DECATUR HOUSE

The haunted home of one of America's great military heroes, Stephen Decatur, and his wife, Susan. Located in the once-fashionable Lafayette Square in the heart of Washington, D.C., the box-shaped house is said to be haunted by the ghosts of both husband and wife, as the result of Decatur's tragic death by duel.

Stephen Decatur hailed from a family of Maryland seafarers and distinguished himself in the American navy. In 1803, he was given command of his first ship, and he earned fame for his exploits at sea. He married the beautiful Susan Wheeler, daughter of the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia.


The seeds of his death were sown in 1807, by the actions of Commodore James Barron, the commander of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake. At that time, provocative confrontations still occurred between American and British ships, the result of lingering hostility from the War of Independence. In one such incident, the British frigate Leopold fired a shot across the bow of the Chesapeake. Barron seized the opportunity to board the Leopold and take into custody four sailors whom the British charged were deserters. Barron was court-martialed for not securing permission for such action. Decatur was a member of the naval commission that voted to suspend Barron for five years. The incident was instrumental in the outbreak of the war of 1812. While Barron sat out of the war on the sidelines, Decatur, named the new commander of the Chesapeake, went on to greater glory.


Stephen Decatur

Following the end of the war, the Decaturs moved to Washington, where they basked in the admiration of the capital's high society. Their Lafayette Square house, designed by the prominent architect Benjamin Latrobe, was the setting of elegant parties.


Barron, meanwhile, nursed an increasing hatred of Decatur. He was reinstated in the navy at half-pay, and was always passed over for promotion. He was not given another ship to command. He mounted numerous personal attacks on Decatur, until the latter was reluctantly pressed into a duel.


According to legend, the Decaturs hosted a party in their home on March 13, 1820, the eve of the duel. Decatur was said to be depressed, as though he sensed his imminent death. From his first-floor bedroom window, he stared out gloomily over his estate.


The next morning, he arose before dawn and went with his friend, William Bainbridge, to the appointed dueling place, a field near Bladensburg, Maryland. Pacing off, Decatur and Barron fired almost simultaneously at the count of two. Barron fell first, wounded in the hip; then Decatur fell, mortally wounded in the right side. Decatur was an excellent shot, and it is said that he deliberately avoided killing Barron; perhaps he believed the other would only wound him as well.


Decatur was taken back to his home to die. Susan was so distraught that she could not bring herself to look at him. His burial with full military honors did nothing to assuage her profound grief, and she could not stand to remain in the house where they had been so happy together.


A year after Decatur's death, his apparition was seen late one night, looking out sadly from the bedroom window where he had stood on the eve of his death. The window was walled up, but the ghost continued to return, as though it was loathe to be separated from the elegant house and grounds. The ghost sometimes was reported slipping out the back door early in the morning, black box under one arm, just as Decatur had done on the morning of the fateful duel. In addition, sounds of a woman weeping----said to be the ghost of Susan Decatur----have been heard in the house.


(Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Spirits by Rosemary Ellen Guiley)

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