“Sometimes you sit here and think you hear the funniest things a’ going on,” the colorful House Doorkeeper William “Fishbait” Miller once told an interviewer, Miller’s broad smile casting doubt on whether he actually believed what he said. “Wonder . . . if those sounds I keep a‘hearin’ are chicken ghosts?”
In a building as old as the United States Capitol, it is perhaps unsurprising that history would mix with myth to create a folklore unique to the Capitol. Ghost stories might be popular this time of the year, but the spectral tales we tell ourselves are often rooted in very real events. Did Miller hear chicken spirits clucking in the dark corridors of the Capitol? No. But did livestock and barnyard animals from the surrounding neighborhood roam the Capitol grounds for many years? Yes.
Here is the history behind two stories that have taken on a life of their own within the Capitol.
It’s often the case that newcomers to Capitol Hill hear about the grimalkin—the Demon Cat—that reportedly has haunted the Capitol grounds for more than a century. The first mention of the feline phantom dates to 1862, during the Civil War when Union soldiers defending Washington, DC, bunked in the Capitol building. Night watchmen at the Capitol claimed to have seen an ordinary black cat appear and then grow to ginormous proportions before pouncing with an unworldly screech. One guard even opened fire at the mysterious shape. “When I shot at the critter it jumped right over my head,” he said. But then, just as quickly, the grimalkin disappeared for decades; newspaper reports mention a sighting of the spectral feline in 1898, noting that it had been absent for 35 years.
Much like its inaugural appearance during the Civil War, the present-day grimalkin legend tells us the cat appears like a terrible omen during national emergencies. Modern retellings of the myth state that the ghost cat appeared before President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the Stock Market crash of 1929, and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
The Demon Cat, however, is likely nothing more than an actual cat and a well-placed shadow. For much of the nineteenth century, and even into the twentieth century, stray cats were a common presence in the Capitol, especially the basement. In fact, they were welcomed visitors: alley cats helped to keep down the rodent population. At one point, guards reported bands of cats roaming the Capitol in 1892. “At about 10 o’clock every night they begin a mad racing through the empty corridors,” a Detroit newspaper reported that year. Given the Capitol’s marble floors, stone walls, and long hallways the sounds made by the cats left a haunting impression. “The acoustic effects produced are astonishing,” the newspaper continued. “Let a single grimalkin lift up his voice in statuary hall, famous for its echoes, and the silence of the night is broken by a yell like that of a damned soul, as loud as a locomotive whistle.” The sound of echoing, shrieking cats throughout the building would likely have been enough to have unnerved anyone within earshot.
Although the number of cats began to fall by the mid-twentieth century, some Capitol mousers held on. Two notable felines, “Mary” and “Dirty,” produced such good results they earned a feature story in 1927. In the 1940s, as a House Page, Representative John Dingell of Michigan noted the rodent problem persisted in the Capitol. Instead of relying on the cats, however, he and his classmates used dogs and a BB gun. “We used to hunt rats in the basement with an air gun and a rat terrier when I was a kid,” he remembered in an oral history with the Office of the House Historian.
The Capitol guards were the first to report the sounds of supposedly demon cats running around the building. But the night watchmen of the 1860s were not the same as the dedicated and professional Capitol Police force protecting Congress today. Back then, the night watchmen were often patronage appointees, some of whom were known to drink on the job. And their imaginations clearly got the best of them.
Alongside their stories of the Demon Cat, these guards claimed to hear phantom footsteps throughout the building, especially in Statuary Hall. Many believed that the venerable John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts—who was known as Old Man Eloquent during his 17 years in the House and who died in the room adjacent to chamber—paced the floors and provided nighttime oratory in the “Old Hall of the House.” In one account, a Capitol guard tried to outsmart the strange footsteps. He procured a pair of soft shoes to silently complete his rounds. When he made his way to Statuary Hall he claimed the room was silent, but that suddenly the sound of footsteps came out of nowhere. Of course, Statuary Hall is known for its strange acoustics—in fact, the room’s poor sound quality was one reason why the House built the modern wing of the Capitol and the present-day Chamber in 1857. But Statuary Hall retains its echoey reputation: another person’s footsteps anywhere nearby would have reverberated across the space in unique and eerie ways.
A 1906 report from a nameless watchman declared he had also experienced a ghost encounter in the Capitol and mentioned that “there have been others.” He told of a watchman named Jake Galloway, supposedly “the greatest fellow for seeing ghosts.”
