[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” She has shared many lesser-known stories and aspects of the DC area with us, including the first part to this series, which you can view here.]
This second installation featuring influential and fierce women highlights numerous women who have changed the course of our country’s history. While most of these women have positively impacted our nation, some have altered our country in irrevocably devastating ways.
Check out local DC author JoAnn Hill’s book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to learn more about the hidden histories below as well as to discover dozens of additional gems and off-the-beaten path locales in and around the Washington, DC, area.
National Museum of the American Indian & Former Brother
“Built on a Bordello and the Oldest Profession in the World”
Throughout history, entrepreneurship has been a hard-fought battle for countless women around the world. While successful businesswomen are certainly more common in today’s workplace, in the 1800s, they were exceedingly rare. Meet Mary Ann Hall, the 20-something woman who built and ran the largest and most exclusive of more than 100 bordellos in Washington during the 1800s.
Hall’s three-story establishment, situated on the grassy expanse of land that now houses the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, thrived for more than 40 years. The astute businesswoman selected the location of her brothel because it was convenient to Capitol Hill, a prime location because of the large number of visiting businessmen who typically traveled and arrived alone.
The onset of the Civil War in 1861 brought a new batch of men to Washington, including thousands of soldiers, civil servants, freed and escaped slaves, businessmen, and swindlers, as well as prostitutes looking for work. By 1864, Hall’s high-end operation was booming, employing more prostitutes than any other brothel in the city, and soon became the most expensive piece of real estate in the neighborhood.
Read All About It: Read more about how Mary Ann Hall and her prosperous brothel on pages 24-25 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The National Museum of the American Indian is located at 4th Street & Independence Avenue SW, and admission is free. It is currently open Thursday – Sunday, 10am – 5:30pm.
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Joan of Arc Statue and Her Sword
“A Sword and Its Sorcerers”
From King Arthur to Game of Thrones, the world seems to have an enduring fascination with swords, and our nation’s capital is no exception. For the past 80 years or so, people have been stealing the sword from the Joan of Arc statue located in Washington, DC’s Meridian Park. Are these individuals simply channeling their inner Arya Stark, or is there something more?
The towering bronze Joan of Arc statue, gifted by the French women’s group Le Lyceum Societie des Femmes de France, was installed in 1922. The majestic heroine is clad in full armor, powerfully mounted atop a brawny horse, and thrusting a formidable sword into the sky. The sword measures five feet long and weighs a hefty 30 pounds, so snatching the sizeable sword out of the French saint’s hand would presumably be no easy feat. Unfortunately, her daunting pose also makes her sword vulnerable to theft. The imposing sword was first stolen in 1932 and eventually found in a hedge, bent but still intact.
In 1978, Joan’s sword was stolen once again, when someone broke off its protruding blade. It wasn’t replaced until over thirty years later, in 2011. In 2016 it was finally replaced, only to be stolen again. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton called out the National Park Service (NPS) and questioned whether the NPS could have prevented the theft.
Read All About It: Learn more about this bizarre obsession with stealing Joan of Arc’s sword on pages 138-139 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The Joan of Arc Statue can be found in Columbia Height’s Meridian Hill Park.
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Female Trailblazers & the DC Downtown Callbox Art Project
“A Wake-Up Call: A Tribute to Women”
For centuries, history books, monuments, and memorials have overwhelmingly cast a spotlight on male figures. Out of some 160 monuments and memorials in the capital region, just over 50 statues include women. A local artist and an ambitious project answered the call to change that. The Downtown DC BID and the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities partnered with artist Charles Bergen to reimagine eight nonfunctioning call boxes as public art installations. Throughout the 19th century, cast-iron call boxes served as an early emergency alert system predating telephones and two-way radio systems. These call boxes are still scattered across the city, but they haven’t been in operation since the 1970s. Bergen worked with urban historian Mara Cherkasky to identify prominent women throughout history for the project.
The esteemed group of female trailblazers includes Gospel street musician Flora Molton, expressionist painter Alma Thomas, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, and Civil Rights activists Mary Church Terrell and Josephine Butler. Each callbox includes a prominent image of the honored woman and a detailed description of her life and her contributions.
Read All About It: Learn more about how these extraordinary women made history on pages 178-179 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Grab your walking shoes and head downtown to explore these intricately designed call boxes while paying homage to these noteworthy women. Many of these callboxes can be found between 13th and 15th streets NW, between G and L Streets and are a short walk from Metro Center Station.
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Mary Foote Henderson, the Empress of 16th Street
“The Religious Road to the White House”
Spanning nearly 6.5 miles from the White House to the Maryland border, the main thoroughfare of Sixteenth Street NW is lined with beautiful greenery, charming rowhouses, and a staggering number of religious institutions. From grand churches and synagogues to intricately designed temples and shrines, a wide array of religions is prominently represented along this road. So, just how did one singular street acquire nearly 50 houses of worship?
When Pierre L’Enfant designed the city, he modeled 16th Street after the wide-open boulevards seen throughout much of Europe, offering a majestic view of the White House. In 1816, the street’s first church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, opened its doors; others of its kind quickly followed suit. Shortly thereafter, Mary Foote Henderson, known as “The Empress of 16th Street,” and her senator husband, moved into the neighborhood and began to take over developing the region. During the late 1800s, the elite couple had purchased a considerable amount of real estate along 16th Street and methodically sold it off to individuals wanting to build mansions, embassies, and churches. By the 1920s, Mary had sold two substantial areas of land to the Mormons and the Unitarians. The houses of worship they built along 16th Street remain there today. Simultaneously, zoning laws began prohibiting commercial businesses on 16th Street, creating more space for additional religious institutions to move into.
Read All About It: Learn more about Mary Foote Henderson and the development of Sixteenth Street NW on pages 182-183 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Set out and explore this extensive stretch of nearly 50 churches, temples, synagogues, and shrines along DC’s 16th Street NW.
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Mary Surratt & Her Role in Lincoln’s Assassination
“Roll With It: The Plotting of a Presidential Assassination”
Washingtonians and tourists know Wok and Roll, a casual Chinatown eatery, for its Chinese and Japanese fare, along with its happening Karaoke lounge. What many may be surprised to learn is that before the popular restaurant was serving up fried rice and sushi rolls, it was a boarding house where conspirators met and devised an assassination plot that ultimately resulted in President Abraham Lincoln’s murder.
In 1853, John Surratt purchased the present-day Wok and Roll building and operated it as a boarding house. Following his death in 1862, his wife Mary Surratt left their Maryland home and moved into the boarding house. From September 1864 to April 1865 during the Civil War, Mary Surratt continued to run the boarding house and welcomed a variety of guests. The most notable and scandalous of all were a group of conspirators who plotted to kidnap and subsequently assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Mary met with the team of conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth, at the house, where she supplied Booth and co-conspirator David Herold with guns and field houses. She was later executed by hanging for her role in the plot, becoming the first woman ever executed by the United States federal government.
Read All About It: Learn more about Mary Surratt and the plotting of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on pages 156-157 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Wok and Roll is located at 604 H Street NW and is open every day, 10am – 2am.
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JoAnn Hill, author of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, has affectionately called Washington, DC, home for over 20 years. She has written extensively about DC living, its food, and her de ella world travels on her blog dcglobejotters.org and other mediums and publications. Through her writing and research, she shares hidden histories, local off-the-beaten-paths, and lesser-known stories that inspire the insatiably curious explorer. Her next book of her, D.C. Scavenger, will be released later this year. She lives in DC with her husband Ella Thalamus and dog Jackson and is the co-founder of Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company serving the greater DC area.