WASHINGTON -- Why does money keep going missing on Capitol Hill? There's an obvious answer (politicians). A less obvious answer is sticky-fingered ghosts.
Local author and tour guide Tim Krepp, having just published a book about Capitol Hill's otherworldly beings -- including some that pilfer money -- isn't sure that that ghosts actually exist. He has, however, documented the many, many stories told by people who think they do in "Capitol Hill Haunts."
HuffPost DC caught up with Krepp just before the "Capitol Hill Haunts" launch party, being held Thursday night at the Argonaut on H Street NE.
The Huffington Post: Let me get the obvious question out of the way first: Did you see any ghosts while researching this book?
Tim Krepp: Ha! No, I did not. [I'm] a little disappointed at that. Perhaps they note my cynical side and refuse to show themselves to me?
HuffPost: Are there a lot of politicians haunting Capitol Hill? Or do most pols go haunt their home districts?
Krepp: Yes, but quite sensibly they stay on their side of the Hill, in the big white building we get our name from. John Quincy Adams may perhaps be the most reliable, giving his final speech on the floor of the old House Chamber (now Statuary Hall). Steve Livengood, the chief guide of the Capitol Historical Service, has seen him many times and is a font of ghostly knowledge. Probably the one person who unabashedly sees ghosts I talked to and relates his story matter-of-factly. He also has a great recollection of Wilbur Mills, an all but forgotten giant of the House.
HuffPost: Where did most of the ghost stories come from? Did you read about them, or talk to people who'd experienced the ghosts?
Krepp: I try to cast a wide net. Some are from previously published accounts. Many, perhaps most, are from newspaper archives. Some I find from word of mouth. The most rewarding is when I can talk to someone who has first-hand experiences.
HuffPost: Did you hear from many people who see ghosts these days?
Krepp: Several. Three were kind enough to give me face-to-face interviews, and many more related interesting occurrences.
I thought it interesting that all three, in carrying degrees, were cautious about using the term "ghost," but were certain they had come across something unexplained.
HuffPost: What had they come across?
Krepp: A variety of things. Not many out-and-out apparitions, but quite a bit of mysterious happenings. What caught my attention was several occurrences of money mysteriously disappearing from a known location, the owner searching for it, in one case for years, and then having it reappear exactly where it should have. I suppose there are a number of "rational" reasons why this could happen, but the multiple unconnected occurrences kinda gave me a shiver.
The original story was in the Library of Congress; some debate as to whether it was in the Capitol or when it moved to what's now the Jefferson Building. But an incredibly similar tale happened in recent times in a house across the street from the Madison building. And then H Street Playhouse had another eerily similar occurrence, although with prop money during a play.
It seems we have a ghostly klepto on the Hill who thinks better of his actions!
HuffPost: Money going missing in Washington. Who'd have thought?
Krepp: Seriously. A local politician or two might want to blame a ghost right about now...
Of course, in the [Library of Congress] ghost, the money may, or may not, have reappeared, but the ghost continues to search for it.
HuffPost: Do you find the ghost stories interesting because of the ghosts, or do you mostly like the ghost stories as a way to explore some of D.C.'s history?
Krepp: I'd say more of the later. Ghosts make great stories, but they could be anything. It could be the history of architecture. Or transportation. Or race. Or any of the other lens we use to examine our history. I like ghosts because they're somewhat whimsical, and their stories revolve around the darker sides of life, which my at times gloomy personality identifies with.
HuffPost: What is your favorite story in your book? And are there any great stories that had to get left out?
Krepp: I think my absolute favorite tidbit I found was in reference to the jail that used to be in Hill East. It was an 1893 Washington Post article about Georgetown ghosts and it casually dismissed the jail ghost as "only what theosophical science now knows familiarly as the Jiva" and goes on to string a bunch of pseudo-scientific garbage together. Basically, the Jail ghosts weren't "real" because black people saw them, while Georgetown had the real article.
It really captured the condescending racism of the time, in a way that textbooks don't. Man, black people can't even have their own ghosts?
As to left out, I had a lot of leads that petered out. I really wish I had a good ghost at Eastern Market or the Old Naval Hospital. I tried finding one at Atlas Theater (what kind of theater doesn't have a ghost!?!?). But the only stories I cut were ones that were boring or repetitive.
HuffPost: You talk about racism and ghosts in your book quite a bit -- can you explain how those two things go together?
Krepp: It's not necessarily that racism and ghosts go together, but rather the idea that Capitol Hill and race go together (and not just racism). So much of the narrative of this neighborhood has been about racism, either overtly in the last 50 years or so, or the hidden subtext for the last 200-plus.
But specifically with ghosts, there was often a underlying thought that ghosts and "haints" were something suitable for children, black people, and other "less serious" folks. So when I find a story from, say, 1871, it's impossible to write about it in a race-neutral way. They didn't live that way then, and we don't live that way now. It would sound artificial if I tried to write it that way.
And, I think, that ghosts, and in a larger sense, folklore history, is something that has been sidelined by "real" historians. These were stories people, quite often black people, sincerely believed. Why not examine them? The historical record is more bare than say, Lincoln's assassination, but it's not completely empty.
HuffPost: Do you think ghosts and other supernatural-type things are still considered to be the domains of less-serious folks?
Krepp: Oh yes. And people know it. When someone tells me about their house, the story almost invariably starts with "I don't believe in ghosts, but there's this thing I just can't explain". It's funny. We are absolutely certain about so many things in our lives without direct evidence, but we seem to hold a higher standard to the supernatural. Not saying that's a bad thing, it's just funny that we "know" so many other things with just as scanty evidence.
I'm not much better, by the way. I catch myself responding to the "So you wrote a ghost book?" with "Yes, but it's actually history, not just a bunch of stories. Look it has footnotes and everything!".
HuffPost: You are holding your book launch at the Argonaut this week. Is that place haunted?
Krepp: No. Damnit. It's another place I tried finding a ghost. In fact, I looked all over for a good haunted bar. We have so few historic bars on the Hill. Argo just has an older feel, it isn't that old in it's own right. Hawk n Dove closed, but I don't see how it couldn't have been haunted. I tracked down some rumors at Mr. Henry's but they didn't pan out. I still have some hopes there is a good haunted bar somewhere on the Hill, but I haven't found it yet.
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