Spooks and Spirits: Stories of the Smithsonian

It was recounted as a “soul-depressing” sound, a monotonous wail, a “dolorous note” in the night. Residents took up arms against the apparition in a “tragic” appeal to put an end to the noise—for a watchman, a gun, for a boy, a slingshot. The phantom noise lingered on. The only explanation? This bird with the “weird” cry terrorizing the town was the disturbed spirit of another winged creature who had given up its life “for the sake of science and now fill[s] the cases of the Smithsonian.” 

The north front of the United States National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Building, during t

The Smithsonian was full of things that went bump in the night, according to one vivid 1900 Washington Post article, which detailed DC residents’ desperate attempts to quiet this bird’s wail. Though the spirt of the bird on display was thought to have flown the coop, the story also details other strange and spooky happenings within the museum’s halls itself.  In 1900, those apparitions would have been located in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building, then called the US National Museum. Museum watchmen told the Post that they had seen all sorts of disquieting sights after the museum’s doors had shut to visitors: Haunted bronze animals that “assume a livelier air by night,” joining the screeching bird in making the night “hideous” for those they encountered. The scrape of formless feet, or voices calling out. Masks that moved about in their cases.

Portrait of Spencer Fullerton Baird  Staff at the museum after-hours also claimed to be working alongside the ghosts of past Smithsonian scientists who incorporeally supervised the collections they had once been so devoted to. The most active ghost, the Post reported, was that of the Smithsonian’s first curator and its second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird. Nearly all the Smithsonian’s night watchmen had reported spotting Baird, though his figure disappeared if a passersby tried to chat with him. The spirt of Baird’s predecessor, Secretary Joseph Henry, was a frequent visitor too, according to the watchmen. Henry was often spotted, “fully clothed in the garments he wore in life,” walking through the exhibits before returning to his post—the museum’s statue in his likeness. 

Some other popular stories ended up being less about haunted spirits and more about human error. A night watchman, for example, once fled the building, thinking he had witnessed a suicide in the building’s central fountain. The body he saw turned out to be a diving suit. There is also the tale of the evening guard who thought a Japanese warrior mannequin had come to life, sending him hurrying up the stairs “for a safer vantage ground.” The mannequin, though, had just been moved out of its case to be photographed. 

The incident with Jesse Beach, a spirited Museum Aide in the Department of Geology, became another Smithsonian tall tale. In her later years Beach actually moved into the Museum of Natural History, where she liked to wander through the halls at night. Beach, with her long white hair and nightgown, was often mistaken as a ghost by new evening guards. Or things got a little more awkward, as was the case with one guard who accidentally walked in on her taking a bath in the geology lab. Thanks to Beach’s nighttime wanderings, Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore required museum staff to start going home by midnight—aside from his ghostly predecessors, of course. 

Related Resources

Stories from the Museum of Natural History, Unearthed, The National Museum of Natural History Unearthed

Urban Legends About the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Magazine

Phantoms of Museum, The Washington Post, May 13, 1900. 

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