This week, I explained to several colleagues at Diamond what the desktop wallpaper on my monitor at work is, which you can see above — a painting of Washington, DC done by Edward Sachse in the early 1850s. (Be sure to check out this Maryland Historical Society article on his Bird’s Eye View of Baltimore.)

Washington of 1852 didn’t look anything like the Washington in 2020, which I discussed last year. The National Mall was vastly different. The Washington Monument, planned to be very different than we see today, was just an unfinished stub And there’s a prominent building — three stories tall — on what is now the Mall. Specifically where the Museum of the American Indian stands today.

That building? The brothel of Mary Ann Hall.

Detail from Edward Sachse's 1856 panoramic view of Washington, DC showing the National Mall, with Mary Ann Hall's brothel indicated
Detail from Edward Sachse’s 1856 panoramic view of Washington, showing the National Mall, with Mary Ann Hall’s brothel indicated.

I learned this while looking for something else while eating my lunch yesterday afternoon. I was looking for information about smokestacks near the Washington Monument circa 1918, which can be seen in the background of the image of women playing baseball in 1919. It belonged to a building just to the north of the Bureau of Engraving, but I don’t know what that building is.

“Mary Ann Hall.” I made a note to look her up.

At the end of the work day, after several hours of working on spreadsheets, I went to her Wikipedia page.

There was a picture of a monument in a cemetery. “Wait, wait,” I said, “I know that. I fucking know that!” I had all the vehemence and profanity of Max Scherzer stomping around on the pitcher’s mound.

I hadn’t even read the caption and I knew what I was looking at.

Graves of Elizabeth (left) and Mary Ann Hall in Washington, DC. Source: Wikipedia.
Graves of Elizabeth (left) and Mary Ann Hall in Washington, DC. Source: Wikipedia. Licensed Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain.

Only then did I read the caption. “Family graves at the Congressional Cemetery.”

And then I knew why I knew that and why I knew it immediately.

You need to look past the two impressive monuments, those of Elizabeth and Mary Hall, in the foreground.

Between them you’ll see a grayish monument. That’s the Lusby monument. My great-grandfather Allyn Gardner’s half-sister Margaret Gordon and a stillborn child is buried next to it, to the north (in this picture, tp right). Next grave to the north is Allyn’s half-sister Ella’s daughter Mary Elizabeth Hawk. The next grave to the north is Allyn’s half-sister Mollie and her third husband George Keagle. These would all be behind the foreground monument to the right, which is the one that belongs to Mary Ann Hall.

Just to the right of Mary Ann Hall’s monument, there’s a tree. That’s where my great-great-grandfather William Gardner is buried. And on the other side of the tree is his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Gardner and her mother, Anne Atwell.

The gravestone you can see near the tree belongs to the next grave past Mary and Anne. Her name was Sarah Collins, if I remember correctly.

I’ve walked this area a half-dozen times. I’ve sat against that tree on a sunny day, when the ground was covered with the buttercups just like that.

I’ve looked at the two Hall monuments and never realized that one belonged to Civil War Washington’s richest and most notorious madam.

Personal photo of the grave of Mary Ann Hall, taken May 2013.
Personal photo of the grave of Mary Ann Hall, taken May 2013.

Some of my own photographs at Congressional Cemetery of my great-great-granfather’s site, with the Hall monuments in the background.

Personal photo of my great-great-grandfather's site, taken from my first visit to Congressional Cemetery, September 2012,
My great-great-grandfather’s site, taken from my first visit to Congressional Cemetery, September 2012, The Sarah Collins headstone is behind the reddish Kerpen moment left-center, the Lusby monument is hidden behind another monument (you can see the base), and Mary Ann Hall’s monument is in the background to its right.
Personal photo of my great-great-grandfather's site, taken September 2017.
My great-great-grandfather’s site, taken September 2017. The Hall monuments are center-right. The Lusby monument is at right.
The view of Mary Ann Hall's monument, when sitting against the tree at my great-great-grandfather's grave
The view of Mary Ann Hall’s monument, when sitting against the tree at my great-great-grandfather’s grave, taken September 2018.

Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating article on the archaeological dig that was done on the site of Mary Ann Hall’s brothel before the construction of the museum. One of the buildings at Marymount University, where my sister went to college, was Hall’s summer home.

This is just how my brain works. Research, even for reasons of pure curiosity, as this was, leads me down unexpected avenues. I start looking for one thing — smokestacks — and end up somewhere completely unexpected and much more personal.

One thought on “The Most Notorious Brothel Owner in Civil War Washington

  1. “This is just how my brain works. Research, even for reasons of pure curiosity, as this was, leads me down unexpected avenues. I start looking for one thing — smokestacks — and end up somewhere completely unexpected and much more personal.”

    As a history lover and an unstoppable reader, I can relate and call these diverting forays “Going Down the Rabbit Hole”. Almost daily I look up a few things and an hour or so later I am somewhere completely different with my ‘read it later’ notebook on Evernote so much larger! I will never get through all of that notebook because before I’ve taken one little curiosity, I’m hip-deep in at least a handful more.

    Beautiful blog!

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