Cold Spots – The Decatur House

Washington, D.C. – In a town famed for leaders and shapers of destiny, it is little wonder that things linger. It seems that every house has historic significance, every building is a monument. From high windows people feel that they are being watched from even the most innocuous of buildings.

One in particular, not the most famous by any stretch of the imagination, replays the pain that took place in its walls. Shadows walk past windows, and people swear that inside the dead continue to walk.

It could be hype, meant to drive people to what is now a museum. Or it could be the echoes of the past when a man died at the hands of a former friend.

The Decatur House

Washington, DC, is home to hundreds of sights for the curious. Every home has a story, monuments line the streets, and there are even places for hard-core horror movie fans to visit. (The steps used in The Exorcist are located in Georgetown, just outside of DC.) And while many of the places, like Ford’s Theater, the Capitol building, and even the White House have ghost stories galore written about them, there are others. Little known and seldom mentioned alongside the more famous buildings of the Nation’s Capitol, The Decatur House has a story that deserves to be told.

The Decatur HouseHistory
Commodore Stephen Decatur came to Washington, DC, in 1816 after a long and celebrated career in the Navy. He decided to build his family’s new home on what would become known as Lafayette Square, becoming the first neighbor of the White House. They cemented their role in DC society by hosting lavish parties and by rubbing elbows with the top of the political food chain. Rumors had it that Decatur himself wanted to change residences, though he wished to do so by becoming President. Their “temporary home” was complete in 1819.

Only a few months after moving in, Decatur was challenged to a duel from a long-time rival, Commodore James Barron, who bore a grudge against Decatur. Barron was court-martialed in 1807, and Decatur’s testimony was instrumental in finding him guilty of unpreparedness during the Chesapeake Leopard Affair and had subsequently blocked him from holding a position of command for five years.

Attempting to solve the issue, Decatur accepted the challenge. He shot and wounded Barron, as was his intention, and was prepared to let the matter drop. Barron, however, had other plans. He mortally wounded Decatur and exacted his revenge. Decatur didn’t die straight away, however. It took him two days of agonizing pain to finally succumb to the gut-shot. He was taken to his home, where he lay dying while, in the next room, a party was in full swing to honor the engagement of the President’s daughter to her first cousin.

Decatur died on March 22nd, 1820, leaving his young widow with a small fortune. She could not bear living in the house without him, however, and moved out following his death. She died penniless forty years later.

The Decatur HouseGhosts
Those who have been in the house frequently claim to have seen Stephen Decatur walking the halls, his expression one of bleak sadness. He has been sighted throughout the house. and, though he is often seen looking out windows or walking the halls, he is not the only phenomenon to take place. There are also reports of a strange sobbing and wailing sound that comes from empty rooms or is heard after hours. While no one is certain just who it is, most people believe the voice to belong to Decatur’s widow, Susan. The most palpable phenomenon is the feeling of sadness and heaviness that comes from the room on the first floor where Decatur died.

Present Day
As with many historical homes, The Decatur House is now a museum. 2010 Saw the establishment of the National Center for White House History at Decatur House, a repository for all things having to do with the home of the President. In addition, it is open for historic tours of the house as well as self-guided tours of exhibits and even cell phone tours in which visitors are guided by calling the museum’s tour number. The house is also available to host weddings and other special events, keeping in the tradition that Decatur himself started almost 200 years ago.

The Decatur House

Best Times
The Decatur House is always a beautiful step back into history, but sightings of Stephen Decatur happen without regularity. The best time to visit, it seems, would be between March 20 and 22nd, when Decatur lay waiting as his injury slowly drove him to his grave.

See you next time!

Scott A. Johnson

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