She ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
This week marked the 200th anniversary of Abigail Adams’s death, followed by John and Abigail’s wedding anniversary, John’s birthday, and last but not least — Halloween. I can’t think of a better time to share this peculiar paranormal dispatch from Abigail Adams.
But before we get to that, I have to address an oft-repeated ghost story about Abigail Adams. It’s said that Abigail’s ghost haunts the White House and that her specter, according to lore, is most often found in the East Room where she used to hang laundry.
I hate this story.
The idea that Abigail Adams’s soul would be condemned to doing laundry in a house she lived in for five months – and hated – is just sad.
And let’s say there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in my philosophy and laundry ghosts are real — why assume it’s Abigail? It seems to me that if there’s a haunted figure doing chores in the White House, it might be one of the dozens of enslaved people who lived and toiled there. Just saying.
I’d rather look at a real ghost story from Abigail Adams. Well, less of a story and more of a really weird event she related to John Adams in 1763, a year before they were married and just months before their charming smallpox inoculation letters.
“Have you heard the news? That two apparitions were seen one evening this week hovering about this house, which very much resembled you and a cousin of yours. How it should ever enter into the head of an apparition to assume a form like yours, I cannot devise. When I was told of it I could scarcely believe it, yet I could not declare the contrary, for I did not see it, and therefore had not that demonstration which generally convinces me, that you are not a ghost.”
I have several thoughts.
First, I have to wonder if a drunken John and Sam Adams weren’t just sneaking around John’s girlfriend’s place when they got caught and tried the old “Don’t mind us, we’re just ghosts” routine. But somehow I can’t imagine John Adams sneaking anywhere. Even as a ghost he’d probably announce himself.
The thing I love most about this letter is how Abigail thinks it’s ridiculous that a ghost would want to look like John Adams. Her reaction isn’t “Holy shit a ghost!” — it’s “You’re gonna wear that?” I can’t get over the nonchalant way she relates this story, like it’s common knowledge that apparitions are everywhere and they take the form of whoever they want whenever they want and she can’t even be 100% sure her boyfriend isn’t a ghost.
I just have to assume 18th century America was basically Middle Earth, teeming with magical creatures and otherworldly beasts. (This is also what I assume present-day England is like. I’ve never been there but I’m pretty sure the forests are overflowing with fairies and Time Lords.)
Another letter from Abigail to John reinforces my theory about the 18th century. In 1776 while John was away Continental Congressing, she wrote about hearing greatly exaggerated reports of his death:
“I am not apt to be intimidated you know. I have given as little heed to that and a thousand other bug bear reports as possible. I have slept as soundly since my return not withstanding all the ghosts and hobgoblings, as ever I did in my life.”
Bugbears, in case you didn’t know, are like boogeymen but bearier. They’re all over the place in England today. [citation needed.]
In this letter, Abigail seems to be talking more about scary fake news than literal goblins, but I don’t want to rule out that legit demons were plaguing her nightly and she was over it.
Bullies, bugbears, and apparitions —they were no match for her. Because if there’s one sentence that perfectly sums up Abigail Adams, it’s “I am not apt to be intimidated you know.”
Happy Halloween, readers! If you can shed any light on Abigail’s hobgoblings comments, or if you’ve seen the ghost of John Adams yourself, please let me know in the comments.
And if you’d like to hear more about this story from our podcast, take a listen to this ghostly episode: