10 First Ladies Who Believed in the Supernatural

A spooky-looking portrait of the White House. Credit: Time.com

The White House has been home to the Presidents of the United States and their families for hundreds of years. The huge, ominous building was completed in the year 1800, and it has been the symbol of the country ever since. There is something spooky about living in a place where 10 different people have died over the years, and the current residents must live under the pressure knowing that their actions will be remembered forever.

While very few Presidents would ever admit that they believe the White House is haunted, there have been several First Ladies who were not afraid to admit that they truly did believe the home had a strong spiritual presence. Some of these women even admitted to consulting spiritual mediums with palm readings, crystal balls, and even conducted seances to communicate with the dead.

Julia Tyler was the first Presidential wife who was able to get her photograph taken in addition to painted portraits. Credit: Library of Congress.

Julia Gardiner Tyler

First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler wasn’t just interested in the occult or reading horoscopes. She believed that she had full-blown psychic powers. John Tyler was the tenth President of the United States. His first wife passed away from a tragic illness, and he wasted no time moving on. He was friends with the wealthy Gardiner family from Long Island, New York, and he met 22-year old Julia Gardiner with the intention of possibly courting his son, John Tyler Jr. Apparently, both men in the family were quick to move on, because John Jr. was still married, and in the process of a divorce.

It was 1844, and hundreds of other people were gathered to see the christening of a new ship called U.S.S. Princeton. There was a massive explosion. It killed Julia’s father, David. President Tyler was there to comfort her. She ended up falling in love with President Tyler, instead of his son. It was just five months after his first wife’s death, but he eloped with Julia, marrying her in a private ceremony. Of course, the press went wild over the President marrying a woman who was 30 years younger than him.

Whether President Tyler knew it or not, he had married a very eccentric woman. Julia claimed to have extrasensory perception (ESP), and that she could also levitate and summon ghosts at will. Ms. Tyler had a party where mediums gathered and performed their tricks, including making the table levitate. Even Julia’s sister believed in her powers so much so that she wrote to their mother saying that she was not afraid, but rather in awe of the things she could do.

In 1862, Mrs. Tyler had a vision of the future that her husband was choking and dying. She rushed to him, but he was fine. It still frightened her, so she told everyone she knew about her vision, as if to warn them. Two days later, the vision came true, and he died exactly as she had envisioned it.

Portrait of Jane and Benny Pierce before his death. Credit: NH Historic Society.

Jane Pierce

When Franklin Pierce was campaigning to become President of the United States in 1853, he was on board a train with his wife, Jane Pierce, and his 11-year old son, Bennie. The train got into an accident, and the car fell off the tracks. Bennie didn’t make it, and the celebration of Pierce’s victory was overshadowed by the loss of their son. To make things even more tragic, they had already lost another young child years before. This was during the Victorian Era, people were obsessed with death, and mourning was actually considered to be in fashion. This is why Jane Pierce had no problem letting everyone know that she was in a permanent state of depression, and wore black to mourn the death of her children.

She also became obsessed with trying to contact her son Bennie from beyond the grave. The first thing she did was write a cathartic letter to her dead son, explaining how she felt guilty and like a horrible mother. She eventually invited a famous trio of spiritualists, the Fox Sisters, into the White House to conduct a seance to contact Bennie.

After the seance, Jane Pierce wrote a letter to her sister, explaining that she had vivid dreams where the ghost of Bennie came to speak to her. She felt a weight lifted off of her soul. Perhaps she had finally forgiven herself for his death, and understood that there was nothing she could have done to prevent that tragic train accident. Of course, she credited her healing to the supernatural.

Artist depiction of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at a seance. Credit: FirstLadies.org

Mary Todd Lincoln

Before her husband became President, Mary Todd Lincoln had lost two sons- Willie and Eddy. So, when she heard that Jane Pierce had apparently spoken to the ghost of her dead son, it would only make sense that as a mourning mother, she wanted to have the same kind of experience. She soon became the most famous First Ladies for believing in the supernatural.

For years, Mary Todd Lincoln had dreams about her husband being assassinated. She also claimed that Willie stood at the edge of her bed every night, smiling at her. Sometimes, her second son, Eddie, would be there as well.  

