When I was doing research for my book, Ghosts of Lincoln, I found a particularly delightful tale in several collections. The story goes that when Winston Churchill was staying at the White House, it was said that Churchill was staying in one of Lincoln's old rooms and emerged from the bathtub, dripping wet and completely naked, to find the ghost of Abraham Lincoln standing at the window.
"Mr President!" The Prime Minister said. "You seem to have me at a disadvantage!"
Lincoln's ghost smiled and faded away until it had vanished completely.
I desperately want this story to be true. However, what we have here is a regular trifecta: a Lincoln story, a Churchill story, AND a ghost story—three kind of stories where fiction has been mixed in with fact so seamlessly over the years that finding out which stories, quotes, and ideas have some basis in fact involves quite a bit of research. The world was full of quotes erroneously attributed to Churchill and Lincoln since long before the Internet came along and complicated things further, and ghost stories are notoriously hard to trace. There are plenty of famously haunted places around Chicago where I can't find a single first-hand account of seeing a ghost, and several popular ghost stories around town where I know exactly who invented them. But no matter how many radio shows I appear on, how many lectures I give, or how many books I write, the false information seems to endure.
It's only natural that Lincoln ghost stories would be particularly hard to trace—the are countless Halloween articles stating with confidence that Lincoln's ghost has been seen not only at the White House, Ford's Theatre, and the house at which he died, but also at his tomb, his Springfield house, and practically every other place he (or his body) ever visited, as well as quite a few where he never set foot. One of the earliest accounts of his ghost published in newspapers has his shade making an appearance in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, of all places. Lincoln scholar Hans Holzer once remarked that, "Either Lincoln is the most peripatetic ghost in the country or people think every tall ghost is Lincoln."
For many of these places, I never found a single first-hand sighting of the ghost; a lot of Lincoln sites are only said to be haunted because someone needed to pad out a Halloween article for a newspaper. But the White House is another matter. Sightings there are quite well documented, and many come from rather high sources. Members of Ronald Reagan's family claimed to have seen it, and several White House staffers have told stories of heads of state encountering the ghost. This doesn't stand as proof that the ghost is real, of course—Eleanor Roosevelt said that all of the signs saying "Lincoln was here" can play tricks on one's mind, and, when asked about ghosts, then-first lady Hilary Clinton simply said, "There's something about the White House at night." Still, we have a bevy of first- and second-hand sightings, which makes the White House one of the best-documented haunted spots on the planet, and Lincoln's ghost, in particular, has had plenty of witnesses.
But, alas, Churchill was not one of them. I couldn't find a good source on the "disadvantage" story for the life of me. Though a couple of sources say that the Prime Minister refused to sleep in Lincoln's bed, it was more likely to a comfort issue than anything else; nearly everyone who tries to sleep in that bed said that it was pretty lumpy.
The most damning thing about the story, though, is the notion that Churchill would have referred to his nudity as a "disadvantage" in the first place. White House usher J.B. West said that the prime minister practically lived as a nudist during his three week stay in late 1941. "We got used to his 'jumpsuit,' the extraordinary one-piece uniform he wore every day," West wrote, "but the servants never quite got over seeing him naked in his room when they'd go up to serve brandy. It was the jumpsuit or nothing. Mr. Churchill wore no clothes at all most of the time during day."
Even when I can't get a good source, sometimes trying to verify a Lincoln ghost story was damned entertaining. Spending hours collecting anecdotes about naked prime ministers, presidents riding flying pianos, and bands of skeletons playing funeral dirges is quite a way to spend your working life.
The band of skeletons story was a particular score. Stories have been passed around for ages about the ghost of Lincoln's funeral train appearing at various points along the tracks it followed as it brought the body from city to city following the assassination, but, again, first-hand sightings are in short supply. However, brakemen who worked the lines around Albany told stories to the Albany Evening Times in 1872 about seeing the train, which is really incredibly early—most Lincoln ghost stories didn't start being published until decades later.
And the story they told is a corker. Here's an excerpt:
Regularly in the month of April about midnight, the air on the track becomes very keen and cutting. On either side it is warm and still; every watchman when he feels this air steps off the track and sits down to watch.
Soon after, the pilot engine with long black streams, and a band with black instruments playing dirges, and grinning skeletons sitting all about, will pass up noiselessly, and the very air grows black. If it is moonlight, clouds always come over the moon, and the music seems to linger as if frozen with horror.
A few moments after, the phantom train glides by. Flags and streamers hang about. The track ahead seems covered with a black carpet, and the wheels are draped with the same. The coffin of the murdered Lincoln is seen lying on the center of a car, and all about it, in the air, and on the train behind are vast numbers of blue coated men, some with coffins on their backs, others leaning upon them. It seems that all the vast armies of men who died during the war are escorting the phantom train of the President.
The wind, if blowing, dies away at once, and over all the air a solemn hush, almost stifling, prevails. If a train were passing, its noise would be drowned in this silence, and the phantom train would rise over it.
Clocks and watches always stop, and when looked at are found to be from five to eight minutes behind. Everywhere on the road about the 20th of April the time of watches and trains is found suddenly behind.
The story is almost too good to be true—and, in fact, almost certainly is. If I had to guess, I'd say that there's a kernal of truth here; perhaps brakemen told the reporter tales of clocks stopping, mysterious rumbling sounds, and maybe a sighting of the phantom train. But all of the stuff about grinning skeletons and ghostly soldiers carrying coffins was added in by the reporter. Still: it's a very, very early account of a ghost, and probably the original source for most the ghost train stories that followed.
Digging into stories like this led me down one rabbit hole after another, as I tried to trace stories of séances, ghosts, premonitions, and dreams back to reliable sources. In the process I stumbled into a first-hand account of Lincoln attending séances that fell through the cracks of history a century ago, ghost stories that haven't been retold in decades, and new, earlier sources on some supernatural Lincoln tales that have been going around for years. The seeds of these stories had an untold impact on the way we view death, ghosts, and the supernatural today, and I can't wait to share them.