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. – obituary, Washington Evening Star
Prohibitionists who vomit out nonsense about whores “selling our bodies” demonstrate by their use of the phrase that their comprehension of male sexuality is an absolute vacuum. Their lurid description of the mythic “john” who “hates and dehumanizes women” and thinks of harlots as disposable collections of holes is as far removed from the typical client as the average neofeminist is from a normal woman; if it were true there would be no regulars and very few happy hookers. Furthermore, a creature such as the “antis” imagine would pay as little as possible for his pleasure, yet in reality bargain-hunters are no more common than men who are willing to pay as much as they can comfortably afford; this is why good brothels have always been lucrative. And while the women in such places may be among the most beautiful available and the accommodations the most luxurious, one of the most important features of the expensive bordello is its discretion; most men who can afford luxury prices cannot afford publicity, so the success of a madam who can both run a fine house and keep her clients’ secrets is a virtual certainty. And Mary Ann Hall, who ran the most successful brothel in 19th-century Washington, D.C., was so exceptionally discreet she actually vanished from history for over a century after her death.
She was born in 1814, but nothing is known of her life before she arrived in the capital in the mid-1830s. She prospered in her profession, though, catering to the Washington elite, and by 1840 had saved enough money to build a large, three-story brick house at 349 Maryland Avenue. The residence was shrewdly placed; though she got the land cheap because of the proximity of a flood-prone canal, it was also only four blocks from Capitol Hill, near the Smithsonian Institute. As her business flourished and traffic to the area increased, her property value soared; by the time the Federal Provost Marshal cataloged the city’s 450 brothels in 1862, Hall’s was the finest and most respected. And due to the patronage of countless politicians, it was protected from the periodic revenue-trolling raids conducted by corrupt police on equally-legal but less-well-connected houses.
The aforementioned catalog estimated there were 5000 prostitutes in the city, the majority working for brothels of various sizes (Mary Ann had the most at 18) and the rest streetwalkers or courtesans in private residences. It cannot be assumed that this number was in any way representative of the harlot population either before or after the Civil War; many of them were probably transients and camp followers there to capitalize on the massive buildup of troops, contractors and other war-related temporary residents, and most of those “brothels” were probably nothing more than incalls shared by at most two or three girls. Many of them were located in the same general area as Mary Hall’s, which was also home to a number of industries and businesses catering to the nearby military encampment. After the war, a severe housing shortage resulted in the entire district being redeveloped with tiny, cheap houses called “alley dwellings”, mostly occupied by former slaves and recent immigrants. Unsurprisingly, the crime rate skyrocketed in the ‘70s, and though Hall’s business continued to be profitable the area’s blackened reputation surely dissuaded some of her clientele. At the same time the “social purity” movement arrived in Washington, and busybody socialites descended on the district to “rescue” their “fallen sisters” from degradation (undoubtedly making their husbands even more reluctant to visit the neighborhood). By 1878 she had had enough and retired, renting the house first to another madam and later to a women’s clinic; she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 29th, 1886, at the ripe old age (for the time) of 71.
Within a few years, her name lapsed into obscurity and it is unlikely any historian would ever have put together the few records which specifically named the prominent and highly-eulogized lady buried in an expensive tomb at the Congressional Cemetery as a madam. Ironically, the factor which eventually brought her story back into the light was the same thing which made her last few years of business more difficult: the descent of her neighborhood into a slum. An acrimonious family dispute over her estate forced the sale of the brothel, which in 1892 was purchased by the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth (a school for black children). By the turn of the century the “progressives” were blaming all of Washington’s crime on the “bawdy houses” and “degraded negroes” in the southwestern part of the city; in 1914 prostitution was criminalized and the police (at the instigation of First Lady Ellen Wilson) launched a crusade to “eliminate” the problem by repeated raids and throwing the poorest residents of the district out of their homes. At the beginning of the Great Depression the government bought up nearly all the land in the area, and by 1934 had razed most of the buildings (including Mary Ann Hall’s); eight years later a temporary building for wartime office space went up on the site, and after it, too was razed in the 1960s the area became a park.
Finally, in 1989 Congress decided to build a new Smithsonian wing, the Museum of the American Indian, on the site, and dispatched a team of archeologists to excavate it before the work of construction was to begin. And though the building’s foundation revealed nothing of interest, the contents of its trash heap caught the archeologists’ attention; they included “gilt-edged porcelain, corset fasteners, seeds from exotic berries and coconuts and bones from expensive meats, including turtle,” plus hundreds of corks from an expensive brand of champagne. Archival research then unearthed the history of the place and its mistress, and though we now know her name and a little of her fame, the identities of her clients and the details of their preferences and activities will forever remain her secret.