The Octagon House in Washington D.C.
The Octagon House at 1799 New York Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C., served as the residence of President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison during the War of 1812.
The property, also known as the Colonel John Tayloe III House, has a long history of haunting claims. Residents often said it was the most haunted in Washington, D.C.
There have been reports of paranormal phenomena in the house since the 1800s. People reported poltergeist activity, such as bells ringing, banging on the walls, and phantom lights.
Although the house is called the Octogan, it has a hexagonal (six-sided) shape.
John Tayloe III and Ann Ogle of Virginia
John Tayloe III and his wife Ann Ogle of Virginia completed construction work on the property, which came to be known as the Octagon House, in 1801. The pioneering Architect Dr. William Thornton designed the building.
John Tayloe III (1770-1828) was a prominent native of Richmond County, Virginia. He was a planter, horse breeder, and one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. at the time, having inherited his father’s estate.
Tayloe was a member of the Federalist Party and served in the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. He saw active service during the War of 1812 as lieutenant colonel of the cavalry of the District of Columbia.
The original Octagon House was a three-story brick house with multiple outbuildings (including an ice house), horse stables, a carriage house, and adjoining slave quarters. Tayloe and his wife Ann originally intended it to serve as a winter residence, but the family lived there permanently from 1818 until 1855, when Ann died.
The American Institute of Architects Foundation owns the property today. It operates as a museum and is open to the public for tours.
President Madison’s residence
The British burned the White House (then known as the Presidential Mansion) during their brief occupation of Washington, D.C. (then known as Washington City) after they defeated the U.S. forces at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. The battle was one of the decisive battles of the War of 1812.
President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, fled Washington before the British arrived but returned after they withdrew.
When the first couple returned to Washington in September, they couldn’t immediately return to the president’s fire-gutted official residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. So they stayed at the Octagon House. The house was one of the city’s grandest private residents. It was located close to the White House at the intersection of 18th Street and New York Avenue.
President Madison and Dolley lived in the house for six months.
Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent at the Octagon House
Madison was the fourth president of the United States, serving in office from 1809 to 1817. His tenure occurred during the War of 1812 (June 18, 1812 – February 17, 1815), an armed conflict between the United States and the United Kingdom over various issues, including Britain’s support for the native tribes fighting against U.S. expansion in the Northwest Territory.
President Madison signed (ratified) the peace terms (The Treaty of Ghent) that ended the War of 1812 at the Octagon House on February 11, 1815.
According to folklore, the Octagon House is one of the most haunted buildings in Washington, D.C. People have reported experiencing various paranormal phenomena there since the mid-1800s after Ann Ogle died.
Stories about paranormal activity were in circulation in the late 1800s.
Virginia Tayloe Lewis
The unexplained ringing of the bells used for calling the servants was one of the most widely claimed paranormal activities at the house. Homeowners rang bells to call their slaves and servants in the 19th century.
Folklore that dates back to the mid-1800s says that slaves sometimes returned as ghosts to harass their masters by ringing the bells loudly. However, at the Octagon, the ringing followed the death of the master of the house.
Virginia Tayloe Lewis reported she learned from older family members that after her grandfather, John Tayloe III, died in 1828, the bells rang loudly and persistently. The ringing continued even after they cut the bell wires. The servants would come running when they heard the ringing, only to be told that no one had called them.
General George D. Ramsay
According to a story, Tayloe once requested his friend Brigadier-General George D. Ramsay (1802 –1882) to stay overnight at the mansion while he was away because he did not want his daughters to be alone overnight.
While dining, the bells rang several times, forcing Ramsay to leave the table to investigate. Each time the general left the table to see who was ringing, he returned puzzled.
The incident unnerved the house servants, who declared in fright that it was due to supernatural causes. Ramsay tried to stop one of the bells from ringing by holding to the wire that controlled it, but the bell continued ringing.
In her 1873 book, Ten Years in Washington, author Mary Clemmer Ames wrote that folklore claimed that all the bells would sometimes ring together.
The bells rang while Tayloe entertained guests
Local legend says that once, while Tayloe entertained guests, the bells started ringing.
A skeptical guest tried to disprove claims of supernatural agency by holding on to the wires. But they moved under the influence of a mysterious force, and the guest struggled to hold the wires while the ringing continued.
Some sources reported that investigations found that the building was rat infested and that the bells rang when the vermin disturbed the wires.
But after various failed efforts to stop the ringing, the family resorted to calling an exorcist to cleanse the house of spirits. However, the cleansing ceremonies and prayers didn’t work, and the ringing continued until the family stopped using bells to call the servants.
