Was Churchill, on one of his visits to the White House, spooked by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln? Ever a fan of Things That Go Bump in the Night, I was intrigued to receive this question.
Frederick N. Rasmussen of the Baltimore Sun, an admirer of Sir Winston, told a story years ago, which has just floated back. Rasmussen wrote:
Experts in the field of spectral phenomena claim that Maryland and Washington are rich in sightings…. A ghost story dating to the Civil War that has persisted through the years is that of repeated appearances of Abraham Lincoln, who has been seen standing in a window of the Executive Mansion staring toward Virginia, as he had done often during the war. Even Churchill, who thought nothing of taking on Hitler and Mussolini, was not happy when assigned to the Lincoln Bedroom. Quite often, he was found in a vacant bedroom across the hall the next morning.
There are endless Lincoln ghost stories. Churchill’s encounter would have occurred during one of his stays in the White House during the Second World War.
Wikipedia offers a variation of Churchill meeting Lincoln in its entry on Lincoln’s ghost. The accompanying footnote references Marjorie B. Garber, Profiling Shakespeare, Routledge, 2008:
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill loved to retire late, take a long, hot bath while drinking a Scotch, smoke a cigar and relax. On this occasion, he climbed out of the bath and, naked but for his cigar, walked into the adjoining bedroom. He was startled to see Lincoln standing by the fireplace in the room, leaning on the mantle.
Churchill, always quick on the uptake, simply took his cigar out of his mouth, tapped the ash off the end, and said “Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” Lincoln smiled softly, as if laughing, and disappeared. Churchill smiled in embarrassment.
This may be a conflation of Churchill’s famous naked encounter with President Franklin Roosevelt (which apparently did happen). “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States,” Churchill reportedly said.
Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Churchill to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom. It was “the favorite of most male guests,” recalled J.B. West, the chief usher. But upon his arrival on 22 December , the Prime Minister rejected the bed, so he wandered the second floor, “tried out all the beds and finally selected the Rose Suite,” where SDR [Sara Delano Roosevelt] and the Queen [Elizabeth the Queen Mother] had resided. —Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume III, 409.
Mrs. Roosevelt had arranged for [Churchill] to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, then located off the West Hall, the favorite of most male guests. However, he didn’t like the bed, so he tried out all the beds and finally selected the Rose Suite at the end of the second floor. —J. B. West & Mary Lynn Kotz, Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies.
When Eleanor showed Churchill to the Lincoln Bedroom (not then as famous as it was to become during the Clintons’ occupancy of the White House), he turned it down, claiming the bed did not suit him. Making himself at home from the start, Churchill then looked over the other available rooms. Alert as ever to opportunities, he chose a bedroom across the hall from Harry Hopkins’ almost permanent rooms, the Rose Room on the second floor, where Queen Elizabeth had slept on her on her 1939 visit with King George VI. —Cita Stelzer, Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table.
“It is true,” writes Mr. Lehrman,
that Harry Hopkins had been occupying the so-called Lincoln Suite. Mr. Churchill was happy with the Rose Suite, as it was directly across the hall from Hopkins. It would seem that the powers that be thought Mr. Churchill very important they showed him the Lincoln Bedroom out of deference, Hopkins notwithstanding. Fortunately, it seems Mr. Churchill did not like the bed, thus no cause for disturbing Hopkins. Churchill was more than satisfied with the Rose Suite, immediately across the hall from Hopkins, primarily because it gave him immediate access to Hopkins, with whom he already had a very special relationship.
So, unless the ghost of Mr. Lincoln was in the habit of switching rooms, he is unlikely to have appeared in Churchill’s bedroom. Even less likely did the apparition appear as Churchill was emerging from his bath. By the way, his baths though frequent did not occur late at night. The Lincoln Bedroom wasn’t so named until 1929. Before then it was the “Blue Suite.” Lincoln used it as a study, not a bedroom. According to the White House Museum the bedroom furniture was moved in by President Truman in 1945.