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Map of the City of Washington (King 1818)
showing the location of The Island and Reservation C.
When the city of Washington was designed in 1792, the land on which the National Museum of the American Indian is being built was part of a large parcel purchased by the federal government for a public park. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who designed the city of Washington, envisioned that this large park, which we now know as the Mall, would add dignity and beauty to the new national capital. To create visual interest and ease commerce through the city, L'Enfant also planned a grand canal to carry water from the Potomac River across the north edge of the Mall, south across the front of the Capitol Building, then down into the Anacostia River. When it was finally completed in 1815, this canal formed a barrier between most of the Washington's southwest quadrant and the rest of the city, causing this section of the city south of the Mall to be called "the Island" (Figure 1). ¹
The new city had little money to improve and maintain its parks and the canal, and as a result, parts of the Mall remained swampy and poorly kept in the early nineteenth century. In the 1820s, sections of the Mall were actually sold for private development. Part of the land on which the National Museum of the American Indian is being built was formed into a city block, called Reservation C, which was divided into lots for private sale (Figure 2). ²
|Detail of City of Washington (Tanner 1836) showing newly created Reservations A, B, C, and D.|
A few scattered sheds were soon built on several lots, and around 1840, Mary Ann Hall built a large brothel in Lot 12. Perhaps due to the nature of Hall's business as well as the proximity to the flood-prone canal, the block never became a fashionable neighborhood, but was developed in the 1850s and 1860s with industrial structures and working-class houses.
As the city population grew during and after the Civil War, Reservation C became more densely populated, and dwellings were even built facing the alley that ran through the block. Toward the turn of the century, the block and the alley that ran through it were known as havens of poverty, crime, and prostitution. After alley dwellings and brothels were outlawed during the second decade of the twentieth century, the block became a working-class neighborhood. All of its buildings were razed by the federal government in the 1930s, however, so the land could be returned to its original use as part of Pierre L'Enfant's Mall. Reservation C did not remain an open space for long, however, but became the site of a temporary office building built for government employees during World War I. This building, which was demolished in the late 1960s, was built atop layers of preserved archeological remains of the neighborhood that had preceded it. Parts of these layers were recently uncovered during archeological investigations undertaken in preparation for the construction of the National Museum of the American Indian. From these excavations and the extensive historical research conducted to complement archeological record, new information came to light regarding a previously forgotten segment of Washington, D.C.'s, nineteenth-century population.
The first substantial dwelling in Reservation C was a large, three-story, brick dwelling erected in Lot 12 by Mary Ann Hall. ³ According to census records, Hall was a single woman who was in her early twenties at the time she built this large dwelling. The 1840 census indicated that she lived in the house with four other women who were also in their twenties, a free black woman in her late twenties or early thirties, and a black male between the ages of 10 and 24 who was a slave. ⁴ Although it is not stated in the census, later documentation verifies that Mary Ann Hall was a prostitute, and her large house was a brothel.
