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Grover Cleveland could see brothels from his White House window

An illustration of Grover Cleveland, looking suspicious.
An illustration of Grover Cleveland, looking suspicious.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Prostitution, heavy drinking, and general carousing were big issues in the 1890s United States. So big, in fact, that they were easily visible from the White House.

The red-light district in Washington, DC, called Hooker's Division, even had its own seedy map. This one warns that Grover Cleveland was within sight — and gunshot — of these "bawdy houses."

Hooker's Division, visible from the White House.

Hooker's Division, visible from the White House. (Library of Congress)

Contrary to popular myth, the seedy district isn't the only reason "hooker" became a slang term for prostitute. But it definitely helped make the term more popular.

How Hooker's Division took over Washington, DC

A portrait of General Hooker. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

A portrait of General Hooker. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Hooker's Division got its name from General "Fightin' Joe" Hooker, the Civil War general who earned a reputation for drinking and (according to some sources) carousing with prostitutes.

His men had similar reputations. Hooker's DC headquarters were called, by contemporary sources, "a combination of barroom and brothel." The rumors about the regiment vary wildly: some say the men just drank heavily at night, while others say prostitutes followed them wherever they went, earning them the nickname "Hooker's Army."

Regardless, Hooker's military headquarters in Washington became notorious. After the Civil War ended, the area's many existing brothels and bars continued to operate, and Washington's poor moved into the area. It quickly became known as Murder Bay (because of, as you may have guessed, all of the murders). But it also retained its nickname as Hooker's Division. Hard drinking and prostitution flourished.

Today the area is known as Federal Triangle, and it consists of office buildings. But the name Hooker's Division still remains influential today.

So is that where the slang term "hooker" comes from?

One thing's important to state clearly: Fightin' Joe Hooker is not where the slang term "hooker" originally came from. But it may be part of the reason the term became so popular.

David Gold's Studies of Etymology and Etiology provides a thorough history of "hooker." It's impossible to find a definitive source for the word, but we do know that it was used before the Civil War. Possible sources include:

  • Corlear's Hook in Manhattan, which was one of Manhattan's red-light districts. The term "hooker" was used in connection with this area as early as the 1830s.
  • Fells Point in Baltimore, another seedy area called "the Hook."
  • The derivation came from someone who "hooked" her clients.
  • It came from an English hooker, an old and clumsy ship.

We can't know which of these explanations is true, though we do have citations that the term appeared well before the Civil War. However, for about half a century, Hooker's Division in Washington was synonymous with brothels. That undoubtedly popularized the word and gave it longevity that it might not have otherwise enjoyed. The nation's capital had a highly visible hooker problem.

So visible, in fact, that Grover Cleveland could see it from his window.