Then and Now
Unearthing Real History in the Capital
If there’s one figure anxious Washingtonians might consider saluting with a moment of pained silence this week it is Mary Ann Hall, a young entrepreneur who caught the go-go wave of the Civil War when she built and managed one of Washington’s finest bordellos. It was erected a few blocks down from the bustling Capitol, in easier days of righteousness. Then, “prostitute” was an occupation on census lists, and the city’s lobbying arts more routinely extended to sexual quid pro quos. Ms. Hall ran a classic “parlor house,” with Brussels carpets and red plush furniture. It was so fine — “upper ten,” by the Zagat-like ratings of Victoriana — that it was pronounced the best among the 450 brothels the Army provost marshal cataloged like neighborhood boîtes.
The capital city’s latest accused madam, Jeane Palfrey, is currently servicing her clients by outing them. But Ms. Hall died a model of discretion 121 years ago, silent as the grave. She never came close to writing a memoir. She never jotted down a client list that’s survived. She avoided her clients’ home hearths and the newspapers’ gossipmongers. Ms. Hall was a success story when the capital teemed with lone women desperately searching for economic survival.
And she never told the tale — an unthinkable act in modern Washington, where a failed intelligence czar can net millions merely by publishing self-serving details of cabalistic folly. Except for archeologists digging in the Mall a decade ago, Ms. Hall’s for-profit revels would have eluded history. The diggers uncovered volumes of broken Champagne bottles and other deluxe detritus where the three-story bordello once flourished. Scholars tracked bits of Ms. Hall’s imprint on life in newspaper and court archives. They found that she had died a millionaire in modern monetary terms, yet bragged to no one.
A State Department official who lately had to quit when he was outed by Ms. Palfrey insisted that he had purchased massages, nothing more. Pitifully nuanced defenses for the media were unnecessary in Ms. Hall’s day. Thousands of prostitutes roamed among encamped soldiers and the all-male political class. Family values were a century away from becoming a stump-speech cliché.
Ms. Hall eventually rented out her brothel as a women’s health clinic, long before Washington banned brothels and some fresh entrepreneur dreamt up escort services. Mary Ann Hall went on to become a civic benefactor, lauded in her obituary in The Washington Evening Star for “a heart ever open to appeals of distress.” Ms. Hall came to have a special niche at the Smithsonian Institution; Ms. Palfrey went on television.