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. ⁵ Tax records show that Mary Hall prospered during her first decade in business, the value of her property doubling between 1840 and 1850 and her personal property increasing by more than thirty percent.⁶
Although little published information survives about Mary Ann Hall's brothel or about prostitution in general in nineteenth-century Washington, Hall probably operated her establishment in a manner similar to the high-class "parlor houses" common in New York City at the time. The typical parlor house served men of wealth and distinction in a discreet and elegant environment, each transaction beginning with a shared bottle of champagne provided, at an exorbitant price, by the house. The prostitutes who worked in these houses were noted for their youth, beauty, and social refinement. ⁷ In a rare nineteenth-century publication entitled Mysteries and Miseries of America's Great Cities, a full chapter is devoted to illicit activities in Washington, D.C. In the book, the author implies that the nature of Washington as the national capital offered high-class prostitutes additional business opportunities, because they could be hired to use their charms to influence the passage of particular laws on the floors of Congress. If they succeeded, they were rewarded handsomely by the corporate interests who derived benefits from the legislation (Figure 3). ⁸
|Illustration of a perceived scenario of sexual misconduct (Buel 1883).|
Although it cannot be confirmed that Mary Ann Hall's employees participated in such "lobbying," the type of house she ran, as well as its proximity to the Capitol, would certainly have made it a possibility.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the sleepy town of Washington was dramatically transformed as its population swelled with newcomers. The new arrivals included many men who had signed up to fight for the Union. Throughout the war, thousands of soldiers were encamped throughout the city, either awaiting orders to fight, manning forts to protect the Union capital from Rebel attack, or languishing from disease or wounds in hospitals throughout the city. Along with the soldiers came government bureaucrats, freed and escaped slaves, businessmen, salesmen, and con men, as well as the camp followers and prostitutes who sought to profit from the increased demand for their services. The Army's provost marshal, who kept a list of the city's bawdy houses during the war ostensibly to keep them under surveillance, concluded that there were 450 registered houses in Washington in 1862. While some prostitutes worked in brothels, the majority probably plied their trade as streetwalkers. By 1863, the Evening Star newspaper estimated that Washington had about 5,000 prostitutes, while several thousand more operated in Georgetown and Alexandria. ⁹ Mary Ann Hall does not appear to have suffered from the competition. In fact, tax records show that her wealth continued to increase throughout the 1860s. ¹⁰ When the provost marshal published a list of Washington's bawdy houses in 1864, Mary Ann Hall's first-class house, with 18 "inmates," employed far more prostitutes than any other brothel in the city. ¹¹
According to the city's vagrant law, police had the authority to arrest "public prostitutes and all persons who lead a lewd and lascivious life;" however, most prostitutes were not arrested solely on the basis of their professions. ¹² Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, police precinct records filed at the National Archives document that hundreds of prostitutes were arrested each year. In most cases, however, they were arrested for disturbances of the peace, such as drunkenness, profanity, disorderly conduct, and fighting, and occasionally for theft. They were generally fined a small, seemingly arbitrary, amount of money, and if they could not pay were sent to the workhouse for a month or two. ¹³ Most of the prostitutes who were arrested were probably streetwalkers, not the attractive denizens of discreet houses such as Mary Ann Hall's.
Police occasionally raided bawdy houses, but again appear to have limited their arrests to the lower-class establishments. In fact, a lawyer defending a brothel keeper in a court case covered by the Evening Star in 1863 stated that it was unfair that police only raided and fined the poorer brothel keepers "when indictments against such parties as Mary Hall, Sarah Austin and others who keep the upper-ten style of houses of this class [are] not called up." ¹⁴ The term "upper-ten" was commonly used in New York to describe the very discreet and genteel establishments where unmarried men and women met for illicit rendezvous. ¹⁵
When the war came to a close, Washington remained overcrowded, and its roads, parks, and the canal were in shambles as a result of four years of overuse and neglect. The area between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall, which is presently occupied by the Federal Triangle complex, had become an infamous crime-ridden neighborhood rife with the stench of the nearby canal, which had become little more than an open sewer. Known for its rampant prostitution, the area was widely referred to as Hooker's Division, a wry double entendre. Indeed many of its occupants were "hookers," a term for prostitutes used since the early nineteenth century. Furthermore, the region was reported to have been visited frequently by the troops in Union General Joseph Hooker's division, which was encamped nearby. ¹⁶ Meanwhile, in the vicinity of Mary Ann Hall's house in Reservation C, similar establishments formed a smaller red-light district on the Island.
