House of good repute: Brothel pampered elite

John E. Carey

Mary Ann Hall catered to the nation’s elite in Washington as the proprietor of the capital’s best brothel during the Civil War.

Located just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol on Maryland Avenue on what now is part of the Mall, her house, a three-story structure nearly the size of a city block, included parlors, an elegant dining room and, almost assuredly, the most attractive of the city’s estimated 5,000 “soiled doves.”

Prostitution was not a crime in the 19th century, and any concentration of troops during the Civil War attracted flocks of “camp followers” who were available for a price. Women often would show up after battles and offer their services to the generals as nurses. The “nursing,” however, frequently became an open door to those less honest and caring, and when armies experienced theft, prostitution and other less traditional forms of nursing, generals sometimes rejected offers of female help.

Houses of prostitution were fairly common in America’s larger cities, and Washington had as many as 450 entertainment venues on the “wilder side.” The presence of affluent politicians, lobbyists and the hierarchy of the government departments helped make Washington a man’s home away from home.

Elected representatives in those years did not routinely bring wives and families to Washington. Service in Congress was not necessarily even a full-time job. The city was hot and steamy. Nights could be filled with drinking, smoking, gambling and frolicking with willing companions of the gentler sex, far from the eyes of the electorate at home.

Mary Ann Hall took every opportunity to provide such indulgences. The throngs of men willing and able to pay her comparatively exorbitant rates deserved the best. Imported hats, dresses and perfume enhanced her staff. Magnums of champaign added an air of dignity, gentility and grace. Fine food filled the supper tables. Her real goal as hostess, however, was to supply attractive women.

The fashion of the time was an hourglass shape – an ample bosom and tiny waist – which not all women could achieve without corsets reinforced with steel belts called busks. Busks, champagne corks, fine china and combs to hold spectacular hair creations all have been excavated from the site where Hall’s house once stood. Historians and archaeologists believe the quality of these items shows the elegance Hall brought to her entertainment trade. Several of them, including rusted busks, have been preserved by the Smithsonian Institution.

Hall insisted on certain standards of decorum, and her house, which opened around 1837, flourished until it closed in 1878. She was never raided by police, was not the subject of public disgrace or even controversy and was never discussed in newspapers. Editors in those days believed that what was private should stay private. Unless a public figure disgraced himself so thoroughly that prosecution was in order, private excesses remained unreported.

Rep. Daniel E. Sickles of New York learned the limits the hard way. Rumors abounded in the late 1850s that he maintained close personal relationships with a variety of women. Though tongues wagged, his private pleasures never merited newspaper interest. Then, when he murdered his much-younger wife’s lover, Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”- detailed accounts of the court proceedings made newspaper sales soar.

 

The 1859 trial and associated juicy details sold newspapers and became for a time the talk of Washington and New York. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed 200,000 copies as the trial opened. Demand forced a second printing of 300,000. (During the Civil War, then-Gen. Sickles’ private indiscretions returned to the realm of private matters. After the war, despite routine and well-documented misbehavior, his private life remained taboo to journalists.)

Mary Ann Hall became a wealthy woman. She died in 1886 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery beneath a carved stone statue of herself.

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Ladies’ general

The slang word for prostitute, hooker, is generally thought to have originated during the Civil War. For generations, rumors claimed that Union Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker had inspired the nickname by his amorous relationships.


General Joe Hooker

There is, however, a recorded use of the word before the war, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. The dictionary’s authors queried historian Bruce Catton, who agreed that the term came into use before the Civil War but that it became popular during the conflict. An area south of Constitution Avenue was known for its extracurricular activities and was referred to as “Hooker’s Division.” A Civil War officer, Charles Francis Adams Jr., referred to Hooker’s headquarters as “as place to which no self-respecting man likes to go, and no decent woman could go – a combination of barroom and brothel.”

Hooker should be remembered, however, for more than his moral laxities. He was wounded at Antietam and fought at Second Bull Run, and Lincoln made him commander of the Army of the Potomac after Ambrose Burnside’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg.

The Battle of Chancellorsville began well and ended badly for the 48-year-old West Point graduate, and just days before Gettysburg, Hooker asked to be relieved. The president appointed George Gordon Meade his successor as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.

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