The Gaslight Ghost

(from John Alexander's GHOSTS: Washington's most famous ghost stories - Illustration by Harry Dierken)

A 1935 Washington Post article by Gaeta Wold Boyer told about how she was investigating stories of supernatural occurrences at the First Spiritualist Church on C Street and was told by its minister how he had received his inspiration to become a minister from an encounter in his childhood with the phantom of a young woman.

As a young boy, at the turn of the century, the minister had lived with his family in a house on G Street. The minister recalled how his family happened on the spirit quite by accident. One chilly evening they were enjoying quiet fellowship on their porch when the father, deciding they would need a fire for warmth later that night, went to prepare it. Inside the doorway he struck a match to ignite the gaslight. The flame flickered, sputtered, and then caught, suffusing the room with a soft glow. Just about then the father cried out. The minister said that he and his brothers and sisters rushed in to see their father virtually paralyzed. His eyes were glued to a nearby couch. There stretched out on the sofa with "her hair over the arm rest" was a beautiful, but obviously lifeless young girl.

The reporter quotes the minister as saying that his father began to regain his composure, examine his feelings, and experiment. The father turned the light to a fuller flame, and the figure vanished. He dimmed the light and the specter reappeared. He repeated the procedure twice more, with the same results. With the presence of the spirit also came the strong odor of gas. As the fumes permeated the room, the girl's complexion and clothing became radiant; she shimmered in the soft light. When coughing broke the silence, she vanished. Then, startled out of his trancelike state, the father became concerned about his family's safety and ushered everyone back outside while he searched for the source of the gas fumes.

The minister said that they were too shaken to discuss the encounter, so they just sat staring into the darkness until their father pronounced the house free of gas. No one slept that night, and most of the family were out of their bedrooms by first light, going over what had happened and trying to understand what it meant. By midmorning it had been decided that they would question the neighbors, check the real estate records, and do what else was necessary to help them learn who the young lady haunting their house had been, and whether others had had encounters similar to theirs.

The family learned the identity of the ghost from a neighbor. The young woman had lived in the house several decades earlier. She had become so disillusioned with life, and so despondent after her fiancee was killed in the Civil War, that a permanent sleep seemed her only answer. Legend has it that she slowly dressed for bed, turned up the gas, and then lay down on the sofa in the parlor to dream her last dream of the handsome young man in the blue uniform who would have been hers had not a cannonball at Manassas separated them. It is said that a smile came to her lips at the thought of rejoining him, and that she entered her deepest sleep.

This encounter was the beginning of the minister's lifelong interest in the supernatural. He told the Post reporter his tale in his church office. She reported that it was not unusual for those who chatted with him there to be interrupted by a door opening or a chair scraping across the floor of its own volition, or to see a book move across the minister's desk without human hands. There old church is no longer there. It was torn down to make way for a newer structure. The minister is long gone, too - free to join his friends on the other side.