Mary Todd began inviting famous mediums of the day to the White House to conduct what she said were “calls to the dead”, which took place in the Red Room. Abraham Lincoln was actually very supportive of Mary’s hobbies, and even attended the scenes together with her. Despite the fact that he would allow seances to go on in his home, he reportedly did not believe in an afterlife, and he was just placating his wife’s need for closure.

One medium, Cranston Laurie, was more successful than the others. Mrs. Lincoln truly believed she was in contact with their dead sons. Laurie went on to predict that Lincoln had enemies in his cabinet who were going to betray him. Maybe all of this talk of disloyalty gave him the creeps, because Abe Lincoln had a dream where he saw his own funeral, and envisioned sailing towards a mysterious destination, as if heading towards the afterlife that he did not believe in.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s ghost portrait. Credit: Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection

All of this was building up, in Mary Todd’s life, which made it all the more shocking when she had to witness her husband’s assassination. It only served to provide her with evidence that the supernatural really did exist, and her mental state began to slip even further into her supernatural obsessions. After Abe Lincoln died, Mary paid a famous spiritualist photographer named William M. Mumler to take a picture together with his ghost. She also joined a spiritualist commune and lived among people who communicated with the dead on a regular basis.

Even years after his death, many people have claimed that they saw visions of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost roaming the halls of the White House, including first lady Grace Coolidge, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1942, Queen Wilhelmina from the Netherlands was visiting the White House, and she heard a knock on her door around midnight. When she opened the door, Abe Lincoln’s ghost was standing there, and she fainted. Abe Lincoln ghost sightings have continued to happen for years. If it truly is real, it would probably be Mary Todd’s fault for summoning her husband’s ghost from the afterlife.

Portrait of Edith Wilson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Edith Wilson

First Lady Edith Wilson, wife to President Woodrow Wilson, was standing on the South Lawn of the White House while she considered hiring gardeners to completely change the landscape. She claimed to see the premonition of Dolley Madison’s ghost, who urged her not to change anything, because she dearly loved the rose garden.

Mrs. Wilson knew that she had a bit of a connection to the spirit world, so she hired an astrologist named Madame Champney as a consultant. Since she was always looking forward and had a keen sense of intuition, Edith Wilson was able to step in for the Presidential duties when her husband had a stroke. Some people even consider her to be the first female president because of this.

Madame Champney had such a stellar reputation. She also worked with First Lady Florence Harding. Even after her time as First Lady ended and she moved out of the White House, Edith Wilson was far from done feeling a connection to the spiritual realm. In 1923, Mrs. Wilson felt a dark ominous presence all around her, and her intuition kicked in once again. It turns out that was the night of Warren Harding’s death. She was woken up in the middle of the night by a news boy who was shouting the announcement throughout Washington DC.

Portrait of Florence Harding. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Florence Harding

Florence Harding was married to Warren G. Harding, and it was said that the very first thing she did in the morning was read her horoscope before she made any other decisions with her day. She was raised in a superstitious German immigrant family who believed that in hexes and spells, and carried that with her for the rest of her life. As an adult, she attended a spiritualist camp in Indiana in order to learn more about the occult. She believed in bad omens so strongly, that she would get angry at her maids if they moved anything around that may mess up the energy of the room. For example, putting shoes on the bed was apparently very bad luck.

Mrs. Harding gave herself Tarot card readings, and she hired a famous medium named Madame Marcia Champney to give her more in-depth psychic predictions with a crystal ball. When Warren Harding was on the campaign trail, Madame Champney predicted that he would win the election, but the stress of becoming the President would result in his death. This information made it to the newspapers, and the public laughed at Mrs. Harding’s beliefs.

Since this was sort of scandalous, Harding gave Madame Champney the nickname “Jupiter” to keep her identity a secret when they wrote letters to one another. One of the letters made it to the press and Mrs. Harding decided to totally embrace it. She was proud of believing in astrology and the occult, and made light of her hobby. This totally worked, and it did not negatively affect her husband’s election. After moving to the White House, Madame Champney snuck in with the help of the Secret Service so they could continue with their psychic readings without public scrutiny.

President Harding’s coffin was draped with the American flag, and Mrs. Harding requested that it would be removed so she could speak to her late husband. Credit: Library of Congress.

