Vienna, Va., January 30, 2013 — As the nearly million people stood on the national Mall just over a week ago and watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama, little did they know that they were extremely near a very popular and profitable business establishment of bygone years, one that would be illegal today.
In 1840, a young lady named Mary Ann Hall, who was 25 at the time, was able to purchase a piece of property from the government on a portion of the land where the National Museum of the American Indian would one day be built. The enterprising lady opened a brothel, or bordello, at 349 Maryland Avenue in a three-story house, which she had built. It was only four blocks west of the U.S. Capitol, site of the inauguration.
As the footings of the NMAI were being dug, workmen began to uncover items that simply did not comport with the normal home or business of that time. Archeologists were called in consultation, and the refuse found helped solve the mystery.
There were hundreds of very old champagne corks and some bottles, along with the wire baling that held them on and even some of the seals. The name of the toney champagne Piper-Heidsieck was still easy to read on the seals. Even back in 1865 when the Civil War was winding down, clients and their “entertainers” enjoyed the finest wines.
According to the Union Army’s Provost Marshal’s list of houses of ill-repute, Mary Hall employed some 15 to18 “inmates,” as they were then called, who were ladies of the highest caliber, knowing how to please and entertain gentlemen.
Washington was a city where numerous men came to conduct legitimate business both political and otherwise for a few days or longer. In fact, her fancy house was known as “the Congressmen’s Whorehouse.” At that time prostitution was legal, so the men were happy and Mary was even happier, enjoying an upper class lifestyle.
The area itself was a rough one: neighboring spots carried names like “Louse Alley” and even “Murderer’s Row,” neither of which appeared to bother the Mall Madam or her clientele.
Other artifacts were soon found in the area: bones of various animals that provided cuts of meat not normally found on the dinner plates of the average citizen, including turtles. There was some high living at the brothel.
Even shards of dishes showed ironstone and gold-rimmed or gilt porcelain were used and later discarded into a second lot near the house that was a sort of garbage disposal site for the brothel. The government had had difficulty selling property in the area where the site of the brothel was built because it was marshy and swampy, so individual sales, like the one made to Mary Hall, kept the money coming in.
Also found were remains of highly prized coconuts, while fruit and berries gave ample proof that only the best was served to her clients and employees as well. Years later when the property was resold, the inventory showed carpets from Brussels, extremely expensive large, overstuffed furniture, including the best beds and linens that could be purchased.
Statistics indicate that during the Civil War while men were marching off to certain death at Gettysburg in 1863, some 5,000 prostitutes plied their trade in Washington. The presence of a large number of Union soldiers in the area was another ready market for Mary Hall’s “ladies.”
There were probably another thousand prostitutes in Georgetown and Alexandria; however their establishments were not as opulent and handsome as Mary’s place. Since the competition did not seem to hurt her business, she became a wealthy woman of the time, doubtless on the backs of her employees.
Aside from her business associates, Mary Hall seemed to keep to herself. She never married or had children and she worked hard and saved her money after her house was completed and customers came readily. She retired from the business after 38 years in 1878.
When she died in 1886, her net worth was estimated at $87,000+, the equivalent in present dollars of $2,000,000. And since a complete inventory had been kept of the contents of her home, some of her relatives attempted to get a piece of what she had earned. She was buried with her mother and her sister Liz in Congressional Cemetery.
A few years later prostitution would become illegal, but Mary Hall had made her financial success by then. She was never charged with a misdemeanor or any other mischief, although smaller bordellos run by less influential madams were routinely “called upon” by authorities. She probably counted among her customers some of the high and mighty of Washington, and it simply showed what an astute businesswoman she was that all that information she took to her grave.
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