Washington D.C. Mythbusters

Washington Mythbusters

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There are as many scary urban myths and legends in Washington, D.C. as there are politicians. And, just like politicians, it's often hard to know which ones to believe.

It's almost a given that a city as old and historic (and as infused with political drama, larger-than-life characters and scandals) as Washington, D.C. is going to be home to many myths and urban legends. Washington, D.C. mythbusters have put several of these legends to the test. Here are just a few of the most popular myths set in the nation's capital.

1. The Ghost Cat of Congress: Unverified.

Legend asserts that a large, black ghost or demon cat roams the Capitol Building (National Mall, 202-226-8000) and when it is seen, it is an omen that something bad is about to happen.

As with any ghost story, one is never sure if it is true or false. Many people over the years have claimed to see a black kitten that grows into a very large cat as it approaches its intended victim. Since it has only been seen at night, most of the people who have seen it have been security guards or night watchmen. Victims reportedly pass out as the cat gets closer. Amusingly, locals refer to it as D.C., short for Demon Cat. It is rumored that the cat was seen prior to the 1929 stock market crash, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, John F. Kennedy's assassination and Hinckley's attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Until more concrete evidence is offered, this remains an urban myth.

Capitol Hours: Mon-Sat 8:30AM-4:30PM, Admission: Free

2. Washington, D.C. is the murder capital of the United States: True and False.

At one time, D.C. was the murder capital of the United States. In 1991, for instance, Washington, D.C. recorded nearly 500 murders, which was more murders per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Over time, and with increased police efforts, the murder rate has decreased dramatically and, in 2009, it had fallen to 143.

The 2009 list of the 25 most dangerous cities compiled by Morgan Quitno ranks Washington, D.C. at #13. However, those who compiled these lists and named the 25 most dangerous neighborhoods based on the FBI report for crimes, did not include any Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. Mythbusters considers this urban legend a draw.

3. Every president in the United States was born an American citizen: Technically false.

Although every president has been born on what is now American soil, the first president to be born as an American citizen was our eighth, Martin Van Buren. All the other presidents born before him were technically British subjects because the colonies belonged to England at the time of their birth.

4. The Smithsonian and the White House are haunted: Unverified.

People claim that the Smithsonian (1000 Jefferson Drive, (202) 633-1000) is haunted by the institution's founder, James Smithson. His body is actually buried in the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle, so maybe it's possible that he goes out for a little midnight stroll once in awhile.

Smithsonian Hours: Vary by museum, Admission: Free (to all museums)

The White House (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, (202) 456-7041) supposedly has many ghostly visitors. The most commonly sighted and reported ghost is that of President Abraham Lincoln. Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge claimed to have seen Lincoln's ghost a number of times, and it is reported that Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Winston Churchill, among many others, have also seen the ghost of the 16th president. On another note, Lincoln also supposedly haunts Ford's Theatre, the place where he was assassinated.

Other ghosts that supposedly live in the White House are Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, President Andrew Jackson, and Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison.

In April 2009, a Los Angeles Times blog reported that Michelle Obama told a group of students visiting the White House that she and President Barack Obama were once awakened by strange noises and that there also seems to be an odd presence at times in the White House. In the transcript of the interview with the kids, Mrs. Obama identified the culprit as the family's dog. Rumors that Hilary Clinton and Nancy Reagan hosted séances also help these urban legends thrive in Washington, D.C.

White House Hours: Tours available (request must be submitted through your Member of Congress) Tue-Thu 7:30AM-11AM, Fri 7:30AM-noon, Sat 7:30AM-1PM

5. Washington, D.C. citizens have no voting representation in the Senate and the House: True.

This urban myth is true because the citizens of Washington, D.C. do not live in a state. They have no representation in the Senate. In the House, they have a delegate to represent them, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she cannot vote on the House floor. Additionally, even though the city of Washington, D.C. has a mayor and city council, it must have locally passed laws and its budget reviewed and approved by Congress. Occasionally, Congress will overturn a decision made by the City of Washington, D.C.

6. The streets of D.C. were laid out in a satanic pattern by Freemasons: False

Many websites and people claim that the city streets were laid out by its Freemason designer and civil engineer, Pierre L'Enfant, and other masons, to form satanic symbols throughout the city. The Internet has more than 10,000 pages devoted to this theory and other scary urban legends. Washington, D.C. maps showing how Dupont Circle, Logan Circle and Scott Circle link to Washington Circle, Mt. Vernon Square and the White House to form a pentagram are offered as proof of the satanic symbols. The biggest problem with this theory, according to a 2009 nationalgeographic.com article, is that L'Enfant was not a Freemason. A 2005 article in U.S. News and World Report also disagreed with the theory that the city was built to fit a satanic pattern, and noted that, instead, its grid-style street pattern was based on simple geometry.

7. Lincoln's hands in the Lincoln Memorial were sculpted to form the sign language symbols of A and L for Abraham Lincoln: False.

According to the National Park Service website for the Lincoln Memorial, the sculptor of the statue, Daniel Chester French, denied this myth, stating that because he had modeled his creation on actual molds of Lincoln's hands and both molds were in a fist-shape, he changed one to appear more relaxed. In addition to the hands myth, some people claim that they have seen Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant (or perhaps Jefferson Davis) carved into the hairs on Lincoln's head. Some time in 1940, Chester wrote a letter to the Park Service to explain his design and to deny that he had put any odd symbolism into the statue. This is one Washington, D.C. urban legend that can be put to rest.

8. The Hope Diamond is cursed: False.

On display at the Smithsonian NationalMuseum of Natural History (Intersection of 10th Street and Constitution Avenue, (202) 633-1000), the Hope Diamond, a stunning deep-blue diamond, is originally believed to have come from India. Legend has it that anyone who owns the stone is cursed. The PBS website's Treasures of the World names 28 victims of the diamond's curse. While there are many articles supporting the curse, reliable sources report the curse story was actually used by Pierre Cartier to help him make the diamond appear more interesting to D.C. socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean and thus help close the sale. At the time of the purchase, major papers recounted the story of the curse, and it joined the list of the city's scary urban myths.

It cannot be argued, though, that the 45.52-carat diamond's owners have had bad luck over the years. McLean's husband left her, her son was killed by a car, and her daughter died of a drug overdose. Other owners and would-be thieves were beheaded (Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), murdered (Wilhelm Fals), and went broke (May Yoke). After McLean's death, the diamond was purchased by Harry Winston, and in 1958, it was donated to the Smithsonian. In 2010, the Hope Diamond will be given a new setting to celebrate the anniversary of its donation by Harry Winston.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Hours: Daily 10AM-5:30PM, Admission: Free

What rumors have you heard? Washington, D.C. mythbusters would like to know!
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