She was warned that there would a sudden death in her life that was coming very soon. In 1923, this would come true, and Warren Harding died unexpectedly in the middle of the night. After his death, President Harding was laid in a coffin with an American flag draped over it. Mrs. Harding told a friend that she wanted to speak to her dead husband, and asked for the coffin to be opened so she could have a conversation with the body.

Eleanor Roosevelt took her position as First Lady very seriously. Credit: Roosevelt Presidential Library

Eleanor Roosevelt

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was getting some work done in the Treaty Room of the White House, which was right next to Lincoln’s former bedroom. She reported feeling a creeping sensation like there was someone watching her whenever she studied in Lincoln’s former office. She claimed that she felt a presence around her, but she kept up her professionalism and did not outright say that she thought there was a ghost. However, others claimed that they saw Abe Lincoln’s ghost in the Treaty Room, which leads supernatural believers to theorize that the presence she felt in the room was the former President’s spirit.

Even though Mrs. Roosevelt was very tight-lipped about her own supernatural experiences, her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was more open about exploring the possibility in a public way. A man named Joseph Dunninger was a famous mentalist who had a weekly radio show. He claimed to be able to contact the spirit world. President Roosevelt invited him to the White House, where he performed some mind reading tricks.

Apparently, Eleanor Roosevelt said that the entire experience made her feel very uncomfortable with the information that Dunninger was revealing during his presentation, and she did not want him to return to the White House again. She did, however, hire a palm reader named Nellie Meier to visit her, because she still believed in the supernatural, and wanted to know her future.

The Kennedys pose in their Halloween costumes in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Jacqueline Kennedy

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy believed in the supernatural, but she never wasted money hiring a personal consultant to show up at the White House. He public persona was that of the perfect homemaker, and she and focused on interior design and fashion.

In her personal life, she would sometimes go to the Lincoln bedroom just to sit and reflect during hard times. Just like Eleanor Roosevelt, she also felt some sort of presence in the room. Instead of feeling scared of the ghost, she was comforted by him, as if he was watching over her and President John F. Kennedy. She said that she felt a great “affinity” and connection to Lincoln. On Halloween, Jackie even gathered her children to pose for a picture in their costumes in the Lincoln bedroom, as if to suggest that they were embracing the spookiness.

In her spare time, Jackie practiced an ancient form of Chinese divination called I Ching. The medium asks a supernatural entity or the ghosts of dead loved ones to help answer questions about their future, and they toss coins, sticks, or other objects that land in a random order, which reveals information about their future.

Jacqueline Kennedy specifically used magic rune stones to try to predict her future. Runes have ancient alphabetic symbols on each stone, and they were used by the ancient Celtic people. Apparently, this was a tradition she learned that had been passed down by her ancestors. By tossing the stones at random, whatever order they land in will deliver the message. The practice of rune stone divination is used in several different cultures, including modern-day Wiccans.

Peggy and Betty Taylor mourn President Zachary Taylor on his death bed in 1850. Credit: Library of Congress.

Margaret Mackall Smith “Peggy” Taylor

President Zachary Taylor was President of the United States in 1849. He was the leader of the Mexican War. At first, Peggy enjoyed the adventurous lifestyle of being married to a military man, but moving from place to place while trying to give birth and raise small children is what lead to the early death of two babies. Out of the remaining children that grew up, Peggy raised her daughters to never marrying a military man, because she believed it would end in tragedy. Her daugher Knox was a bit of a rebel, and married a man named Lt. Jefferson Davis against her mother’s wishes. Three months later, Knox died of Malaria.

When her husband, Zachary Taylor ran for President of the United States, she was totally against the idea, and could only see it ending badly. He ignored her, of course. Mrs. Taylor was angry that no one in her family listened to her premonitions, and she knew that it could only end in more tragedy for her family. She did not want to be First Lady, so she secluded herself from the staff by living in the upstairs of the White House. Her surviving daughter, 25-year old Betty Taylor, took over all of the duties as First Lady, saying that her mother was ill. There is very little record of what Mrs. Taylor was thinking at that time, because she destroyed a lot of her letters.

Mrs. Taylor told her close friends the truth. She hated the fact that Zachary became President, because she somehow just knew it was going to cut his life short. She believed there were people out to kill her husband, and she could feel an overwhelming sense that he was going to die soon. She was suspicious of almost everyone, because of this non-stop feeling of dread that was hanging over them. After being President for a mere 16 months, Zachary Taylor actually did die, but it was from a sudden stomach disorder in 1850.

