Often, as we explore DC's history in our pursuit of the spirit world, our tales peter out with "the house was destroyed, and the ghost was never heard from again". This is unfortunately all too common, as great swaths of our history have been bulldozed, only to be replaced by monolithic chunks of buildings that no self respecting ghost would deign to haunt.
But from time to time we find that the act of destruction itself seems to release the spirits of the past. And so it was in Dupont Circle, where in 1902, the Washington Post noted an unusual phenomenon on the site where "Stewart's Castle" had recently been torn down.
The Castle had been built as Nevada Senator William Morris Stewart's residence in DC by renowned local architect Adulf Cluss. It was among the first of many grand buildings in the wave of construction following the Civil War that transformed Dupont Circle from the dusty outskirts of the city to a thriving high class neighborhood. After a devastating fire in 1879, the house was leased to the Chinese Legation from 1886 to 1893.
Then, in 1899, this crazy-eyed bastard, Sen. William Clark of Montana, purchased the Castle. Somehow, it wasn't quite grand enough for him, and he razed it in 1901 to build something larger. Financing ran thin, as he worked things out, the lot sat vacant.
Which is where our story begins. One summer evening in 1902, a Mr. S. L. Lwehg was walking home to Georgetown, and it being a particularly warm night, decided to stop and rest on a nearby park bench. While there, he noticed the erratic movements of a man dressed in Chinese garments walking upon the newly razed site of Stewart's Castle. At first, it seemed he might be looking for something, but the man simply seemed to be wandering about the site. Finally, as Mr. Lwegh watched, the man vanished completely. Following this sighting, others noticed the spirit, who "at first seems only one of the picturesque figures to be seen in the vicinity of the Chinese legation". However, upon further inspection, "in the glare of the electric light, the flowing sleeves of his dark red jacket appear very filmy, and the gown of light blue looks like mist." What's more, his "feet make no sound as the ghostly saddles pass along the walks."
The Post, being a reputable newspaper, did some investigating and found that when the Castle had been the Chinese Legation, it had been no stranger to dire events:
"It was said that early one morning a passerby was surprised and horrified to see the body of a dead Chinaman hanging over the windowsill in one of the upper rooms. A long black cord tightly twisted and knotted showed the manner in which he had met his death. As the legation building was under international law, as much a part of China as the Celestial empire itself, the authorities of the United States could not trespass in order to learn the cause of the man's death and punish those responsible for it, if punishment was due."
So was the dead attache, haunted with his own ghosts or perhaps searching for those who had sent him onward, the same "Ghost of the Chinaman", as the Post somewhat offensively named the article? The ghost's final action is telling: before he vanishes, he attempts "to loosen the long black cord that is tightly twisted and knotted about his neck."
Perhaps because of the ghost, or more likely Sen. Clark simply lost interest in being a Senator and living in DC, the land remained undeveloped until 1923, when Riggs Bank (now PNC) built their branch on Dupont Circle it feeds into Massachusetts Avenue to the Northwest. So next time you go to the ATM, see if you can spot a lost soul from the Celestial Kingdom.