his had more “ifs” and “maybes” than just about anything that I had ever wasted my time on over the years.

So, of course, I said yes.

Not that I really expected it to ever be published or receive any money for it, but I was heavily into my hobby of photography back then and as a history lover,  to have an excuse to wander around  photographing the Washington that tourists never see was too appealing for me to turn down.


Rock Creek, Washington's oldest cemetery
John and I worked all that Spring and Summer on it. We went to I don't know how many historic old houses that I’d never heard of, like the Halcyon House just across from the White House that was full of rooms without doors and staircases that led nowhere, the old dueling grounds in nearby Bladensburg, MD where a number of congressmen settled what they could not settle on the floor of the house or senate and just about every cemetery in town.

A couple of those left some unforgettable impressions in my mind.

The statue of "GRIEF"

 For example,  the grave site of Clover Adams, wife of historian Henry Adams located in the old Rock Creek Cemetery off North Capitol Street.

If you ever visit there, you’ll notice that it bears no name, no inscription, only a statue by Augusta Saint Gaudens commissioned by her husband with the instructions “...that no attempt is to be made to make it intelligible to the average mind.”

The public has named it "GRIEF.”

You’ll never forget it.




Today, there’s no way, without an act of Congress,  that anyone could have the freedom John and I enjoyed that summer, strolling through the Capitol and other major landmarks by ourselves taking pictures of anything and everything we wanted to.

We discovered several hand carved Italian Marble bathtubs in one of the basement rooms of the Capitol. Tubs, complete with hot and cold running water which were installed there in the mid 1800’s when not even the White House had such luxurious bathing facilities.

“Tubbing” is what they called it then....and the lawmakers who used the facilities regularly were called “Tubbers.”

 Catafalque for the nations great l


 As we continued our walk down those lonely basement halls we came upon the catafalque storage area, originally a tomb built for George Washington, but his heirs insisted on honoring his wishes to be be buried at Mount Vernon.

Frankly, unexpectedly coming face to face with that thing was a bit unnerving.

Thank goodness there was no sign of the “Demon Cat” which John said according to legend makes a chilling appearance down there just before a national tragedy.

Frankly, I can understand why a number of Capitol security officers have claimed over the years to hear unexplained footsteps of invisible visitors and other such tales from which ghost stories sprout.




Perhaps it’s the heavy cloak of history that hangs over the place. Maybe it’s those long dark halls. I don’t know what it is, But there’s one thing I know for sure; the basement of our US Capitol is just plain spooky.




That Fall no one was more surprised than me when John told me that his book had been accepted by a local publisher!


That was the good news.

The bad news was that they didn’t want my photographs.

Not, John explained, that there was anything wrong with them, but because the publisher didn’t want to pay for them since they had their own staff of photographers; plus they could obtain many of the historical images free from the Library of Congress or the National Archives.

I was a little disappointed, but frankly it was no big deal for me, since I wasn’t expecting to gain monetarily from the project anyway.

Thanks primarily to the US Park Service, John Alexander’s book became a big success. For all I know, it’s still being sold in the souvenir shops at every one of our National Parks and historical sites.



 About 10 years ago, John up-dated and published a sequel called "GHOSTS, Washington Revisited" which featured all of MY pictures including one as part of the cover.
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Finally seeing those pictures published was a good feeling. I guess being “written out” by John’s first publisher bothered me a little more than I thought.




Oh, one other thing.

Just before John’s first Ghost book was to go to the printer, his publisher called and asked for permission to use one of my original pictures. It seems that they were unable to reproduce it and the Library of Congress and the National Archives determined that there was no other picture like it as far as they knew.

I told them that I would talk is over with my "agent" and get back to them.

Stay tuned. -Ed