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No, not election-related!

Put a bunch of high school students into the National Archives, focus them on Record Group 393, Part 1, volume 298, and sit back and watch.

The results are priceless.

And, among other things, a clear indicator of the way that history can be taught that isn’t just a dull-as-dishwater list of names and dates and places.

The program is called THATClass (The Humanities And Technology Class). It’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational outreach organization based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area that started with partnerships among teachers, students, local archives and experts, and a question: “What if we replaced the textbook curriculum with archival materials?”1

And the projects the students have undertaken have been amazing.

They have looked at the back alleys of Washington, D.C. — the history of alley life in Northwest Washington, D.C. from 1865 to 1935.2

They have looked at the 1968 riots in Washington, D.C., producing the largest digital collection of materials related to the riots yet available.3

But The Legal Genealogist knows you will understand if I focus on another of their projects.

THATclassThe Bawdy House project.4

Yep.

Bawdy houses.

It started with the realization that the Civil War Washington website had an interactive map that displayed the bawdy houses of the Civil War era, and it had the names of the owners — but nothing more than that.

So the students took it the next step. They found, first, a Special Order during the Civil War: Special Order 107 (April 18, 1862), calling for regulation of the houses, including an inventory and subsequent raids (May 2, 1862 and 1864). That was in Record Group 393: the Records of United States Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920.

From the register of bawdy houses created as a result, the students went on to locate and digitize the court records from Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States.

And these records are now online for anyone to read and use.

You can see how Ellen Dean, alias Ellen Wolf, alias Ellen Reynolds, was charged in April 1864 with keeping a bawdy house: the indictment itself is available online.

You can see how the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia issued a warrant for her arrest on the 14th of April 1864.

You can see how Lizzie Brown and Kate Mullen and Mary Jane Smith were summoned as witnesses.

And you can read about her: “Ellen Wolfe, or Ellen Wolf, was born in 1822 and wound up becoming a very successful and active prostitute and bawdy house owner throughout the Civil War era. Her bawdy house was infamously known as the ‘Wolf Den’. She was affiliated with a number of fellow prostitutes and bawdy owners, and has been arrested several times.”

You can see the records of the cases against Nelly Matthews (“It was a common trend back then to slightly alter your name to confuse the authorities, and Nellie Matthews was one of those women”), and Sally Austin (“one of the longest lasting bawdy house owners during the Civil War, being featured in city directories and court cases in all four years between 1862 and 1865”), and Mary Ann Hall (“Arguably the most successful bawdy-house owner and prostitute in the early 1860s, Mary Ann Hall’s estate was worth what is today’s equivalent of about $1.9 million”).

The students combined newspaper research, court records, city directories and more to put together a thoroughly entertaining — and scholarly — online map-driven presentation.

It’s wonderful.

We focus so much on hands-on education in sciences, technology and math.

These kids show what can happen when we focus on hands-on education in our own history.

It’s wonderful.

And it’s something we need so much more of.

Kudos to the students, their teachers, and the sources of their funding, including the D.C. Public Library.

What a great project…


SOURCES

  1. About,” THATClass.org (http://www.thatclass.org/ : accessed 7 Sep 2016).
  2. See Life in the Alley (http://www.lifeinthealley.org/ : accessed 7 Sep 2016).
  3. See “Uncovering the 1968 Riots in Washington, D.C.,” THATClass.org (http://www.thatclass.org/ : accessed 7 Sep 2016).
  4. See “Downtime & Debauchery in Civil War Washington,” THATClass.org (http://www.thatclass.org/ : accessed 7 Sep 2016).
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