19 Sep 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: A House of Ill Repute

Samuel Bieber

Last week, we ended our look at the old Tunnicliff’s building at 9th and Pennsylvania SE with the son of long-time owner William Easby selling the property back in 1857.

It is at this point that we, once again, pick up the tale. However, there is a bit of a gap, and it is not until 1862 that the building appears in the public record. But what an appearance it was! In an article published in the Daily National Republican with the wonderfully lurid title “A Den of Infamy Broken Up,” it reads,

For some time, a most abominable house of prostitution has been in full blast on the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and Ninth street east. The house has often been complained of as a filthy den, a rendezvous for the assemblage of the vilest characters of both sexes, and of the worst class of soldiers. The Provost Marshal was notified of the character of the house, and yesterday the infantry patrol, of the Tenth New Hersey, were ordered to break up the place. [There follows a list of those found there “in a drunken debauch”] They were all taken to the Central guard-house. Yesterday, the house was closed, the keys turned over to the Provost Marshal, and the girls given twenty-four hours to leave the city. The citizens were released, and the soldiers were turned over to the military authorities.

This was not quite the end of the story, as four months later another article appeared. This time, the Washington Evening Star has the scoop, entitled “At Their Old Tricks”

Monday, as Mr. John Hess, with other workmen, were in the “Brick” on Pennsylvania avenue near ninth street east, which he is fitting up as a lager-beer saloon, Annie Wilson and Cornelia Tyler, who were a short time since routed out by the police for keeping it as a house of ill fame, got in the building with some soldiers, and proceeded to ply their old vocation in the old place. Mr. Hess caught them in the act and knocked one of them down, and she had him arrested. Officer Williams took him before Justice Ferguson, who on hearing the evidence, immediately dismissed the case, remarking that he had done right.

A John Hess is listed as operating a restaurant at 10th and Pennsylvania SE in the 1864 city directory, but otherwise his mundane name makes it impossible to tell what he did – other than knocking down a lady of the night. The records become a little clearer the following year, when a Bertram Leins has an entry in the tax lists as a “Ret[ail] Liq[uor] Dealer” located at 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue, East. For the next ten years, this is also where the city directories place him, operating an establishment “Navy Gardens.”

An ad for Leins’ Navy Garden, which ran in the 1867 city directory (Archive.org)

Much more interesting is how Leins is portrayed in the press of the day. Unsurprisingly, the negative outweighed the positive, whether Leins was responsible or not. So, for instance, on December 5, 1869, Seligman Gans of Georgetown and his son-in-law Samuel Bieber (who you can see above) went to Leins’s establishment, ordered their Lagers and sat down. Gans, according to the Evening Star two days later, “took a few sips of beer, laid the glass upon the table, and fell heavily to the floor.” A doctor was called, but to no avail. All he could ascertain is that Gans had died of heart failure. The Star added that Gans’s life had been insured to the tune of $14,000.

Otherwise, Leins made his own share of troubles, failing to pay taxes, keeping his saloon open too late or on Sunday, losing his license and, predictably, being charged for selling liquor without a license. He also was ejected from a street car for having with him a bucket of sauerkraut. In this case, Leins fought back, demanding $10,000 in compensation for his troubles. He was eventually awarded $20.

Completely unsurprisingly, his property was sold at an auction late in 1874. Leins himself would die the following year.

Next week: More Beer Gardens!

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