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‘Ghosts of Georgetown’ Chases Three Centuries Of Ghosts

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E.D.E.N. Southworth’s cottage, just a few years after her death, circa 1910 postcard.
Courtesy: John DeFerrari
E.D.E.N. Southworth’s cottage, just a few years after her death, circa 1910 postcard.

Georgetown officially dates back to 1751, making it more than 30 years older than Washington, D.C., itself. And according to Tim Krepp, author of Ghosts of Georgetown, many would say the neighborhood has accumulated more than its share of ghosts in the past 262 years.

The C&O Canal has been thought of as an especially haunted location.

"The canal is a fairly important part about the history of Georgetown," Krepp says. "The reason Georgetown exists as a town itself was that this was the highest port town that ships could get up to on the river. Past here you had rapids, and to get around the rapids, they built the C&O Canal around the mid-1800s or so."

But the area around the Canal, he says, was also "a seedy part of town. This was a rough part of town here. You didn't want to be caught here at night."

One of the stories Krepp tells in his book involves a police officer in the 1890s walking his beat along the Canal towpath at night.

"He sees this ghostly apparition waving a bloody razor, those old razors they used to shave with," Krepp recounts. "And of course he was a bit spooked by this, and who wouldn't be? It turns out that later that night, an actual assault takes place in Georgetown where a man tries to assault and kill one of his boarders in a boarding house, with a straight-edge razor."

This incident sparked a whole bunch of stories in the Washington Post about other ghosts supposedly seen along the C&O canal, Krepp says, "from fishermen who claim that ghosts prevent them from catching fish here, to policemen that refused to walk their beat. The police officers in the seventh precinct of Georgetown called it the "Dead Man's Beat." They didn't want to be walking along here at night."

As for what Tim Krepp believes about ghosts around the Canal, he says he's "been looking to see a ghost for years now, and I've got nothing. I'm here, I'm willing to believe, and they won't show up for me. So that's very disappointing for me. But if anyone hears anything, let me know. I'd be interested in hearing about a current ghost along the C&O Canal!"

In a different part of the neighborhood, on Wisconsin Avenue near N Street, Tim Krepp says there have been reports of other unearthly occurrences. They've taken place inside the building where now you'll find the clothing store, The Gap.

"You can see it's a slightly larger building than its neighbors," Krepp says. "At first it was built as what's called Forrest Hall, and Forrest was a local developer that built this, to house any number of things. So this was a popular, among other things, dance hall, in the antebellum, pre-war years."

But as the Civil War drew on, Tim Krepp says it changed the character of Georgetown. Eventually the neighborhood became a sort of armed camp, with thousands of soldiers marching through.

"Forrest Hall was made as a kind of receiving area for prisoners," he explains. "When you were caught drunk and disorderly in the Union Army you were stashed there until you sobered up and they came and grabbed you. Confederate prisoners were housed there [as well].

"And after the war they tried to fix it back up again but it never really had that same charm as the pre-war years. And it gradually declined. They were locking it up in 1919 and the Washington Herald did a quick story about it. The old caretaker there insisted that he still heard the all-night sounds of these ghostly balls continuing from the pre-war years, continuing on well into the evening."

Krepp says he's asked people at The Gap about these sounds, "but they looked at me quizzically and said no, they have no recollection of that. So I'm still waiting to hear if the Gap is still haunted or not."

When it comes to bone-chilling spots in Georgetown, one of the most well-known is probably the so-called "Exorcist House," on Prospect. Its exterior was used in the film, The Exorcist¸ based on the novel by Georgetown University graduate William Peter Blatty.

"He attended [Georgetown] in the 1940s," Krepp says. "As he attended school, in nearby Maryland there was an exorcism. Blatty heard the story, was kind of inspired by it, as writers do."

Krepp points out the famous "Exorcist Steps," where "the priest kicks the demon out if the little girl, takes the demon inside, and falls dramatically down the steps in the movie."

For the movie, crews actually had to create an L-shaped addition to the house, since they needed the edge of the house to adjoin the steps. As Krepp points out, "if you fall out of the house right now you'd fall into the garden, and that wouldn't be anywhere near as dramatic."

So they created an edge and added a third story. If you look at the movie stills today, Krepp says you'd barely recognize the house.

While none of Krepp's research shows that house as being haunted today, he says the cottage that used to stand on this site was full of ghosts and spirits. Prospect Cottage was the charming home of Mrs. E.D.E.N. (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte) Southworth.

Mrs. Southworth was a prolific novelist in the 19th century. Sadly, she had a domineering father-in-law, and a husband who eventually abandoned her and her two children. So she wrote to make enough money to support her family.

At the start of the Civil War, the Battle of Manassas took place less than 20 miles from Georgetown. As Krepp explains. "the citizens of Washington assume this is going to be a glorious victory for the Union, [but] they learn that this is a disaster. The Confederates have roundly beaten us, and the residents of Washington, the residents of Georgetown, are panicked by this. Are the Confederates going to come? Are they going to invade? Will the city be put to the torch? Who knows?"

The way Krepp tells the story, A terrified Mrs. Southworth gathered her daughter and son in the house and said, "There's only three of us here. How will we survive if the Confederates come?"

"And a mysterious voice in the background says, 'There are four of you here, and you'll be fine,'" Krepp recount. "And she decides to stay, lives here until her death. When she passes away, the house goes through a few owners, and becomes an ice cream shop.

"There's an Italian greengrocer that sets up his cart out front, and he's selling his goods, and so one night he sees Mrs. Southworth coming out of the garden and talks to him. He had known Mrs. Southworth when he had been here beforehand and he panics and runs away.

"So she stuck around until the house was torn down, I believe the 1920s or so. Even when the house was an ice cream shop, her library was kept; she was an avid reader. And that's where she would be seen and heard from. So presumably when the books were taken away, she went away as well."

[Music: "Ghost Town" by The Specials from Shaun of the Dead Soundtrack]

Photos: Ghosts of Georgetown


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