The spine-tingling reimagining of the “Sidedoor” theme music that opens the podcast’s episode “Spooked at the Smithsonian” perfectly sets the stage for the otherworldly tales that follow. Host Lizzie Peabody has persuaded a half-dozen Smithsonian volunteers and staffers to go on record with the unnerving and perhaps even supernatural encounters they’ve had in the Institution’s halls.
In the case that opens the episode, Molly Horrocks, a collections manager at the National Museum of American History, is unequivocal and convincing when she tells Peabody that she saw a ghost in a stairwell one morning when she’d come into work a little early. First she felt the apparition, then heard it, and then saw it: a man who appeared to be in his 20s, dressed in a 1940s-era military jacket, staring down at her from a stairwell leading into the section about World War II in the museum’s exhibition “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.”
“A lot of the staff have had some kind of weird experiences,” Horrocks says.
Those who’ve experienced such things would often prefer to keep quiet, as Peabody discovered once she began asking around. But the bold individuals who’re willing to put their names to their ghost sightings offer an entertaining listen, regardless of your degree of credulity.
Meanwhile, rather than telling her own ghost story, Pamela Henson, institutional historian at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, shares one of the Institution’s earliest reported ghost sightings: of Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, who died in his living quarters in the Smithsonian Castle in 1878.
In 1900, a night watchman reported bumping into Henry in the building, dressed for the office and seemingly going about his duties a couple of decades after his mortal exit, the Washington Post reported at the time. A statue of Henry had been erected outside the building after his death, and multiple security guards gave the Post similar accounts of having witnessed Henry’s “shade go in and out of the statute,” as Henson put it.
“I always jokingly say [Henry] was probably haunting [the guards] because they were claiming that he was a ghost,” Henson continues. “He himself did not believe in ghosts. He did not believe you could contact some spiritual world. When you were gone, you were gone.”
Smithsonian security staff on the beat 120-odd years later have their own weird tales to tell. Peabody accompanies Ronald Howlin on a moonlit visit to a 287-year-old red-brick house on the grounds of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Edgewater, Maryland. A few years ago, Howlin felt an eerie presence outside the house, then saw a figure disturb the curtains in a window on the third floor.
“Hair on my arms was standing up when I saw that,” Howlin tells Peabody. “That’s why I’ve never been back in the house.” When Peabody asks him to accompany her inside, he protests but eventually agrees.
Peabody ventures up the stairs to that third-floor window. Howlin, the armed, 6-foot-5 military veteran and volunteer firefighter, does not. “There’s some spirits here,” Howlin says, once he and Peabody are back outside. “I really, truly think there’re some spirits here.”
Next, Deborah Hull-Walski, a collections manager at the National Museum of Natural History, brings Peabody to the museum’s third-floor ladies’ room, where the faucets—not the electronic, motion-activated kind, but the much older, mechanical knob-operated ones—have the odd habit of turning themselves on. Water conservation is not a priority among the spectral class.
Peabody’s final ghost-spotter is Kim Dixon, who in 2001 was a zoology student volunteering at the National Zoological Park when she took a midnight shift at the Elephant House watching a newborn elephant calf, Kandula, for hours at a time, and making notes on his behavior. She wasn’t unnerved when she saw a male figure leaning against the bars of the elephant’s enclosure, until she looked down for a moment and the man evaporated. After a quick search revealed no sign of him, she locked herself in an office and called security. She was too shaken up to finish her shift that night, though in the decades that followed, she has come to think of the apparition as a benevolent one.
“Gray figure, very solid-looking,” she describes the being to Peabody. “And I know they turned and they looked at me. They noticed me. We made some kind of contact in that moment, but the second I looked down they vanished.”
Henson, the historian, has a theory about whom the ghost Dixon saw might’ve been: William “Blackie” Blackburne, the Zoo’s first head keeper, who served for more than 50 years, is Henson’s guess. “He walked the first set of elephants up into the Zoo when it opened,” Henson says. It makes sense to her that Blackie would want to pay baby Kandula a visit.
Elsewhere in the Smithsonian Pod-a-Verse
The recent “Sidedoor” episode “Who Built the White House?” unpacks then-first lady Michelle Obama’s famous observation at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” She was right: Enslaved people were deeply involved in every element of the construction circa 1792-1800. And her speech kicked off a years-long effort on the part of Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and White House Historical Association historian Lina Mann, among others, to learn as much as possible about the people whose sweat and toil created “The People’s House.”
The National Portrait Gallery’s “Portraits” podcast features a revealing conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post political cartoonist Ann Telnaes, whose work was first published in 1992. The former Disney animator says political cartoonists are the canaries in the coal mine of the First Amendment. “Because we deal in images, our work can be seen by the entire world,” she says. “Images obviously transcend political lines, actual country lines, and frankly, I think even more importantly—though people tend not to think about this—class. It really doesn’t matter what position you are in life. You can be rich, you can be poor, you can be well-educated, you can be illiterate. You still can understand and be impacted by an editorial cartoon. So when I say that [we] are the canary in the coal mine, I mean that if there’s a place you don’t see editorial cartoonists working, there’s a problem there. They are being silenced, one way or another.”
Later in the episode, Wendy Wick Reaves, the museum's curator emerita of prints and drawings, defends caricature as portraiture. “The cartoon is weighted with so much more emotion, and it uses humor and anger to make its point,” she says. “So it is very different from a regular portrait, but that negative portrayal that you often get in a satiric cartoon is in a sense a balance to the other kinds of very positive, even idealized portrayals you get in other types of portraits.” Reaves also explains how a non-partisan institution like the Smithsonian approaches the collection of political cartoons, the very point of which is to convey a political message.
“October Sky,” an episode of “AirSpace,” a podcast from the National Air and Space Museum, looks at director Joe Johnston’s 1999 film of the same name—an adaptation of NASA engineer Homer Hickam’s 1998 memoir Rocket Boys. (The book was later retitled to share the name of the film it inspired.) Hosts Emily Martin, Nick Partridge and Matt Shindell had never seen the movie, so they were able to offer their first impressions to the podcast’s listeners. Hickam’s memoir tells the story of how the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when he was a West Virginia high school student, inspired him to pursue an unlikely career in rocketry, over the objections of his coal-miner father. Rocket Boys became a New York Times bestseller and launched his writing career. The sequel Don’t Blow Yourself Up: The Further True Adventures and Travails of the Rocket Boy of “October Sky” came out just last year.