Book Revisits ‘Dark’ D.C.

Posted May 16, 2003 at 2:32pm

Walking around Federal Triangle today, tourists are often haggled by entrepreneurs pushing CIA baseball caps and FBI shirts as they pass by the neoclassical New Deal-era government buildings. But 140 years ago, this area was a destination as well, only the entrepreneurs were selling wares of a different type.

The streets and alleyways of Civil War-era Federal Triangle were home to one of the city’s major districts of infidelity and vice, revelry and libertinism.

“For Members of Congress, members of the military, businessmen and bureaucrats it was perfectly acceptable to go to an exclusive house where they could be entertained and indulge their sexual appetites,” said former Rep. Bob Mrazek (D-N.Y.), the author of a new Civil War novel that shines light on a “dark” Washington long forgotten by popular history.

“Unholy Fire,” published by St. Martin’s Press, is a work of historical fiction that revolves around the experiences of a wounded soldier, John McKittredge, from Maine, who recuperates in Washington after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. McKittredge later works for the provost marshal general’s office, investigating the murder of a prostitute and the collusion between an Ohio Congressman and a top general in a war-supply profiteering scheme.

While a good portion of the action takes place outside Fredericksburg, Va., around the time of the December 1862 battle for the city, much of the storyline paints a detailed picture of Washington during war.

The residents of Federal Triangle — then widely known as Murder Bay — were the thousands of prostitutes, musicians, bar maidens, vamps and harlots, all involved in the pleasure and entertainment industry. The industry’s establishments were kept in line (and even officially rated) by the military — and exploited by one of its generals: the dashing but unapologetically chauvinist and notorious libertine Gen. Joseph Hooker.

Hooker’s name, not surprisingly, gave rise to the moniker attached to the women of the world’s oldest profession and a brothel district adjacent to Murder Bay called “Hooker’s Division,” approximately where the modern-day Old Post Office Pavilion and Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center are located.

In 1862, Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest was the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. To the north were the fashionable hotels — anchored by the famed Willard — shops, theaters and upscale houses of pleasure. To the south, wedged between the avenue and the stagnant, putrid Tiber Creek Canal (parallel to the modern-day Constitution Avenue) was overcrowded Murder Bay, with largely low-brow brothels, ramshackle rooming houses and seedy saloons.

“German, Irish, African, Chinese, Creole, Greek, Turkish … they say America has become the greatest melting pot of the world. When it comes to the flesh trade, that is definitely the case. Our whorehouses offer the purest democracy you can find,” Col. Val Burdette, a character in “Unholy Fire” says at one point in the book.

Although the idea of the book came about three years ago, Mrazek said he has been working on it for a “virtual lifetime.” Since he was 15, his interest in the Civil War has been “compulsive,” and his interest in Washington’s history only grew when he served in the House from 1983 to 1993.

“Maybe the best perk for me in the House was that you had privilege to roam the [Library of Congress] stacks,” he said. “There is one floor in the Jefferson Building that has an acre and a half of Civil War books.”

Mrazek even had a study area at the Library. “I would bring books back and read to my heart’s content,” he said.

His first book, “Stonewall’s Gold,” won the Michael Shaara Prize in 1999 for best Civil War novel.

While he was in the House, Mrazek co-authored the law to preserve the Civil War battlefield at Manassas in Prince William County, Va., which was threatened with encroaching suburban development.

Besides Civil War preservation causes, Mrazek’s other policy interests today are mainly limited to environmental ones, including Alaskan wilderness preservation, which will occasionally bring him to the nation’s capital to lobby.

But most of his time is devoted to writing and researching from his base in Ithaca, N.Y.

Mrazek said he believes “Unholy Fire” balances a good story line with historical accuracy.

“I would hope as a writer of historical fiction to have anyone who read my books feel very confident that, in terms of time, place and mood, this book is unscrupulously accurate. Obviously it is fiction, but it has a very compelling storyline where anybody would feel that I was there. It is Washington in 1862,” he said.

Today, there is little trace of the brothels and saloons of the city’s downtown and surrounding districts. Government and commercial buildings line Pennsylvania Avenue and the streets off it. The triumphant monuments remembering the era are reserved for its victorious Union generals, not the women who entertained them.

But there is one monument downtown that is a symbolic reminder of Washington’s salacious past. At the corner of Indiana Avenue and Seventh Street Northwest, across from today’s Navy Memorial, is a simple and unassuming nonfunctioning fountain inscribed with the word “Temperance.”

Erected in 1882, it was built by a temperance promoter and wealthy San Francisco dentist named Henry Cogswell at the edge of Washington’s then-waning red-light entertainment district. By that time, Pennsylvania Avenue had been paved, fine office buildings had begun to rise above its sidewalks and the memories of the capital’s former dominant commercial interest were fading.

“Today, we look at [the Civil War] as an innocent time,” Mrazek said of the nation’s armed struggle over state’s rights and abolition.

Despite the seriousness of the war, “The sex industry was really a thriving industry in Washington,” Mrazek said, adding that “very few people today realize that.”