There's nothing quite so dispiriting about researching a book entitled Ghosts in Georgetown as to come across a truly spectacular story about a ghost, only to find that it's inconveniently located in, well, not Georgetown. As I'm not inclined to write a "Devils and Demons of Dupont" (yet), let me share with you a story I found while hunting the haunted historical record.
Our tale begins with the destruction of Stewart's Castle in 1901, just off Massachusetts Avenue on Dupont Circle. All too often, tearing down a historic building is the end of a ghost story, not the beginning. Few ghosts seem to want to haunt Brutalist boxes and post-Modern glass buildings, and who can blame them. But perhaps the demise of the old building freed up a previously trapped spirit?
The castle was built as Nevada Senator William Morris Stewart's residence in D.C. Designed by renowned local architect Adulf Cluss; it was among the first of many grand buildings that transformed Dupont Circle from the dusty outskirts of the city to a thriving high class neighborhood after the Civil War. After a devastating fire in 1879, the house was leased to the Chinese Legation from 1886 to 1893.
Then, in 1899, this crazy-eyed fellow, Sen. William Clark of Montana, purchased the Castle. Somehow, it wasn't quite grand enough for him, and he razed it in 1901 to build something larger. Funds ran out, and as Sen. Clark worked things out, the lot sat vacant, strewn with the rubble of the castle.
Our story begins with a August 1902 article in the Washington Post entitled "Ghost of a Chinaman." And yes, that is not the preferred nomenclature.
Some weeks before, late one evening, a Mr. S. L. Lwehg was walking home to Georgetown. Being a particularly warm night, he decided to stop and rest on a nearby park bench when he noticed the erratic movements of a man dressed in Chinese garments at the newly razed site of Stewart's Castle. At first, it seemed he might be looking for something, but the man was simply wandering about the site. As the Post put it, "the Celestial would walk first in one direction and then in another, and sometimes would go across the lot from sidewalk to sidewalk." Finally, as Mr. Lwegh watched, he vanished completely.
Similar tales surfaced, and the Post did a little background investigating. It found that when the castle had been the Chinese Legation, it had been no stranger to dire events:
It was said that early one morning a passerby was surprised and horrified to see the body of a dead Chinaman hanging over the windowsill in one of the upper rooms. A long black cord tightly twisted and knotted showed the manner in which he had met his death. As the legation building was under international law, as much a part of China as the Celestial empire itself, the authorities of the United States could not trespass in order to learn the cause of the man's death and punish those responsible for it, if punishment was due."
The identity of the mysterious victim was never ascertained, or even if the death had been a murder or a suicide. But clearly, there seemed to be a link with the current spirit, which was now reported by several people. When first seen, it seemed to be "only one of the picturesque figures to be seen in the vicinity of the Chinese legation". But upon further inspection, "in the glare of the electric light, the flowing sleeves of his dark red jacket appear very filmy, and the gown of light blue looks like mist." What's more, his "feet make no sound as the ghostly saddles pass along the walks." Finally, and most tellingly, just before the spirit would vanish, its hands would spring up "to loosen the long black cord that is tightly twisted and knotted about his neck."
Naturally, the article spurred a bit of interest, and a few days later, the Post wrote a follow up article. Onlookers began to gather, and a MPD officer, Sergeant Sullivan, helpfully advised them that between one and two in the morning was the most auspicious time to see the ghost, or at the very least, that's when he usually saw it. Interestingly enough, while there was a small crowd, "no male watchers have as yet appeared to catch a glimpse of the poor Chinaman, and the women have a monopoly on the curiosity."
Perhaps because of the ghost, or more likely Sen. Clark simply lost interest in being a senator and living in D.C., the land remained undeveloped until 1923, when Riggs Bank (now PNC) built their branch on Dupont Circle. So next time you go to the ATM, see if you can spot a lost soul from the Celestial Kingdom.