Washington’s Civil War madam could keep a secret


The grave site of Mary Ann Hall, right, and her two sisters and mother, to the left, the angel, at the Congressional Cemetery. Hall was once DC's most popular Madame, the owner and operator of a top class brothel where she lived with her sisters. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Mary Ann Hall was once among the most rich, popular and powerful women in Civil War Washington. Before she died in 1886 at age 71, she had garnered a nationwide reputation for integrity, charm, and utmost discretion.

Hall was the District’s Civil War madam and a top-dollar prostitute.

Her legacy was lost to history until the mid-1990s, when archaeologists uncovered the remnants of her large home under what is now the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall.

The scientists discovered what was perhaps the most distinguished and luxurious brothel in the city during the 19th century. The finely appointed establishment stood four blocks south of the Capitol, certainly a convenience for Hall’s elite clientele who worked a short walk away.

“It was first class, easily one of the top 10 brothels in the city,” said Donna J. Seifert, an archaeologist who helped dig up Hall’s home. “It was clearly quite well known.”

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What remains not as well known are the particulars of Hall’s life. One fact about Hall, however, was apparent to the archaeologists who excavated the area around her brothel: She loved to serve bottles of champagne to her clients.

Although Hall’s name comes up in census records and newspaper accounts, the details of her life and career were largely forgotten until Seifert and her colleagues came along.

With the support of the Smithsonian Institution, Seifert and her team were dispatched to conduct a survey of the proposed Southwest site of the National Museum of the American Indian.

While digging up the land, they found gilt-edged porcelain, corset fasteners, seeds from exotic berries and coconuts and bones from expensive meats, including turtle. They also found “hundreds” of Piper-Heidsieck champagne corks and wire bales in the midden, or trash heap, buried near Hall’s property.

Single and apparently never married, Hall resided at 349 Maryland Ave. in a three-story brick home starting in the 1840s. There, she ran a business that flourished in Washington for nearly 40 years, especially during the Civil War, when soldiers deploying to battle passed through town.

One count by D.C. officials during the 1860s concluded that there were about 500 “bawdy houses” and nearly 5,000 prostitutes.

Hall’s brothel was ranked by the city’s provost marshal as one of the best and biggest, with a peak of 18 “inmates.”

Noted author Stephen W. Sears of Landscape Turned Red and Civil War buff Gene Thorp square off over Gen. George B. McClellan’s place in history.

“All who were rich and important went to Mary Ann Hall’s,” said Robert S. Pohl, author of the 2012 book “Wicked Capitol Hill.”

An 1864 article in the Washington Evening Star referred to Hall’s business as the “old and well established house” on Maryland Avenue.

The brothel “in question has had — it is no exaggeration to say — a national reputation for the last quarter century,” according to the paper.

Seifert said an inventory of Hall’s home shortly after her death catalogued its opulence. Hall had plush red furniture, carpets from Belgium, oil paintings, feather pillows, marble-topped tables and an icebox. Judging by the quality of the decor, Hall must have had high-profile clients, she said. Moreover, Seifert said, unlike other brothels, Hall’s establishment rarely came under official scrutiny.

“She ran the kind of house that didn’t cause trouble,” Seifert said. “It was a place of serious discretion. She ran a pretty straight business.”

Records indicate that Hall retired in the late 1870s. She later rented her home to a women’s clinic.

“The whole prostitute with a heart of gold — that was pretty much Mary Ann Hall,” Pohl said.

Hall died of a cerebral hemorrhage Jan. 29, 1886, according to her death certificate. Her net worth was about $90,000, equivalent to $2 million in today’s economy.

Her home later served as a YMCA before it was demolished during the 1930s. The government eventually bought the property as part of an expansion of the Mall.

Hall’s legacy lives on at Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill, where her remains are buried. Her plot is one of the cemetery’s largest, according to cemetery archivist and docent Dayle Dooley.

Hall rests in the northeast section of the cemetery, next to her mother and sister. Their plot is yards from the grave of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hall’s headstone is a large, pale monument with a somber, female figure sitting on top.

Her Evening Star obituary gave no hint of Hall’s profession. But its eloquence reflected the influence she had in Washington’s public and private circles.

“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.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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