Despite the fact that she had the intuition and kept insisting that she knew he would die, Peggy Taylor was inconsolable. She sobbed and became completely hysterical on his deathbed. She said that she could see his spirit leaving his body so quickly, she could not believe it. She had the staff keep his body preserved on ice for several days before she would allow an undertaker to treat his body, because she was convinced he may wake up.

Astrologer Joan Quigley gave First Lady Nancy Reagan advice on a daily basis. Credit: Associated Press

Nancy Reagan

Mrs. Reagan loved astrology, and checked her horoscopes every day. When there was an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, this made her very worried, and she wished she could predict when something bad was going to happen, which lead her to become even more superstitious. Nancy Reagan hired a professional astrologer named Joan Quigley to help her. They paid her $3,000 a month for the ability to call her as much as they needed for spiritual guidance.

Mrs. Reagan insisted that very important announcements, presidential debates, meetings, and even the date of Reagan’s Cancer surgery in 1985. Nancy Reagan believed that they should only take action if the stars said it would be a success. Mrs. Reagan called Joan Quigley in San Francisco two to three times a day. It was so frequent that Ronald Reagan arranged for his wife to have a private phone line at both the White House and Camp David that was specifically used for these secretive phone calls.

During an interview, Joan Quigley revealed that she had also been consulting Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and she realized that he was an intelligent man, and nothing like the evil person he was made out to be in the press. After meeting him, she persuaded the Reagans to make peace with the Soviet Union during one of her readings. This was obviously because of her personal bias, rather than a message she got from the spiritual realm.

When this information was made public, Nancy Reagan got a lot of criticism for this in the press, and it brought up questions about just how much control Joan Quigley had over the Presidential decision-making in the White House.

Hillary Clinton in 1995, holding a copy of “Are We Alone?: Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life,” by Paul Davies. Credit: Clinton Presidential Library.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton claimed that she would get into imaginary conversations with the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt. In reality, Clinton needed guidance on how to behave as First Lady. After studying the behavior of past Presidential wives, she admired Mrs. Roosevelt the most, because of her professional reactions to nearly everything. In times of crisis, Hillary Clinton had a what-would-Eleanor-Roosevelt-Do kind of mindset. Of course, the media jumped on this and made several jokes in attempts to add Mrs. Clinton to the list of First Ladies who communicated with ghosts. Apparently, though, great leaders have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, including Machiavelli.

During a speech in 2016, former President Bill Clinton publicly addressed the incident during a speech.  “As all of your famously learned, my wife, now the Secretary of State, was known to commune with Eleanor on a regular basis,” he said. A few people in the crowd laughed, possibly unsure if he was joking or not. He continued, “She called me last night on her way home from Peru to remind me to say that. She spoke with Eleanor, who reminded her to say that.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton got the attention of UFO buffs when she offered to expose some of the government’s secrets about unexplained aerial phenomenon. While she was campaigning as President, she publicly stated that she would push for the public to have more information about UFOs that the FBI had been keeping secret. When asked if she believed in aliens, she answered that she does not know, because she wants to see more information that is being kept a secret. However, she does not think everyone is making things up. This does not mean Mrs. Clinton is putting on a tin foil hat, but it just shows that she had an open mind to supernatural experiences.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

White House Ghost Stories. The White House Historical Association.

The Story of Lincoln’s Ghost. Patrick J. Kiger. National Geographic. January 24, 2013.

First Ladies & The Occult: Seances and Spiritualists. Carl Anthony. National First Ladies Library. October 27, 2014.

The First Ladies Who Brought Witchcraft to the White House. Amanda Arnold. Broadly (Vice). July 12, 2017.

White House Plays Down a New Age Visitor. Francis X. Clines. June 24, 1996.

Mediums and Messages. Carl Sferrazza Anthony. The Washington Post. May 4, 1988.

Joan Quigley, Astrologer to a First Lady, Is Dead at 87. Douglas Martin. The New York Times. October 24, 2014.

Supernatural America: A Cultural History. Lawrence R Samuel. August 31, 2011.

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor. White House.

Hillary Clinton Gives U.F.O. Buffs Hope She Will Open the X-Files. Amy Chozick. New York Times. May 10, 2016

Hillary Clinton Communes With the Spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. Snopes.