|Detail of View of Washington (Sachse 1852) showing Reservation C.|
By the 1860s, a number of other buildings had been erected in Reservation C, including an iron foundry and a large, cylindrical gas-storage tank. ¹⁷ Mary Ann Hall's brothel continued to stand out, however, as the largest and most valuable dwelling on the block (Figure 4). ¹⁸ Census records from 1870 indicate that some of the houses on the block were occupied by working-class families. Others were occupied by groups of single women generally described in the census as seamstresses or laundresses. ¹⁹ It was uncommon in the nineteenth century for reputable single young women to live apart from their families, however, which suggests that some of these women also made money through prostitution.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Reservation C was home to both African Americans and whites, although the whites--mostly immigrants from Germany, England, or Ireland, tended to live in the houses facing Maryland Avenue, while the African Americans lived in houses facing Maine Avenue and the Mall. ²⁰ By the 1870s, nearly all of the lots in the block were developed with buildings. ²¹ To create more living space, small houses were built facing the alley that ran through the block, 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, and disease. ²² The alley in Reservation C, called Louse Alley, became one of the most notorious in the city. While its name is evidence enough of its character, an 1896 investigation by the Women's Anthropological Association of Washington confirmed that Louse Alley was known for its prostitution and many of its dwellings lacked running water and stank from the box privies located within three feet of their back windows. ²³
Although the properties in Reservation C that faced Maryland Avenue had the highest real estate value and the largest percentage of owner occupants, they housed prostitutes side by side with working-class families. ²⁴ At least one of these families, the Sheas, appears to have capitalized on the degraded nature of the area, selling liquor and stolen goods and renting rooms to prostitutes. In 1871, Maria Shea committed murder in her house several doors down from Mary Ann Hall's brothel, and the event was described in great detail the next day in the Evening Star (Figure 5). ²⁵
|Detail of article in the Evening Star (1871) describing the murder committed in Reservation C by Maria Shea.|
Although Reservation C had become a raucous and violent block, Mary Ann Hall continued to run her high-class operation at its corner into the 1870s. She apparently retired as madam around 1878, however, when city directories listed Elizabeth Peterson as the keeper of the "boarding house" at 349 Maryland Avenue. ²⁹ The 1880 census forthrightly lists "prostitute" as Peterson's occupation, as well as that of six other women in the house. ³⁰ Peterson ran the house for about five years, because in 1883, city directories show that she had left 349 Maryland Avenue to run another "boarding house" in Hooker's Division. ³¹ That year, Mary Ann Hall rented part of her property in Reservation C to the Washington Dispensary, which set up a women's health clinic. ³²
The establishment of this charitable organization reflects Washington's changing attitudes toward prostitution. Beginning in the 1870s, prominent Washington women had come to recognize the plight of their "fallen sisters," and had established a variety of charities intended to address the physical and moral needs of prostitutes. Amid great controversy, which was covered in detail in a series of articles in the Evening Star, these respectable women bravely introduced Washingtonians to the novel concept that some women turned to prostitution by necessity rather than by choice. In the nineteenth century, it was difficult for women without husbands or families to support them to find legitimate jobs that paid wages on which they could live. ³³ The dispensary in Reservation C was appropriately located in a block well known for the impoverished residents of its low-class brothels. Run by two female doctors, the clinic was funded with private donations and money from the D.C. Commissioners' appropriation for relief of the poor. ³⁴ The dispensary appears to have lasted only a few years in Reservation C, however, probably due to the death of its landlady, Mary Ann Hall, in 1886.
Mary Ann Hall's obituary in the Evening Star read "Departed this life, 2 am Friday January 29, 1886, Mary A. 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." She had a "strictly private funeral" and was buried in Congressional Cemetery." ³⁵ 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 adjacent gravestone in the large family plot commemorates her mother and a sister, who both died in the 1860s.
