CLINTON – When Laurie Verge took the job as director of the historic Surratt House Museum in Clinton, she didn’t believe in ghosts.
Now, more than 25 years and several eerie, unexplained episodes later, her opinion hasn’t changed much. A ghost, she said, “is going to have to tap me on the shoulder or talk to me before I really believe in him.”
Verge calls herself a skeptic, but admits there is no explanation for some of the noises she and other employees have heard over the years.
“I can’t explain the footsteps,” she said. “I absolutely can’t.”
Reports of ghost sightings at the 10-room farmhouse have circulated and grown since the latter half of the 20th century. Verge attributed the growth in alleged sightings to ghost-chaser Hans Holzer — known for his investigation of the Amityville Horror case. Holzer came to the house with a spiritual medium in the 1950s.
Holzer’s medium, Sybil Leek, allegedly knew where items had been hidden in the house a century earlier. Holzer’s 1969 book, “Windows to the Past,” included a chapter about the house.
“The problem is that he included the history of the house, but he made the history fit the ghost, instead of vice versa,” Verge said. “So it’s very spurious.”
The house, built in 1852, sits near the corner of Brandywine Road and Route 223, not 200 feet from a CITGO station, on what used to be 300 acres of plantation. It was home to John and Mary Surratt and their three children, but it also served as a tavern, post office and polling place in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The home gained notoriety through Mary Surratt’s “dubious distinction,” Verge said, as the first woman executed by the U.S. government for conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln.
Some believe the ghost of Mary Surratt haunts the house, but Verge discounts this legend.
If any spirit haunts the halls of the museum, she said, it is the ghost of John M. Lloyd, who was renting the house from Surratt at the time of the assassination, and who testified that she had visited the house earlier that day.
“Mr. Lloyd’s testimony,” Verge said, “was pretty much what put the rope around her neck.”
There is still some ambiguity today as to whether Mary Surratt knew about or was involved in the assassination conspiracy. What is clear is that the Surratts were not Lincoln sympathizers, Verge said.
“During the election of 1860, there were a lot of dirty names Abraham Lincoln was called here, because we were in slave-holding territory,” Verge said. She said the family owned as many as seven slaves at one time.
When John Surratt died in 1862, Mary was left with his debts. Not able to pay, she moved to the District with her youngest son, John Surratt Jr.
John Jr. became a Confederate courier, carrying secret dispatches between Richmond, Washington and New York, Verge said. In December 1864, his reputation earned him an acquaintance with John Wilkes Booth, months before the assassination of Lincoln.
After shooting Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington on April 14, 1865, Booth leapt to the stage — breaking his leg — and made a 12-day escape from federal authorities. His first stop: the Surratt house.
“Booth had a broken leg; he needed whiskey to ease the pain,” said Verge. Having used it as a safe house before, “he also knew that the rifles and other supplies were hidden here,” she said.
Unfortunately for Mary Surratt, she had met with Booth hours before the assassination and had traveled to the house to deliver a package for him.
Surratt was arrested, tried and convicted as part of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.
Julia Cowdery, who has worked as a tour guide at the Surratt House for a few years, said that there has been some strange, inexplicable activity at the house.
“I usually can explain everything,” she said. But on two occasions she’s been in the house and heard noises that remain a mystery to her.
“One time I was here and I heard a whistle — like a ‘come here’ kind of whistle,” Cowdery said, “and I couldn’t figure out where it came from.” She said she looked all around inside the house and out, and could not find its source.
Another time, while giving a tour of the upstairs area, she was queried by her group about the house’s supernatural tendencies.
She began to answer, “I’ve never really experienced anything.” But just as the words left her mouth, they all heard the sound of a teacup rattling in the dining room exhibit downstairs, as if someone had picked it up and returned it to its saucer, she said.
There was no one else in the house.
Despite her doubts, Verge confessed she has been spooked several times in her years at the Surratt House — especially when her office was in the house, instead of the adjacent building as it is now.
“I would get the sensation of a man walking out of one of the bedrooms, looking at me,” she said. “Although I never saw anything, it was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
One night, she said, there were five or six employees having a meeting in her old office.
“All at once we all stopped talking and listened, and we all heard footsteps downstairs,” she said. “What it sounded like was that somebody had walked in the front door, walked down the hall, and walked out the back door.”
After investigating, they found no one, she said.
Other paranormal accounts from visitors have included a girl who said she saw a bearded man sitting in rocking chair reflected in a mirror. When she turned to the chair, she saw no one. And one guide saw a child in period clothing peaking underneath a bed, only to discover there were no children on her tour, Verge said.
“We think that the heavy footsteps, which are definitely a man’s boots walking, may be Mr. Lloyd doing penance down here for getting his landlady hanged,” she said.
But of course, there isn’t nearly enough proof.
The Surratt House Museum is presenting “Victorian Spirits: Lincoln and the Mystical World” at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25. More information can be found at http://surratt.org.