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Capitol Sex Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

[image] How many pieces of legislation were clinched at Hall's bordello, in spitting distance of the Capitol? (J.W. Buel, Mysteries and Miseries of America's Great Cities, St. Louis: Historical Publishing Co., 1883) [LARGER IMAGE]

On the future site of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.--just a stone's throw from the Capitol--excavation has turned up the midden associated with a Civil War-era brothel. Residents jettisoned gilt dinnerware sherds, animal bones (beef, pork, poultry, fish, and even turtle), berry seeds, and coconut shells. Digging also revealed scads of champagne bottles and corks--prostitutes and clients imbibed together at client cost before hopping into the sack.

During the Civil War period, an empty lot neighbored the brothel, and it was there that the team of archaeologists from John Milner Associates unearthed the midden. The foundations of the brothel also appeared, but had been significantly disturbed by later construction. Archaeologist Donna Seifert said, "When we found the champagne bottles, we concluded that this lot had been used as a dump site for the brothel, which had a very small backyard."

Mary Ann Hall, an entrepreneurial young woman in her twenties, built the brothel in 1840 on a tract the city had once earmarked for the Mall. Unable to afford the upkeep of the swampy land, the city sold it off piecemeal. The Provost-Marshal, a Civil War officer responsible for keeping the city's brothels under surveillance, recorded Hall's as the biggest brothel in D.C., listing 18 "inmates." The business prospered. Among the 5,000 prostitutes in 1863 Washington, arrests seem to have been limited to streetwalkers and lower class establishments, not such refined bawdy houses as Hall's. A lawyer for a less illustrious bordello noted the inequity in an 1863 article in Washington's Evening Star, calling it unfair that his client was under fire "when indictments against such parties as Mary Hall... [are] not called up."

The high quality artifacts from the midden paint the picture of a higher than average standard of living, corroborating reports from a lawsuit over her estate listing deluxe imported furniture among her possessions. The high percentage of ceramic tableware and vessels associated with serving and preparing food indicates that residents as well as clients dined chez Hall.

Siefert, who may herself be in danger of developing a reputation, encountered another D.C. brothel while excavating the site of the Ronald Reagan building. Although both brothel assemblages are "strikingly different from their neighboring working class households," Seifert says, there is no "simple signature" for a nineteenth-century bordello. By the 1870s, the area had become smelly and violent, a haven for hookers and criminals. Although the brothel continued to flourish, there is a change in the artifact composition of the midden after 1871 when the area was paved; the brothel appears no longer to be dumping trash there. Organic material and a more limited range of food remains take over the assemblage, suggesting that this may have become the repository for the nearby residence of a working class family.

Hall took down her shingle in 1883, three years before her death and 31 years before First Lady Ellen Wilson's dying wish was granted and Congress banned brothels. In the ensuing years, the site became a women's health clinic, a school, a coal yard, an all-night oyster house, a junkyard, and home to an animal rescue league. In the 1930s, the city razed the area and returned it to the Mall. During WWII, temporary structures were erected on the site to supplement government office space; those were demolished in the 1960s.

Ironically, because it was so marshy, the future site of the National Museum of the American Indian was probably never a locus of Native American habitation.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America