Ghostly ‘Capitol Hill’
Washington, D.C., is home to many ghost stories. From the bloody steps in the Capitol to a commodore haunt- ing the old Navy Yard, the city is ripe with spirits. A culmination of all these stories can be found in “Capitol Hill Haunts,” a new book by Tim Krepp.
Krepp, a licensed tour guide for tours in D.C. and New York, is putting his degree in history from Georgetown University to good use by revealing the stories and places some of the departed call home. Years ago, while giving ghost tours, Krepp realized his interest in ghosts and storytelling.
“I really fell in love with the concept of ghost stories as a way of preserving [them] as urban folklore, as legends, as a nexus between history you can put in textbooks, versus oral traditions.”
Krepp’s favorite story, which can be found in the book, is of the “Phantom Wheelman.” An 1882 streetcar conductor had fatally col- lided with a cyclist and now would find phantom cyclists darting out behind his streetcar. The interesting fact was how the original cyclist was riding the penny-farthings of the era, yet the cyclists seemed to upgrade their bicycles as the times changed.
“It’s a great story, just the imagery of this dark streetcar, after midnight, coming down and seeing this guy on a penny-farthing coming at him,” Krepp said. “But also what it says about today’s conflicts and debates in the city: the use of public space. Who owns the road?”
However, the “Phantom Wheelman” doesn’t get the best reaction when told orally, it needs a visual. Like most ghost stories, there must be something there for the audience to see. Despite this, the overall crowd pleaser is the rarely seen “Demon Cat of the Capitol.”
The Demon Cat roams the lower levels of the Capitol, including the space built to be George Washington’s crypt. At first sight, it appears to be a normal tabby cat, until it fixes its eyes on its victim and then runs towards them getting larger before it lets out a yelp and jumps over the victim’s head into the darkness. Legend has it the Demon Cat shows up before presidential assas- sinations and times of national crisis.
“Capitol Hill Haunts” also shares some less- er-known ghost stories of the nation’s capital. In the section titled “The Watchful Commodore,” the haunting of Captain Thomas Tingey in the Navy Yard is explained. Tingey was in charge of building and developing the yard, and he was the one to give the order to set it on first when the British arrived in D.C. in 1814 during the War of 1812.
It is said Tingey still haunts his old home, Quarters A in the Yard. He was first spotted in 1853 by the daughter of the yard commandant. In 1960, when the new commander, Rear Admiral Thomas H. Robbins moved his family in, his dog sensed a presence. The dog would stare at a chair in the drawing room and bark and growl at it, until his owner addressed the captain, telling him they were “glad to be living in [his] house.”
Tingey has also been spotted staring out the second floor window of Quarters A and walking around the Navy Yard for inspection with his spyglass and sword. The book also mentions Tingey took offense to the 1886 name change of the Yard to the Naval Gun Foundry by letting out “a banshee cry that could be heard for blocks around” at midnight.
Georgetown, of course, is no stranger to ghost stories, one reason, Krepp says, he stayed away when he wrote his book. Now, Krepp has returned and is in the beginning stages of writing his next book on the ghosts of Georgetown.
Though still in the preliminary stages of research, Krepp finds the old Forest Hall, now the Gap on Wisconsin Ave, to be a great story. Previous to being a prison during the Civil War, it was a public hall, hosting debutante balls and minuets. “I have an early 20th century, I want to say 1910, 1920 article describing the ghostly balls that continue to this day.”
One iconic spot Krepp is eager to research more are the infamous Exorcist Steps. “As far as I know, there are no real ghost stories about the steps themselves,” Krepp said. “I think the site was, as far as I know, picked just because it looks haunted.” Though there may be no ghosts lingering on the steps, it is definitely a spooky destination to visit this Halloween, after watch- ing the classic film, “The Exorcist.” ★