11 Feb 2019


Lost Capitol Hill: Maria Branson

As anyone who’s read my book on Capitol Hill scandals can attest, I find great amusement in the foibles of local residents, both high and low. It seems as though any reason to be arrested has been attempted by the good citizens of the Hill. Sometimes, however, there is something new under the sun.

Take, for instance, this article that ran in the Daily National Republican on July 31, 1863

An Unsexed Female. -Maria Branson, a lovely girl of 18 summers, who resides on Eleventh street east, between C street and South Carolina avenue – and is ranked among the notables of the Five Points community – was yesterday attired in soldier’s uniform, sporting with some soldiers on the commons near her residence. Her mother (Mrs. Branson) went to the police and complained of her gentlemanly conduct. She was arrested, taken before Justice Cull, and required to give security to keep the peace.

It is difficult to decide what is the more absurd – that a woman should be arrested for wearing a uniform, or that the complainant should be her mother. While some women – like Frances L. Clayton, [pictured] – did dress as men to fight during the Civil War, that was not what was going on here. Rather, this was just Ms. Branson’s attempt to flirt with some of the many soldiers stationed in D.C.

The mention of the “Five Points community” gives some indication about what this was really about. While no such neighborhood existed in Washington at the time, the infamy of the New York City district with that name, and particularly its open prostitution, makes it clear what the author is getting at.

It was also hardly Ms. Branson’s first rodeo – or that of her parents’. About three years earlier, her father had published a classified ad in the Washington Evening Star, in which he offered a “liberal reward” for anyone who returned his daughter, whom he believed to be “secreted in some house of ill fame,” to him at the Navy Yard.

The classified ad with which Maria Branson’s father attempted to bring her back home (LOC)

Clearly, the parents had become less amused by her antics, and Ms. Branson would be hauled into court numerous times to answer for disorderly conduct or larceny over the next couple of months. The last of these, recorded in the October 26 Evening Star was because she and one of her compatriots were charged with stealing from the store of Waldheimer and Grossmayer. Neither young woman seems to have taken the proceedings terribly seriously, and when asked about what she does, Ms. Branson answered in words that were deemed unsuitable for publication:

What have you been doing for a livelihood?


The Judge here modified his question as follows: – Where have you been living?

Anna Branson (with a bold and defiant air). We have been – * * * * *

[Commotion throughout the room, during which deputy Marshal Phillips and others exclaimed, “Hush!” “Shame!” &c.]

This outburst has been republished in at least two books since then, giving Maria Branson some level of infamy. Unfortunately, she also disappears from the historical record at this point. Whether the three years of prison she was sentenced to caused her to reform, or if she kept up her wicked ways under another name, we will probably never know.

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