The Bonkers Story Behind NYC’s First Red Light District

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Because I have fully transformed into suburban Dad mode over the course of the past year, I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. I also came to it in the most embarrassing of ways: It was one of the books that 22 different writers for the Times recommended that Biden read before taking office. (Look, I am who I am.)

Beyond the renderings of Washington in our general hagiography and from middle school American history, I didn’t really know that much about him. It turns out he got up with the sun each day (a farmer’s habit), once hunted down five bald eagles in an afternoon, had super bad hemorrhoids at once point, and was named after a relative that had shown his mother kindness after she’d become a widow. It’s a real rollercoaster!

One of my favorite aspects is reading about how completely arbitrary circumstances like illness and bad weather had to do with the colonies winning independence. (Hell yeah!) Several hundred pages ago, I learned about the Holy Ground, which figuratively and literally, nearly brought the Continental Army to its knees.

More difficult to supervise were men frequenting the Holy Ground, the notorious red-light district near the Hudson River where up to five hundred prostitutes congregated nightly on land owned by Trinity Church. Venereal disease raced through several regiments, threatening to thin their ranks before the enemy arrived. As William Tudor of Boston wrote home, “Every brutal gratification can be so easily indulged in this place that the army will be debauched here in a month more than in twelve at Cambridge.”

In short: Boston sucks, Derek Jetah rules, and the British held Manhattan basically throughout the entire war.

For more context on the Holy Ground, Cathleen Schine’s 2002 New Yorker piece covers the fascinating history of the site, upon which the World Trade Center was later built:

Convenient for the sailors and laborers who worked on the wharves and docks to the west, the Holy Ground was just a short stroll away for the students of King’s College and for the rich living in fine, new houses on Broadway and working near Wall Street.

To sum up my book report, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a good read if you really want to get your fingernails dirty about early American history. I give it five dead bald eagles on a scale of 1–5.

Happy Presidents Day!

Other media: Washington killed his sensei in a duel and never said why.

Journalist. Author of Drive-Thru Dreams. The Atlantic alum. Work in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Texas Monthly, and elsewhere.

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