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The southeastern corner of the site was filled with hundreds of champagne corks, bones from quality cuts of meat, seeds from exotic fruits, women's grooming items, and an unusually high number of shards of expensive porcelain. These finds provided evidence that one of Washington's most exclusive and expensive brothels was located there, in a large brick house that belonged to one Mary Ann Hall. Hall was a single woman who was in her early twenties at the time she built this large dwelling in about 1840. Although it was not stated in that years census, later documentation verifies that Mary Ann Hall was a prostitute, and her large house was a brothel.
The artifacts indicate that Mary Ann Hall served one of the most expensive drinks, imported French Piper-Heidsieck champagne, to her guests during the 1860s. Today, an 1865 bottle of Piper-Heidsieck would be worth between $1,000 and $5,000.
A Piper-Heidsieck champagne bottle is wrapped in a corset similar to ones that Mary Ann Hall and her female employees might have worn. Designed by French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Over 100 champagne corks, 24 wire bails and 13 foil seals were found on the site.
At left, Foil seals (a-b), wire bails (c-f), and corks (g-h) from champagne bottles found on Mary Ann Hall's brothel site.
(Photo by John Milner Associates, Inc.)
The unusually high amount of quality porcelain shards found on the site suggests these pieces would have only been used in a large, prosperous household. Meals for Mary Ann Hall and her girls were served "family" style, using every day porcelain, while the gilt-edged porcelain was probably reserved for guests.
At left, gilt-decorated white porcelain from Mary Ann Hall's brothel:
(a) paneled Gothic-pattern plate with gilt band; (b) plate; (c) saucer; (d) plate.
(Photo by John Milner Associates, Inc.)
Seeds and shells give evidence that fruits and oysters were served to complement the drink of choice.
Corset fasteners, shoe heels, a bone toothbrush fragment, hairpins, pipe stems and buttons were part of the everyday items in use by Mary Ann Hall and her female employees.
Mary Ann Hall built her brothel in a convenient location on the Mall near the U.S. Capitol Building. Washington was then known for its large population of transient men who came from all over the country, usually unaccompanied by women, to transact business in the national capital. Her house is the large brick structure indicated by the arrow.
Print from Edward Sachse's 1852 book "Views of Washington."
Detail of an 1861 topographical map by A. Boschke of the District of Columbia showing the location of Mary Ann Hall's brothel.
In the 19th century, brothels were part of the urban fabric of city life, especially in Washington, D.C. with its transient population of soldiers and government workers. Prostitution was not officially a crime, and during the Civil War, there were 500 registered brothel houses and over 5,000 prostitutes in Washington. After the Civil War, brothels continued to operate on a smaller scale until 1914, when Congress passed legislation banning them.
During the 1870's, small houses were built in the allies that ran through many city blocks, a practice common during Washington's post-war housing shortage. Occupied mostly by poor African Americans and recent immigrants, these alley dwellings were widely perceived as places of filth and squalor, and throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century were blamed for a number of social ills, including drunkenness, immorality, crime, disease, and prostitution.
During a series of Senate hearings in 1912 and 1913 that dealt with the issue of prostitution in Washington, the superintendent of the city's Gospel Mission stated that after a tour of all of the city's red-light districts, he firmly believed that Louse Alley was the worst.
Louse Alley, near Mary Ann Hall's house, early 20th century.
Photograph from Charles F. Weller's 1909 book Neglected Neighbors.
Mary Ann Hall first came to light in the 1840 census where she was listed as the owner of lot 12 and head of a household that included "five white females, one free colored female and one colored male slave." Mary Ann Hall built her brothel in a convenient location near the U.S. Capitol Building in a city known for its large population of transient men who came from all over the country, usually unaccompanied by women, to transact business in the national capital.
By 1848 she had made $8,000 worth of improvements to the house. In 1860, Mary Ann Hall owned real estate worth $14,600 and personal property worth $3,700. Mary Ann Hall ran her brothel until 1878. She died in 1886 at age 71, a single woman with no debts. Her estate, including real estate, bonds and securities and personal property, was valued at $100,000. Today, the estate would be worth $1.9 million. Although we know Mary Ann Hall was a savvy business woman, little is known about Mary Ann Hall, the person. Only her obituary in the 31 January 1886 Evening Star gives a clue:
Mary Ann Hall, long a resident of Washington. With integrity unquestioned, a heart ever open to appeals of distress, a charity that was boundless, she is gone; but her memory will be kept green by many who knew her sterling worth.
After her death, a detailed room-by-room inventory was conducted to determine the value of the contents of her house. Hall's house contained expensive Brussels carpets, oil paintings, china vases, marble-topped tables, a marble clock, a mirror-fronted wardrobe, an ice box, and other items typical to middle- and upper-class Victorian homes. It was also furnished with several suites of red-plush furniture and a number of elegant bedsteads, complete with feather bolsters, shuck mattresses, comforters, sheets, blankets, and pillows.
Left: A page of the inventory.
The Hall family plot
Mary Hall is buried in an imposing grave in Congressional Cemetary in Washington, D.C. with her two sisters and her mother.
Mary Ann Hall's grave
Her grave, which remains in the cemetery, is marked by a large and dignified marble gravestone that features a female figure mourning over an urn.
The grave of Mary's sister, Elizabeth
An adjacent gravestone in the large family plot commemorates her mother and a sister, who both died in the 1860s.
For further information, please see our web site Archaeological Investigations National Museum of the American Indian Site, Washington, D.C.:
Archaeologies of Sexuality, edited by Robert A. Schmidt and Barbara L. Voss. Routledge Press: London and New York, 2000.
Historical Archaeology, the Journal of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Volume 25, Number 4, 1991.
Those of Little Note: Gender, Race and Class in Historical Archaeology, edited by Elizabeth M. Scott. University of Arizona Press: Tucson and London, 1994.
Asman Imaging Laboratory
Federal Reserve Board
National Museum of the American Indian
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Office of Exhibitions, Arts and Industries Building
Piper-Heidsieck Division, Remy Amerique
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
A very special thank you to archaeologist Donna Seifert and her colleagues at John Milner Associates, for bringing us Mary Ann Hall.
Exhibition curator: Amy Ballard, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division, Smithsonian Institution.
Exhibition and webpage design: Richard Stamm, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division, Smithsonian Institution.
© Smithsonian Institution 2005