The White House is also said to be visited by the spirit of Mr. David Burns who owned the ground on which the White House and all of the federal park surrounding it, stand son today. Burns sold the land to the government in May 1791, but not without a struggle.
The Burns (Actually spelled as Burnes) family owned all of what is today west Washington all the way from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, about 700 acres in all, a small farm holding by standards of his day. (By comparison, the George Washington estate stretched from Arlington to where the old Naval Observatory was in Georgetown)
The other major landowners in the city were Daniel Carroll, of the fabulous Carroll family, Samuel Davidson and Notley Young. (Who was married to a Carroll). Young owned what is today the neighborhood of Near Northwest, the area bounded by North Capitol Street to the west, Florida Avenue to the north, F Street to the south, and 15th Street to the east. The area was dubbed Youngsborough.
Young gave parts of the land to the Federal government in exchange for a promise that Congress would divide the land into lots and return half of those lots to the original landowners. Young, it should be noted, was a Roman Catholic at a time when it was difficult to be a Roman Catholic in America and his estate, which sat on a high river bank on what is now G Street SE between Ninth and Tenth streets was a refugee for the city’s small Catholic population.
In an odd twist of fate, Young was buried on the grounds of his estate. As the city grew, his land was taken over by the city and a well-meaning Mayor Robert Brent had Young’s remains reinterred in the Carroll burial ground at St. John's on Rock Creek. However no one bothered to mark the exact location of the grave and its whereabouts are now lost forever.
Burn was described by those who knew him as “Very bigoted” and “choleric”, a man who willfully disagreed with everyone and who sought out an argument. He was also opposed to selling his lands for the new executive mansion and once during one of several meeting that were held between him, General Washington and Washington’s staff, Burns is said to have remarked to the general “I suppose Mr. Washington that you assume people here are going to take every grist from you as poor grain. But what would you have been if you had not married the widow Custis?” referring to the fact that George Washington came from proud but modest stock and had married the enormously wealthy Mrs. Custis. Washington, known for his ability not to become riled, lost his temper and stormed out of the house, never to return and refusing to meet with Burns again, calling him “That obstinate Mr. Burns”
Actually, all that Burns wanted was a fair price for his land, which was now in demand by powerful and wealthy people. Those same people who had threatened him with eminent domain if he didn’t sell at a price they wanted for all of his land, not just parts of it as the story is so often told.
Burns lived in a small wood framed, whitewashed cottage on what is today 7th Street NW (Where the Pan American Union Building stands today) the only sign of his wealth being that it was equipped with two chimneys.
The rudely-fashioned structure had two rooms on the ground floor and was said to be only slightly better than a slaves cabin.
The Burns Cottage
Burns only son, John had died as a teenager (1772-1795) and several years later and his wife (Anne Wight Burnes) died shortly afterwards. His only family was his daughter, Maria, (Some record the name as having been Marcia, 1782-1832) who was described by many as “lovely”. Burns placed his daughter with a cultivated Baltimore family so she could receive an social breeding and literary training. She returned to live with her father in 1801 when she was 19-years-old in 1801.
Maria stood to inherit a fortune from her father’s estate. In 1802 she married a dashing young Congressman named from New York named John Peter Van Ness (for whom Van Ness Street NW, between Wisconsin Avenue and River Road). Van Ness, a lawyer with his own Knickerbocker-Dutch fortune, was a disciple of the popular Arron Burr. He would go on to be a Major in the District Militia, bank owner and Mayor of Washington.
When David Burns died he left his daughter his entire and very substantial estate telling her from his death bed “Marcia, you have been a good daughter; you'll now be the richest girl in America." She was said to be the richest woman in America at the time of the inheritance. (She signed all of her wealth over to Van Ness as was the custom of the day)
Since his death, Burns ghost has been seen in the Oval Office when a reporter told a security guard during the Truman administration that, while standing in the Yellow Oval Room, he heard a whisper which said, "I'm Mr. Burns."
Around that same time, a White House guard reported that he heard a voice call out from the attic above the Oval Office “I’m Mr. Burns” several times. The guard assumed that he was hearing the voice of Truman’s Secretary of State, James Byrnes but learned that Byrnes was out of the country at the time.
