City Cast

These Prisoners Lived Where the Supreme Court Stands

Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Posted on August 7
The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court sits on a spooky history. (Getty Images/joe daniel price)

D.C. has been flexing its courtroom muscles this past week as local Judge Tanya S. Chutkan oversees former President Trump’s indictment hearing. But you’re getting enough of that elsewhere. So instead, I’d like to turn your attention to the courthouse down the street, with its unexpected connection to justice.

The land beneath the Supreme Court has a long and sordid history, as a temporary Capitol (when the British burned down the real one in the War of 1812), a boarding house, and then… a prison.

JoAnn Hill, author of “Secret Washington DC” says that during the Civil War, “Confederate soldiers were coming in. Generals were coming in. And they ended up turning [the boarding house] into a prison called the Old Capitol Prison.”

Rose O'Neal Greenhow and her daughter Rose

Rose O'Neal Greenhow and her daughter Rose, photographed at Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. in 1862.  [Mathew Brady Studio/National Portrait Gallery]

A lot of influential people ended up being imprisoned at the Old Capitol Prison. One of the most well-known was socialite Rose O’Neal, whose covert action helped hand the Confederacy their victory at First Bull Run. Even after Rose was arrested, she and her daughter continued to write and send coded messages from prison.

Another Confederate spy, Belle Boyd would communicate with her supporters by sewing messages into rubber balls and tossing them out her window. “The guards, all men, didn't think anything of it, but she was actually relaying information,” Hill told us. Needless to say, security wasn't the tightest back then.

After the Civil War, the prison was turned into row houses. Then finally in 1929, the ground was cleared to make way for the Supreme Court building we have today.

Want more dark and weird D.C. history facts? We have a whole podcast episode for you!

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