|Detail of a page of the inventory of Mary Ann Hall's house at 349 Maryland Avenue (DCSC 1886).|
Mary Ann Hall's younger sister, Elizabeth, with whom she had lived and worked since 1840, moved out of the former brothel within a few years of her older sister's death. ³⁷ By 1892 the building had been purchased by the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth and converted into a school. ³⁸ Called the Miner Institution, the school was named for Myrtilla Miner, a white abolitionist who had stirred deep controversy in Washington in 1851 by establishing a school for African-American girls. The purpose of the Miner Institution was to give African-American Washingtonians the skills to enable them to attain economic independence. ³⁹ By the 1890s, the immediate neighborhood surrounding the school was occupied mainly by African Americans, as was much of the Island. It was one of the poorer sections of the city, and according to a contemporary member of the police force had a high crime rate attributable to a population "largely of a dependent character." ⁴⁰ The Miner School operated at 349 Maryland Avenue until around 1910 when the building was rented to the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), as a YMCA for African Americans. ⁴¹ This succession of philanthropic institutions in the former brothel were situated in the midst of an area increasingly reviled by the rest of the city.
In his 1909 book Neglected Neighbors, which exposed the impoverished conditions of many of Washington's inhabited alleys, Charles F. Weller included a photograph of Louse Alley, calling attention in the caption to the striking contrast between the Capitol dome, in view in the background, and the "overcrowded lodging houses for Italian laboring men standing close beside the bawdy houses of colored women" (Figure 7). ⁴²
|View of Louse Alley published in Charles Weller's 1909 expose Neglected Neighbors.|
Although the police force had reportedly rid Louse Alley of its bawdy houses, Sylvester warned that the prostitution could not be completely eradicated until the environment where it thrived was eliminated. "You've got to wipe out the root of the evil, " he said, "--and what is that? It is the alleys, the houses they occupy, the filth, the dirt, not only the prostitution . . . and the disease." ⁴⁶ His emphasis on the evils of the alley environment reflected the growing city-wide consciousness of the alley-dwelling problem. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Washington's infamous alley dwellings had become a cause celebre among the city's elite, and President Woodrow Wilson's wife, Ellen, made their elimination her personal crusade. Two months after the First Lady succumbed to an incurable kidney ailment in 1914, Congress granted her deathbed wish for legislation outlawing these substandard dwellings. ⁴⁷ Probably as the result of the measure, Louse Alley, then renamed Armory Place, was reconfigured as a minor street.
By the 1920s, several new businesses had been established in Reservation C, including the Sharon Dairy, a coal yard, and an oyster house that was open all night. ⁴⁸ Around 1916, Russian immigrant Robert Herson began renting the coal yard lot where he ran a junk yard. By 1920, he was selling auto supplies and used cars. ⁴⁹ In 1917 the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth sold the former brothel at 349 Maryland Avenue to the Washington Animal Rescue League, yet another charitable organization. ⁵⁰
Probably as a result of the 1914 bawdy house ban, census records show only four households comprised solely of women. ⁵¹ In fact, the 1916 city directory listed five vacant houses on Maine Avenue that had been occupied several years earlier by single women. ⁵² Three dwellings on the block were occupied by recent immigrants from Italy. These Italian men and women included three laborers, a lamplighter, a shoemaker, a street huckster, an auto mechanic, a photo engineer, a tile maker, and a saleswoman at a department store. ⁵³ The overwhelming majority of the block's residents, however, were African American. Of the forty dwellings enumerated on the block, the census listed 34 occupied by African Americans. ⁵⁴ Additionally, all thirty residents of the Vincetta Apartment Building, built on Maryland Avenue in 1905 by Maria Shea's daughter, were described by the census taker as black or mulatto. ⁵⁵ These African-American residents of the neighborhood included laborers, chauffeurs, drivers, cooks, waiters, porters, railroad hands, dishwashers, laundresses, government charwomen, maids, bootblacks, an elevator operator, a paper hanger, an upholsterer, a wagon loader, a school teacher, and a manicurist. ⁵⁶ City directories indicate that several of them, such as the upholsterer and a man who sold soft drinks, operated small businesses from their homes. ⁵⁷
Although life on Reservation C may have just begun to improve for its residents in the 1920s, the block was cleared of all its buildings in the 1930s. While many early twentieth-century Washingtonians sought to rid the city's neighborhoods of prostitution and alley dwellings, other civic-minded citizens lobbied for the beautification of the national capital. The McMillan Plan, drawn up in 1901 and 1902 by some of the nation's most prominent designers, outlined grand and impressive urban improvements that would renew the vision of the city's first designer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant. A major focus of the plan was the restoration of the Mall as the dignified open space L'Enfant envisioned. As part of this effort, in the early 1930s the United States government began purchasing back parts of the Mall that had been sold for private development more than 100 years earlier. By 1934 the federal government had demolished nearly all of the buildings in Reservation C in an effort to restore the land as open space. ⁵⁸ With the emergency of World War II, however, a temporary government building was hastily erected on the land to provide office space for war-time workers. When the temporary building was finally razed in the late 1960s, the open land was returned to the use envisioned by L'Enfant. It is presently used for informal athletic games and special events. Before the end of this century, however, construction will begin on the Mall museum of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Site Overview, facing northeast
(Photo by John Milner Associates, Inc.)
