From colonial aristocratic manor to dilapidated squatter’s nest to historic landmark, Carlyle House has survived centuries, but eyewitnesses claim something otherworldly has survived with it.
A Colonial Era ruin uncovered after decades hidden behind an antebellum hotel should be enough to ignite storytellers’ imaginations, but it’s reports of numerous apparitions that make Carlyle House in Alexandria, Virginia a mandatory stop on any local ghost tour. Built by Scottish merchant John Carlyle on premier lots along the Potomac River from 1751 to 1753, this mid-Georgian stone manor is older than our country. History was made in its parlor.
John Carlyle (1720-1780) began his career as an apprentice to an English merchant, but soon made his own fortune in the British colonies. He married Sarah Fairfax, daughter of William Fairfax, who was a cousin to the largest land owner in Virginia. Carlyle himself became quite wealthy, with three plantations, dozens of slaves, and several business interests.
In the French and Indian War, British General Edward Braddock used Carlyle House as his headquarters before he embarked on his ill-fated campaign into western Pennsylvania. During a conference with colonial governors at the house, Braddock and the governors clashed over British demands for the colonies to fund his campaign, an early source of tension that later led to the Revolutionary War.
John and Sarah Carlyle had seven children, five of whom died in adolescence. John and his second wife, Sybil, had four children. Only one of John’s eleven children lived to adulthood. A furniture merchant named James Green purchased Carlyle’s former manor and an adjacent bank in 1848, which he turned into the Mansion House Hotel. Green expanded the hotel along Fairfax Street, and Carlyle’s stone manor disappeared from public view.
During the American Civil War, occupying Union forces turned the Mansion House Hotel into a hospital, which was later depicted in PBS’s miniseries Mercy Street (2016-2017). After the war, the hotel became an apartment building, and Carlyle House deteriorated to the point where it was at risk of collapse. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and in 1970, NOVA Parks acquired the property and began a six year effort to restore the house to its former glory.
During restoration, workers discovered the mummified body of a cat sealed inside the foundation, an old British custom thought to bring good luck. But that wasn’t the only unusual thing visitors noticed about the house.
According to J.J. Smith, author of Haunted Alexandria and Northern Virginia (2009), of all persons to die in Carlyle’s home, his second wife, Syble West, is believed to haunt the drafty rooms. An old folktale invites local girls named Sarah to knock on the door and yell “Sarah, come outside!” It’s believed Syble was jealous of Carlyle’s first wife, Sarah Fairfax, and went to the extreme of burning Sarah’s possessions. Some visitors have reported seeing a woman’s apparition screaming in the garden behind the house.
Carlyle House’s most famous ghosts date from the time of Green’s Mansion House, or the Braddock House Hotel. Though the building is gone, many report seeing phantoms of three unlucky men who died falling from the hotel. One Union soldier, convalescing after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, jumped from a window in a feverish hallucination of being chased. Another man, Samuel Markell, fell to his death in 1905, and a third, 20-year-old Pat Buckley, fell in 1912.
Michael Lee Pope, author of Ghosts of Alexandria (2010), insists the house itself is free from ghosts, but its front lawn is home to a trio of specters belonging to these unfortunate men. Tourists snap anomalous photos in the evening, and report feeling their clothes tugged or a disembodied hand on their shoulder. Whether or not the Carlyle House and its environs is truly haunted is up for debate, but there’s no debating whether it’s worth visiting this historic site to find out.
Carlyle House Historic Park, at 121 N. Fairfax Street in Alexandria, Virginia, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00am to 4:00pm, and Sunday, 12:00pm to 4:00pm, and closed on Mondays and major holidays. Guided tours are given on the hour and on the half hour. Admission is $3.00 for children ages six to 12, and $5 for children and adults age 13 and up. Metered street parking is available.