“I feel a presence,” said a woman in our tour group, when the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum docent asked for questions. “Is there a ghost here?”
The teen docent rolled her eyes. “There’s a myth,” she replied, emphasis on the myth, “that a woman died in this room and she haunts it.”
The story goes that a woman fell ill on board a ship crossing from England. Upon docking in Alexandria, Virginia, her husband took her a few blocks from the wharf to what was then the City Hotel (and is now part of the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum), where she soon died. For reasons unknown, she, before she died (or her husband, after she died…versions vary), swore everyone involved to secrecy regarding her identity and the husband buried her in St. Paul’s Cemetery, on the edge of town. There actually is a grave at St. Paul’s, with a long inscription that starts: “To the memory of a Female Stranger, Whose mortal suffering terminated on the 4th day of October, 1816. This stone is erected by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath….” Whether that grave belongs to the Gadsby’s lady is anyone’s guess. But as far as her ghost went, the docent was having none of it.
I was at Gadsby’s Tavern last Sunday, for reasons completely unrelated to ghosts or Mother’s Day, which it happened to be. We had the Mother’s Day brunch at the tavern (average food; spectacular Irish coffees), then moved on to the tavern’s museum, where the entry fee was waived for mothers in honor of the day. Also in honor of the day, the museum was using “junior docents,” child labor deployed by the museum on “family days” in place of the usual adults.
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum encompasses two adjoining buildings, the 1785 City Tavern and the 1792 City Hotel, and presents the diningrooms, bedrooms and ballrooms in those buildings as they might have been early in their lives. The museum is owned by the City of Alexandria, which leases the first floor of the City Hotel to the restauranteurs who run the Gasdsby’s Tavern Restaurant. The complex is named after John Gadsby, who ran the hotel and tavern from 1796 to 1808, at the height of their popularity. Washington ate there, as did Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Andrew Jackson spent his inaugural night there, walking from DC when inaugural parties got too rowdy.
Fortunes had changed for hotel and the tavern by the turn of the 20th century. In 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the woodwork in the City Hotel’s ballroom. All of the parts painted blue, in the picture below, are the areas in which the original woodwork was stripped and sent to the MMA, where it’s displayed in a recreated ballroom in the MMA’s American Wing. There’s a lot more to the room, and a lot more blue. You can see it on the MMA’s website.
Gadsby’s holds an annual 18th century-style Washington’s Birthnight Ball in the City Hotel ballroom, recreating a 1799 birthday ball attended by George and Martha. They even host lessons in 18th century dance, several weeks before, to prepare attendees. Calling Thomas Jefferson “America’s original foodie,” Gadsby’s also hosts dinners with Thomas Jefferson (Williamsburg’s Jefferson interpreter, Bill Barker), including recreations of Jefferson’s first inaugural dinner, held at the City Tavern in 1801. The dinners and dances are open to the public.
“This is a picture of Thomas Jefferson at his inaugural dinner,” explained the child docent in the City Hotel’s ballroom, holding up a photo of men in early American garb. She paused a moment and gave us the once over. Apparently we didn’t look like the brightest candles in the gilded chandelier, because she added, “It’s not really Thomas Jefferson. It’s an actor.” Another pause and addition, just in case she’d misread us, “You wouldn’t believe how many people ask whether they really had cameras back then.”
Information on the museum can be found on the City of Alexandria website.