The National Museum of the American Indian was established by Public Law 101-185, which was signed by the President on November 28, 1989. This law creates a new and separate Smithsonian museum to be located on the National Mall. An archeological investigation conducted on the museum site discovered the remains of the working-class households and Mary Ann Hall's brothel buried beneath the foundation remains of the temporary building erected during World War II. The building foundations and artifacts that have lain buried for more than 100 years began to yield their information as archeologists excavated the museum site.
Federal agencies are responsible for considering the effects of their projects on historic properties. Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, historic properties are defined as buildings, structures, sites, objects, or districts that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Eligible properties are associated with events or persons important in the past, are good examples of a style or design, or have the potential to contribute important information on the past. Early in the process of planning a construction project that involves federal lands, permits, or funds, archeologists begin their work. The museum planning process included archeological investigations to identify and evaluate evidence of the historic use of the land.
The first step of the process is the identification of archeological resources. Before the archeologists begin to dig, the research team members study several sources of information. By studying the written records and historic photographs and prints, the researchers learn about the historic and prehistoric use of the land. The team then assesses the likelihood that archeological remains of structures or objects may survive. The team archeologists reviewed reports on prehistoric settlement in the area, and examined nineteenth-century maps and records that document land use in this part of Washington, D.C. Because the museum site was a low-lying, marshy area in prehistoric times, the team decided that it was unlikely to have been chosen by Native Americans as a place to live. From the historic documents, however, the team learned that the site was developed in the mid-nineteenth century and determined that archeological remains of Mary Ann Hall's brothel, the row houses, and alley dwellings were likely to remain.
|Detail of 1888 Fire Insurance Map of Washington, D.C. (Sanborn 1888), showing location of excavations relative to historic structure locations.|
Under the sod, the team found nineteenth-century building foundations and artifacts (Figures 9 and 10). Some had been disturbed by the construction and demolition of the temporary buildings on the site. But in other areas, the archeological remains of the nineteenth-century neighborhood were preserved. By identifying artifacts of known dates in the deposits, the field team identified two deposits. The upper deposit dated to the 1870s and 1880s, and the lower deposit dated to the 1860s. Because the archeologists knew that scientific excavation of these nineteenth-century deposits was likely to yield important information of the life of the neighborhood's residents, additional excavations were scheduled.
|Overview of excavations at Site 51SW14, Reservation C, NMAI Museum Site. (Photo by John Milner Associates, Inc.)||Detail of excavations at Site 51SW14, Reservation C, NMAI Museum Site. (Photo by John Milner Associates, Inc.)|
The Smithsonian Institution asked the research team to return to the Mall site to excavate the area with the greatest archeological potential. The archeologists identified the lot occupied by the brothel (Lot 12) and the adjacent lot (Lot 11) where trash from the brothel had been dumped in the mid-nineteenth century. The archeologists excavated several more five-by-five-foot units in each lot. The lot where Mary Ann Hall's brothel once stood was disturbed, and only building foundations remained. However, the trash dump on the adjacent lot was preserved, so excavations focused on this area. The artifacts from each unit were collected, and foundations and soil stains were photographed and mapped as each soil layer was excavated. The team's historian also searched photograph collections for historic views of the area and collected additional information on the development of Reservation C. Through careful integration of the archeological and historical information, the research team pieced together their picture of the past.
