One of the spectacular perks of being a paranormal investigator with no kids except the four-legged kind and no social life to speak of is that you can take up last-minute invites to all sorts of interesting places. Last weekend I had the chance to do just that, filling in on an investigation of the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries, VA, which is just outside of Washington, DC. The museum is known for both its historical significance and paranormal activity, although the staff would prefer to focus on the former rather than the latter. At any rate, I did a whirlwind research session, packed my ghost hunting kit, and hit the road for a visit to what is rumored to be a very haunted location.
First, a little background info on Dumfries itself. It is actually Virginia’s oldest continuously chartered town and once rivaled New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in importance as a seaport and also as a farming community, with the main product being tobacco. However, tobacco was an unforgiving crop, requiring much of the soil and giving little back. Eventually the tobacco farming practices not only rendered much of the farmland useless, but also resulted in the filling in of much of the seaport. People moved on. By the early 1800s, Dumfries was practically a ghost town. It experienced a brief resurgence when the railroad came through, providing a link to major cities like Richmond and Washington, DC, but the town never really returned to its former glory.
The town was a center of activity during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, although no significant battles took place there. Trenches were dug on the property of the Weems-Botts Museum during the Civil War, and many soldiers from both the North and the South passed through here. The house was likely used by officers during this period; it probably was not used as a field hospital, although the Henderson House up the street was. Approximately 9000 Civil War soldiers are buried in unmarked graves in the area around the museum and under the nearby interstate. These soldiers died while camped on and around the property, mainly due to measles; they were all Confederate and hailed mostly from Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.
The Weems-Botts house itself was built sometime in the 1750s and is thought to have originally been the vestry for the Quantico church. It is named for two of its prestigious past residents, Mason Locke Weems and Benjamin Botts. Weems purchased the home in the late 1790s, although he did not live there – instead, he used it as a bookshop. Weems is a fascinating character, and of great interest to me is the fact that he was a biographer of George Washington, and was the creator of the famous cherry tree myth (“I cannot tell a lie”) associated with Washington (apparently the story is based somewhat in fact, but Weems embellished it to help elevate Washington to American Hero status). He also coined the term “best-seller,” and invented several marketing ploys for his books that are still used today, which is quite thrilling to a word nerd like me.
In 1802 he sold the shop to Benjamin Botts, who expanded the house and used the original part of the building as his law office while living in the new portion with his family (he had a ridiculous number of children for his young age, something like 8 boys). Benjamin Botts had the distinction not only of being one of the lead lawyers in the defense of Aaron Burr during his trial for treason, but also of being the youngest. (The story of Burr, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson is yet another interesting saga that has spawned plenty of its own ghostly tales, should you care to delve further into that.) Botts only lived in the house for a few years, as he was killed in the Richmond Theatre fire on December 26, 1811, along with many other prominent members of Virginia society and government. After Botts’ death, the history of the house becomes obscure, and it is unclear who lived there or what use it was put to between 1811 and 1869, although it is thought to have been used as a poor house at some point during that time.
Around 1869, Richard Merchant, his wife Annie, and their daughters Violet and Mary moved into the house. It is from this family that most of the ghost stories seem to originate. Mary, also called Mamie, suffered from epilepsy and as a result had the mental capacity of a 7 year old. In those days, it was thought that her seizures were periodic demonic possessions, so she was kept confined to the house, allegedly in an upstairs bedroom, until her death in 1906 at the age of 23. Her father died a few months later. Her sister, Violet, had been a woman ahead of her time, and had gotten a degree in secretarial science and moved to Washington, DC, to work. There she had fallen in love and gotten engaged. However, soon after the deaths of her sister and father, she received a summons from her mother, Annie. Annie had fallen down the stairs and broken her hip, an injury which caused her to be bedridden for the rest of her life. Annie asked Violet to quit her job and break off her engagement and come home to care for her mother, which she did. Apparently Violet did get engaged once more, to a man from the church where she played the organ, but her mother again insisted that she break it off and she did. When the tour guide got to this point in the story, I felt a little indignant at what seemed to me to be the selfish, controlling, manipulative Annie, who not only usurped her daughter’s life, but then had the gall to live till the ripe old age of 98, leaving Violet no chance at freedom until she was a very old woman herself. Violet lived in solitude for 13 years after the death of Annie, and residents of Dumfries who knew her say that she was very sweet and happy, never bitter or resentful. Of all the past residents of the house, it was Violet I most wanted to meet and felt I could learn the most from. In her situation, matricide probably would have at least crossed my mind, but apparently Violet approached sainthood in her patience and self-sacrifice.
So: does Violet still haunt the house she spent so many years in, shut up with an invalid mother and later all alone? Does Mary still frequent the bedroom she was basically imprisoned in for 23 years? Staff and visitors alike will answer with a resounding yes. It seems that Violet’s bedroom and Mary’s bedroom are the most active locations on the property. In Violet’s room, there is a window that opens itself from time to time, so much so that the current staff members have wedged an old musket in front of it to keep it closed. There is also a black mist seen in front of the fireplace and in front of the window, and people who visit the room often report feeling the need to get out or of pressure on their chest.
In Mary’s room, the closet door has been caught on tape moving on its own, as if it were violently kicked from within. EMF detectors left on the bed will suddenly begin to spike, things will move, and occasionally a sulfuric smell will engulf the room just before all activity ceases. Numerous EVPs have been caught all through the house and shadows have appeared throughout the museum as well.
In the courtyard, a man in a Civil War uniform has been seen numerous times and has been mistaken several times as a reenactor. So real does he appear that tourists have even gone up to ask him questions; he politely refers them to the “nice ladies” inside the museum – ladies who have no idea who he is and can find no trace of him when they rush outside to see who the tourists are talking about. In the annex building, which houses an extensive collection of memorabilia on the second floor, heavy footsteps have been heard upstairs when no one is there, and the presence of a man believed to be a Confederate Major lurks in the downstairs office.
Thus there was no shortage of possibilities for a ghostly encounter when I set up for my night at the museum. While wandering the museum at night was a lovely experience in its own right, the only real thing of note that happened to me was toward the end of the night, when I and two other women were stationed in Mary’s room on the second floor of the house. We were completely alone in the building when we distinctly heard the front screen door move, and then the sound of someone quietly moving about downstairs. We honestly believed someone had come into the house, but no one answered our calls, and finally we tiptoed downstairs to see what we could find. No one was there, but we kept hearing a clicking noise in the vicinity of the organ in the Victorian parlor, as if someone were pressing down on the keys. Now Violet did play the organ for her church, so in my heart I kind of hope it was her we were hearing. Nothing else of significance happened during the investigation, but of course there is much audio still to be gone through, so hope springs eternal that perhaps Violet or one of the other spirits of Weems-Botts spoke to us. If not, it still was anything but a wasted trip, just for the wealth of historical information (and the divine red velvet cupcakes) we received from the knowledgeable and gracious staff. If you ever head to DC to check out its rich cultural offerings, make time to stop off at the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries. You might learn a thing or two, and if you’re very lucky, you might even run across one of the ghosts.
For more information on the museum, including tour times and prices, please visit their website at http://historicdumfries.com/weemsbotts.html.