The District’s Red Light District: Federal Triangle’s Bawdy Past

Hookers-DivisionProstitution is still around in DC, as evidenced by MPD’s recent spate of arrests and the reports, every few months, of rich men who should know better getting busted soliciting sex. But did you know that DC used to have a flourishing red light district? So much so that the very term “hooker” was coined and popularized right here in the District? Why isn’t this in the conversation for potential new monuments? Forget presidents, how about a hooker monument? I volunteer my ex to pose for it.

Federal Triangle, which is arguably now the most boring neighborhood in DC, was once the wildest, sort of like how your parents used to go to key parties every weekend but now spend their Saturday nights watching “Antiques Roadshow.” A Union general named Joseph Hooker encamped his troops here, and working girls soon flocked to establishments in the surrounding area. In 1863, the local newspaper The Evening Star, wrote, “There are at present, more houses of this character [ill-repute], by ten times, in the city than have ever existed here before, and loose characters can be counted by the thousands.” His men visited the neighborhood in such numbers, that the area was nicknamed “Hooker’s Division and the women working there were dubbed “hookers.” “Prostitute” was actually a legitimate occupation on the census forms of the time, so there’s official data from the era documenting several brothels of the day. One, at 1309 C Street, was headed by a 40-year-old Frenchwoman named Frances Johnson; two of the prostitutes who lived and worked there may have been her daughters (both of them were named Johnson), or, probably more likely, they all gave the census the same fake name. (Has there ever been a French woman named “Frances Johnson”?) Another brothel, at 132 13 ½ Street, was home to four African-American prostitutes from Virginia and Maryland. The oldest one, 35-year-old Florence Hall, registered as head of household, which means she was probably the informal madam.

This was an increasingly common arrangement in the years after the Civil War, when Hooker’s Division was becoming an established red-light district. At first the women who worked there were freelancers who rented rooms, found their own clients, and kept all their earnings. But as the post-war economy mushroomed and ushered in the Gilded Age, a few canny female entrepreneurs applied the corporate structure to the business of selling sex. Hence the brothel, and the madam. When they were excavating to prepare for construction on the National Museum of the American Indian, workers discovered a number of unusual objects; hundreds of champagne corks, bones from expensive cuts of meat, remains of exotic fruits, corset fasteners, high heels, and tons of expensive porcelain. A little investigation found that the site had been the location of a large brick house owned by a young woman named Mary Ann Hall. Further digging revealed that this house had been the District’s premiere luxury brothel. Excavators even found an empty bottle of imported Piper-Heidsieck champagne, which was the 19th century equivalent of Cristal. Too bad they didn’t have Instagram back then, or we might have photos of Abe Lincoln spraying Piper-Heidsieck onto a group of professional ladies’ “monuments of maternity peeping over brilliant bodices,” which is how an 1883 newspaper story described a group of sex workers trying to drum up business from their seats in the Senate balcony. (Monuments of maternity?)

mall2When Mary Ann Hall died at 71, she left an estate valued, in today’s dollars, at $2 million, so she must have been pretty good at her job. An inventory of the contents of her house included “a mirror-fronted wardrobe [!!!], several suites of red plush furniture, and a number of elegant bedsteads, complete with feather bolsters, mattresses, sheets, and pillows.” You can just imagine the puzzled property assessors thinking, “dang, why does this old lady have so much red velvet furniture, and all these beds?!”

But the cultural wheel always turns, and after the Gilded Age exhausted itself, America experienced a Puritanical backlash. There were Senate hearings in 1912 to address “immorality” in the District, and prostitution and brothels were banned. The area where Mary Ann Hall’s brothel had operated – now known as “Louse Alley,” which is definitely the worst name for a red light district ever – was shut down and emptied. In the Thirties, the buildings there were all demolished and the area was turned into a park, which is what it remained until the American Indian Museum broke ground.

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