|Detail of Topographical Map of the District of Columbia (Boschke 1861) showing the location of Mary Ann Hall's brothel and a building adjacent to the brothel's northeast corner.|
|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.)
|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.)|
Louse Alley, at the back of Lot 11, was paved in 1871. After the paving of the alley, a second trash heap developed. The ground cover that grew around this midden included weeds that thrive in soils with a high organic content, indicating that kitchen refuse and other organic waste were added to the heap.
The research team found it difficult to know whose trash was in the upper deposit. Maria Shea, who owned Lot 11, was first taxed for improvements in 1876. The documents do not describe the types of buildings or position on the lot, however. The 1880 census lists the household headed by a white widow, her three children, and two black boarders, living at 343 Maryland Avenue and a mulatto husband and wife and two boarders at 345 Maryland Avenue. There is no census entry for 347 Maryland Avenue (the trash deposits excavated during data recovery were at the back of this lot). Shea was taxed for additional improvements to the lot in 1886, and an 1888 insurance map shows dwellings at 347, 345, and 343 Maryland Avenue and four dwellings along Louse Alley (Figure 14). The trash heap, or midden, was under the alley dwellings; therefore, it was deposited before 1886. The trash heap was probably deposited on a vacant house lot and was probably deposited by neighboring households. Although the research team could not determine which household or households were responsible for the trash heap at the back of Lot 11, the team could characterize the immediate neighborhood. The brothel was to the west, and the households to the east included occupants identified in the census as white, mulatto, or black. The dwellings at 345 and 343 Maryland Avenue were rented from the Sheas, who lived at 339 Maryland Avenue. Thus, the most likely contributors to the midden were the brothel inmates or working-class white, mulatto, and black tenants.
|Detail of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map (Sanborn 1888) showing Reservation C.|
The archeological data indicate that the artifact composition of the midden (trash heap) changed after 1871, suggesting that the brothel inmates were no longer dumping trash in the lot next door. By comparing the artifact collection from Lot 11 with collections from other archeological sites of working-class households, the research team concluded that the midden is most likely associated with working-class households. Percentages of whiteware and ironstone, the most common ceramic tablewares, are similar to those from working-class households in other parts of the city, although the cost of the ceramics was higher for the Reservation C households. As compared to the brothel, the working-class households of Reservation C selected from a more limited variety of fruits, and pork and chicken were the most common meats.
Comparison of the collection from Mary Ann Hall's brothel with later brothels from Hooker's Division, which were excavated in 1989 before the construction of the Ronald Reagan Building, revealed notable differences. The ceramic artifacts indicate that the household goods of Hall's brothel were more expensive than those used in the other brothels, although the late brothels from Hooker's Division purchased expensive cuts of meat. The comparison did not reveal a simple artifact signature for a brothel, although both Hall's brothel and the late Hooker's Division brothel are strikingly different from their neighboring working-class households. Both historical documents and the archeological record show that Mary Ann Hall's brothel was a large and prosperous household that offered material comforts to its inmates and guests and made Hall a wealthy woman.
Together, the archeological and historical information from the investigations at the Mall museum site contribute to our understanding of the history of this neighborhood of the city. Although the brothel inmates, seamstresses, laundresses, and laborers who lived on Reservation C are long gone, their story has become a part of Washington, D.C.'s past.
The technical report of the archeological investigations at the National Museum of the American Indian, Mall Museum Site, can be found in the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, 901 G Street, NW, Washington, D.C. The research was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. John Milner Associates, Inc., prepared the technical report and this booklet under contract to Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.