Do you believe in ghosts? Many tourists in Washington, D.C., report that Decatur House, located on Lafayette Square just one block north of the White House, is the most haunted building in the Capital area. If this is true, it is not be surprising, since the residence has seen more than its share of human suffering and tragedy.
Decatur House was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, often referred to as the father of American architecture. He was commissioned in 1816, by the celebrated naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan. They requested “a home fit for entertaining”, one whose elegance would reflect their exalted position in Washington society.
They moved into the grand home in 1819, but the couple had only hosted parties and social events in Decatur House for fourteen months when tragedy struck. In 1820, Steven Decatur was fatally wounded in a duel with a former friend.
Commodore James Barron had been Stephen’s colleague. In 1807, Barron had been commander of a ship, the Chesapeake, which he hadn’t outfitted well enough for battle. Because of this failure, he suffered a disgraceful defeat by a British warship. Barron was court marshalled in 1808 and Stephen Decatur served as one of the jurors at his trial.
The verdict resulted in Barron being expelled from the navy, without pay, for five years. Thus began a dispute between the two men that lasted thirteen years. Bitter words and angry letters kept the conflict alive and brewing.
During the war of 1812, Barron was in Europe. He claimed he couldn’t travel home because of lack of funds. Decatur charged that this was only an excuse, that Barron had willingly deserted his country in time of need.
Finally, the two men agreed to settle their differences with a duel. On March 22nd., 1820, they met on a duelling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland. When the powder cleared, Barron had been shot, but Decatur had a fatal wound. He was carried home to Decatur House, where he died a few hours later.
The night before the duel, Decatur stood at his window for hours, gazing thoughtfully off into the distance. Since his death, people have seen his ghost, looking blankly out at nothing from that same window.
Visitors say his shadowy figure can often be seen in the evening, leaving Decatur House through the back door, apparently on his way to meet his doom in Maryland.
Inside the house, sensitive souls claim to detect an atmosphere of sadness, and unexplained fits of weeping can often be heard coming from the room which was Susan Decatur’s bedroom. Mrs. Decatur was so devastated by her husband’s death, she moved out of the house shortly after the disastrous duel.
The second owner was John Gadsby, an Englisn-born tavern owner and hotel keeper, one of the richest men in Washington. He built a separate wing on Decatur House which he used as slave quarters. There were no doors with access to the street, only to an inner courtyard, so the slaves could not escape.
Up to twenty African Americans slept in cramped quarters on the second floor of this wing. By day, they were either forced to work in the National Hotel, built by Gadsby, or to maintain the house and serve at the lavish parties given by their owners. Their stories of misery can only be imagined.
Today, Decatur House is a museum. Tours are available daily, during the morning and afternoon hours. The premises are closed in the evening and at night, at least to the living. Paranormal enthusiasts will insist that if you want to see the most interesting features of the old house, these are the very hours you should visit.