“Jake firmly believed that Statuary Hall was haunted, and the wonderful echoes and the whispering gallery he attributed to spook influence,” the report stated. The nameless watchman noted that Galloway acquired what he called a “ghost speaking trumpet,” a Victorian-era tool used by mediums to hear the dead which looked like a modern party horn or megaphone. According to the unnamed narrator, Galloway “had listened to the most wonderful speeches through that speaking trumpet. . . . I began to think he was a bit ‘daffy’ at last. . . . But otherwise he seemed reasonable enough, and as he was very conscientious, I overlooked these lapses.” But Jake Galloway seems to be part of House folklore himself: there are no records of anyone by that name having ever been paid as watchman in the Capitol.
Before the main building of the Library of Congress, the Thomas Jefferson Building, opened in 1897, the entire library collection was housed within the Capitol. Simultaneously cavernous and cramped with books, the room barely fit the numerous library staff and the thousands of titles they tended. One legend (perhaps started by a night watchman) told of an old librarian who had accumulated a large sum of money which he hid among the stacks of books. The librarian, who never married and never had children, worked for the library for many years until he retired due to mental health concerns. But the librarian died before he could retrieve the money he had stashed away among his treasured books. Unable to take advantage of his fortune in life, the librarian refused to leave it in death and was said to have haunted the library. According to an 1898 account, the apparition could be seen in the subbasement of the Capitol searching the library stacks for a lost item. The stories also note that workers found $6,000 when the library relocated from the Capitol to the Jefferson Building, and suggest the ghost remained in the Capitol to continue his search.
Who was this unlucky librarian? Well, in 1896, the Washington Post ran an obituary about a long-time congressional librarian who specialized in law books named Charles W. Hoffman. Appointed by the Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, in 1873, Hoffman also served as dean of the Georgetown Law School as well as the law school’s first librarian. A lawyer by trade, Hoffman dedicated his career to what is now the Law Library of Congress. Additional newspapers reported that Hoffman lived on Capitol Hill, collected antique furniture, and hosted parties attended by legal minds like Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field. Hoffman never married and later lived with his mother at 927 Massachusetts Ave. But when his mother died “Mr. Hoffman suffered with a mental trouble and resigned,” according to the Washington Post. Hoffman passed away from pneumonia in Frederick, Maryland, where he had relatives. Remarkably, Hoffman left behind a substantial estate in excess of $80,000, equivalent to more than $2,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Could Hoffman have squirreled away $6,000 among the books in the Capitol? Perhaps. But it’s likely impossible to know. Although the Library of Congress’s main building—the Jefferson Building—opened in 1897, the law library remained in the Capitol for another 37 years until 1935. Regardless of whether someone did, in fact, find thousands of dollars in the library, it may be more than pure coincidence that the life and death of Hoffman almost exactly matched the description of a would-be Capitol ghost searching for something in the library stacks.
Over the two centuries during which the federal legislature has stood atop Capitol Hill, more than 11,000 lawmakers and tens of thousands of staff have come and gone. Thousands and thousands of intersecting and overlapping stories; an infinite number of perspectives and memories. Somewhere along the way some of those stories were embellished; somewhere they picked up a fanciful detail or two. Over time those stories were told and retold until fact transformed into fiction, until a regular alley cat became a hideous omen of national calamity, until a bookish librarian who died alone became a lost soul searching for the fortune he couldn’t take with him.
Underneath the layers of exaggeration and fantasy, however, it’s possible to find a whisper of truth. Perhaps if Fishbait Miller had listened closely enough to “those infernal clucking sounds” from a mysterious chicken roaming the Capitol campus, he may have heard the real story behind the ghost story.
Sources: Boston Daily Globe, 6 November 1892, 4 July 1909, 2 July 1927; The Butte Weekly Miner (Montana), 13 October 1898; Chicago Daily Tribune, 2 October 1898; Detroit Free Press, 2 October 1898, 15 November 1892; El Paso Herald, 1 March 1913; Los Angeles Times, 30 July 1893; New York Times, 13 March 1927; Washington Post, 28 December 1896, 2 October 1898, 8 July 1906, 30 June 1935; Washington Star, 21 August 1927; John Dingell oral history, History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, The Honorable John Dingell, Jr., Oral History Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, February 3, 2012, https://history.house.gov/OralHistory/Detail?id=15032419659; “Charles Hoffman Photograph,” accessed 29 October 2019, https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/1041647; “History of the Law Library,” Library of Congress, last modified 24 June 2019, https://www.loc.gov/law/about/history.php; John Alexander, Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories (Washington Books, 1975).Follow @USHouseHistory