A group investigated the allegations of paranormal activity
A widely circulated newspaper report from the late 1800s claimed that a group of men stayed overnight at the Octagon House to investigate stories they’d heard about hauntings and paranormal phenomena in the building.
The men took up positions in different parts of the house to increase their chances of detecting strange activity that occurred overnight.
At midnight, three men were walking on the second floor when they heard a woman screaming from a room. Terrified, the men huddled together in the same room for mutual protection. They heard noises in the house throughout the night, including stomping footfalls.
Tayloe family ghosts
Some newspapers published reports about hauntings in the house involving ghosts walking or running up and down the building’s spiral staircases. Some visitors said they saw the ghosts of members of the family who lived in the house from the early- to mid-1800s.
Accounts circulating in the 1900s claimed that one of the girls fell down the stairs to her death a few years before the War of 1812 started.
A version of the folklore claims that the girl clashed with her father over her relationship with a British military officer. As she stormed out of her father’s presence in a room on the second floor, she tripped and tumbled down the stairs to her death.
The girl’s ghost has haunted the building since then, legend claims. People claimed to have seen her ghost walking up the stairs to the second floor holding a candle or lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs where her body fell.
Another of Tayloe’s daughters died a few years later in similar circumstances, according to local folklore. She eloped with a man but later returned home to reconcile with her parents. She met her father on the third floor of the building and fell down the stairs during a heated exchange.
Thus, while the first sister haunted the stairs leading to the second-floor landing, the second sister haunted the stairs leading up to the third-floor landing.
Tayloe’s daughters didn’t die at the Octagon House
Historians have debunked the stories about Tayloe’s daughters dying by falling down the stairs during an argument with their father. None of the girls died while living at the Octagon.
History records that Tayloe and Ann lost a one-month-old daughter in 1800 before the family moved into the house. Another daughter, Rebecca Plater, aged 18, died at the family’s Mount Airy plantation house in Virginia in 1815 after an illness.
A third daughter, Elizabeth Mary, died in 1832 in her mid-twenties, a few years after she got married and moved out of the Octagon.
Tayloe died four years earlier, in 1828, at the Octagon House. His wife, Ann, died in the house in 1855.
Dolley Madison’s ghost
Some people claimed to have seen the ghost of the former First Lady Dolley Madison at the Octagon House. She and her husband, President James Madison, lived there for six months, from September 1814 to March 1815.
The Octagon House in the 1940s
A man who worked in the building in the 1940s claimed that a doctor he called when his wife took ill said he met a man on the stairs dressed in a 19th-century-style military uniform.
The mysterious man walked up the stairs and disappeared into the dark.
The Octagon House in the 1960s
The building opened as a museum in the 1970s after being named a national landmark in 1960. The museum management worked in the 1990s to restore the building’s original 19th-century looks and feel.
A museum official from the 1970s claimed that ghosts haunted the building in the 1960s and that they constantly played pranks at night, switching lights on and off and banging doors.
The 1970s and 1980s
A story claimed that a man employed to keep the house in the 1970s said he once encountered a gentleman dressed in an all-black late 1800s costume walking up the stairs to the second floor.
The strange gentleman tipped his hat at the worker as he passed.
Another man who also worked in the house in the 1980s said he saw a man in black walking up the stairs from the first floor.
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Top image courtesy of Steveturphotg used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0.
|Other Name/s||Colonel John Tayloe III House|
|Address||The Octagon House and Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NW|
|Activity reported||Haunting, Poltergeist, Shadow Figures|
Where to find
In the media
https://archive.org/details/tenyearsinwashin01clem/page/558/mode/2up?view=theater, “Ten Years in Washington” by Mary Clemmer Ames (1873).
https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/10/09/octagon-museum-a-historic-house-youll-wish-you-could-buy/, “Octagon Museum: A historic house you’ll wish you could buy,” accessed on April 13, 2023.
https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-octagon-of-washington-d-c-the-house-that-helped-build-a-capital-teaching-with-historic-places.htm, “The Octagon of Washington, D.C.: The House that Helped Build a Capital,” accessed on April 13, 2023.
https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/nations-haunted-capital, “The Nation’s Haunted Capital,” accessed on April 13, 2023.
https://dcghosts.com/the-octagon-house/, “DC Ghosts: The Octagon House,” accessed on April 13, 2023.
https://boundarystones.weta.org/2014/07/16/octagon-houses-tales-grave, “The Octagon House’s Tales from the Grave,” accessed on April 13, 2023.