Prior to that, FDR’s valet, Cesar Carrera, heard a voice as he stood in the Yellow Oval Room. When he turned to see who it was, the voice said , “I’m Mr. Burns.” Although Mr. Burns has not been heard of since the 1940s, the old man would take some pride in the fact that his is the oldest ghost to haunt of the White House. After Burns death, Maria and John Van Ness House constructed their own estate between 1813-1816.
A behemoth Greek revival home bounded by C Street, Constitution Avenue, 17th Street, and 18th Street and designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was then the superintendent of government buildings.
Latrobe (Above), one of the architects of the Capitol, spent a small fortune trying to make it the finest private residence in North America. A brick wall enclosed the ground that were an array of trees, flowers, fountains and statuary. The couple had David Burns cottage moved to the property, Marcia would never allow it to be torn down.
Their daughter Ann held her wedding to South Carolinian Arthur Middleton was held there. Middleton was the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Ann died a year later giving birth to a stillborn baby and Marcia, who was close friends with Dolly Madison, soon became something of a recluse and retreated into religion. She commissioned the city orphanage in her daughter’s memory. She spent her years as a philanthropist and was a beloved and influential figure in the city until her death, at age 50 in a cholera epidemic. She was given a massive public funeral, the only woman, up to that time, to be given such an honor.
The sculptor Horatio Greenough wrote this tribute to her
Mid rank and wealth and worldly pride.
From every snare she turned aside.
She sought the low, the humble shed.
Where gaunt disease and famine tread;
And from that time, in youthful pride.
She stood Van Ness's blooming bride.
No day her blameless head o'er past
But saw her dearer than the last.
The Van Ness Mausoleum was fashioned after the Temple of Vesta as a tribute to Marcia Burnes Van Ness, by her husband, John Peter. George Hadfield designed the mausoleum and the cost to build it was $30,000 in 1824. It was originally set at the old Burnes graveyard, on Square 375, 9th & 10th, G & H Streets, Northwest. It was said that after Marcia died that Van Ness became obsessed with building the mausoleum and spent most of his free time there. It can be found today on a knoll in Oak Hill Cemetery.
The great Van Ness mansion started to crumble as John Van Ness withdrew from the world after his wives and daughter’s deaths and he, like his wife before him, become a recluse. Rumors spread that the house staff quick after run in with ghosts and that many of the servants who stayed refused to enter certain rooms in the mansion because they were so haunted. There were reports of footsteps coming from empty rooms and laughter that turned to screams of agony, said to be from the spirit of young Ann as she died. Several people claimed that the apparition of Marcia Van Ness materialized in the upstairs hallway and roamed the house at will.
John Van Ness outlived her by 16 years and died on March 7, 1846, at the age of 76. The couple is buried in a private mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Hundreds of Washingtonians lined the route to see their Mayor off and to watch bier drawn by six white horses that had been so cherished by Van Ness, carry his coffin to the family mausoleum.
Those horses were later sold during the settlement of Van Ness’s estate and there was constant talk of demolishing the now dilapidated Van Ness Mansion and the reports of its haunting increased.
The house became the residence of a man named Thomas Green. Years later Green and his wife were arrested after the Lincoln assassination because it was rumored that they had been involved in Booth’s original plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him captive for a few days in the mansion’s wine cellar before spiriting him into Confederate territory. The Greens were found innocent, released, and then fled the city forever. Over the next fifty years the property was used as a German beer garden, florist's nursery, headquarters of the city street cleaners, and Columbia Athletic Club.
Columbian College, now called George Washington University, purchased the property in 1903 for $161,000 and planned to build a new campus on the site but were voted down by alumni who said the property was unhealthy because it was near marsh on what was then B Street and is now Constitution Avenue. The university sold the property in 1907 for $200,000 to the State Department which tore down the estate building in 1908 to build the Pan American Union Building.
Over the years there were reports by several about people who claimed to have seen, six headless white horses galloping around the house. In the 1980s, a man ran his car off the road on Rock Creek Park claiming that as his car passed by Oak Hill Cemetery, he was distracted by the sight of six headless white horses up on the hill by the Van Ness Mausoleum. The legend is that on the anniversary John Van Ness’s death, that his favorite troop of six white horses make a midnight run around the old mansion.