Georgetown Witches

I have a fairly modern view of witches: women who were ahead of their time, women who were healers, women who had minds of their own, women who were powerful. And those are some of the qualities that I believe earned you the slap in the face as a “witch” in times gone by.

But I’m not sure any of these attributes match the witches we can historically claim as Georgetowners. Living in a house said to have stood where 3327 N Street NW stands today, Margaret Ann and Belle Laurie were a mother-daughter spiritualist duo – and, in fact, the only women ever known under the name “Witches of Georgetown”. “Although these psychics did scary things, their reputations were defined less by girl power than by the inconsolable grief of a widow and a mother.

However, Georgetown is no stranger to mystery women. Decades before the Lauries haunted the 1860s, three veiled ladies stepped off a boat at Georgetown Harbor looking more than a few heads. Refugees from the French Revolution, the mysterious women would have been blue-blooded, aristocratic, royal fleeing in the disguise of the Poor Clare Sisters. Mother Marie de la Marche, Sister Céleste Le Blond de la Rochefoucault and a third known only as Sister Saint-Luc opened a school in 1798 at the Third and at La Fayette. But, aside from their exotic accents and pet parrot, nothing proved particularly rocket science about them.

What made the Lauries so intriguing, however, was the sheer magic they allegedly performed. Margaret Laurie invoked the spirits of the deceased, conveyed messages and used “magnetic” techniques for healing. Belle played pianos and levitated them. Their powers lit up the Laurie household night after night in legendary scenes.eances, made famous by attendees who weren’t Georgtown residents at all: President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

The Red Room of the White House during Lincoln’s time when Georgetown witches helped make seances popular. (Frank Leslie Illustrated Diary, March 14, 1885 / Courtesy of The Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York)

In his book, Lincoln and the Fight for Peace, John Avalon explains that although Mary Todd Lincoln was a spiritualist, her husband was not always there. “His faith grew,” writes Avalon, after “losing his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie.” And the tragedy sent the grieving Mary Todd into a frenzy of psychics, psychics and metaphysics.

Also known as the “Ladies in Grey,” for their Civil War nurses’ uniforms, the Lauries became close friends with the Lincolns (according to Smithsonian Magazine), and were even eventually invited to the White House for several private sessions. The activities of the Laurie family home even attracted high officials (some of whom were sent to investigate).

While the President himself was “never a believer”, according to another medium Nettie Colburn Maynard in 1891, on the evening of February 5, 1863, Lincoln arrived in a long coat for a “circle” or seance detailed in a letter by Jack Laurie. Of course, his advisers at the time kept the evening out of public view.

Nettie Coburn Maynard, Lincon-era author and psychic who helped make the Georgetown witches famous. (photographed from miniature, 1863)

Should the president have paid more attention to the witches for a different reason, perhaps because of their knowledge of Charles Colchester and the rumors he circulated about his drinking buddy, the infamous John Wilkes Booth ? Historians and writers, such as Terry Alford, have defiantly wondered if the Lauries could have stopped Booth from shooting Lincoln.

We do know, however, that it was the sad Mrs. Lincoln who, after her husband’s death, “was almost mad with pain” according to Michelle Hamilton. Two women, ‘poured into her ears with false messages’ and the First Lady were ‘so weakened that she did not have enough strength to resist the cruel cheating’, which ultimately caused Robert Lincoln to evict them from the White House. Hamilton speculates that these two women were indeed the witches of Georgetown, casting a possibly sinister legacy on Laurie’s saloon tricks.

At the end of the day, we can believe in “the good witch” or we can just support the women on the verge of Georgetown.

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