Blogging A-Z O Is For Old Capitol Prison

Whoa ho. We’re half way through the month. Apparently I don’t know how to write a short blog post. sigh.


During the war of 1812, the British burned the United States Capitol building in August, 1814. Congress built a Federal-style brick financed by Washington real estate investors as temporary quarters. The building became known as Old Brick Capitol in 1819 when Congress moved back to the refurbished Capitol.

It became a private school and then an upscale boarding house owned by Rose O’Neal’s aunt Maria Anna Hill. Rose was orphaned at a young age and went with her sister to live with her aunt in Washington at the boarding house. This boarding house was home to great politicians, military men, social giants, intellectuals who either lived or dined there. Rose grew up around some of the greatest minds of the time and learned to converse intelligently on a wide variety of subjects, including politics.

In addition to having a brilliant mind, quick wit, and devastating charm, Rose was also quite beautiful. Wild Rose traveled in the highest social circles. She pressed Congress to pension Dolly Madison, a friend who was living in near poverty. It was Rose who stayed with John C. Calhoun as he died at the boarding house.

Bookmark Wild Rose, we’ll be back.

In 1861, the government bought the building to turn into a prison for captured Confederates and political prisoners and it became Old Capitol Prison. At one time Federals packed 6,917 prisoners into the facility.

In May of 1861, Lincoln had the Baltimore, MD mayor, police chief, all the Board of Police, City Council,  and a sitting U.S. Congressman from Baltimore arrested without charges and sent to Old Capitol. The Chief Justice Of The Supreme Court ruled in June Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional, which Lincoln ignored. When Baltimore newspaper editor Frank Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key, criticized this in an editorial, he was imprisoned also. Ironically, he was imprisoned without trial for fourteen months in Ft. McHenry where his grandfather penned the Star Spangled Banner.

During all this, Wild Rose was running a very successful spy ring in Washington. She didn’t even bother to hide her loyalties. While she had been the political darling of the Buchanan administration, Mary Lincoln made no secret of her dislike.

On August 23, 1861 Rose was walking toward her home and noticed some men hanging about her stoop. She told a companion to keep watch and if she raised a handkerchief to her face to spread the word she was captured. Her instincts were correct. She swallowed a ciphered message she was carrying before the men could take control of her.

“Is this Mrs. Greenhow?” Allen Pinkerton asked.

“Yes,” said Rose. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“I come to arrest you.”

“By what authority?”

“By sufficient authority.”

“Let me see your warrant.”

He mumbled something about authority of the war department.

She whisked out her handkerchief to her face. “I have no power to resist you, but had I been inside my house, I would have killed one of you before I submitted to this illegal process.”

The men had hoped to take her quietly and trap any spies who came to the house, but Little Rose, Rose’s daughter, escaped and climbed the apple tree in the back yard. There she screamed as loudly as she could, “Mama’s been arrested! Mama’s been arrested!”

The Pinkerton men did eventually get the little spy out of the tree, but not before the entire neighborhood had been alerted.

Rose was kept under house arrest for a time and then transferred to Old Capitol Prison where she and Little Rose were held for five months. There never was a full trial, probably because too many politicians were at risk, so she was exiled to Richmond.

Old Capitol held a variety of famous prisoners including Belle Boyd, John Mosby, the members of the Lincoln assassination group, including wrongly accused John Ford, who owned Ford’s Theater.


  1. Wow!

    Okay, no surprise that someone who has a “brilliant mind, quick wit, and devastating charm,” oh and is also beautiful, would lead a spy ring.

    But isn’t it funny how she had a semi-elaborate scheme with her hankie over her face to indicate being captured and then her daughter climbed a tree and repeatedly announced the same thing! That was priceless.

  2. John, it really was funny when I read the memoir. Rose was trying to wave off her contact, but Little Rose was sending out the alarm loud and clear. The note she’d popped in her mouth for the contact had very important information, so she was trying to preserve it if she could.

    While I admire her in many ways, I also want to choke her. She probably could have operated for a long time if she hadn’t been so flagrant and was foolish enough to keep a list of all her contacts. Little Rose’s warning as well as the agent’s saved some, but several were rounded up. It was a devastating blow, but the information continued to flow.

    Thanks so much for coming by. I am late making the rounds. Uncle Sam and I have been arguing.

    1. There’s always another side of reality though, Julie. And you might have to reconsider the desire to choke her. It’s my experience that the traits that allowed Rose (and others like her) to be so successful at what she did were the same traits that she had to overcome and ultimately did her in. So without them she wouldn’t have been flagrant and foolish and gotten caught. But without them, she might also never have arrived at the place where she was so successful.

      But people don’t usually agree with me, so feel no need.

      1. Rose was a very forceful woman who greatly enjoyed the spotlight. She had always lived in it, entertained great men from all over the world. It amused her to thumb her nose at authority because she had friends in high places. After the first battle of Manassas and they realized stolen information had directly led to the rousing defeat, it was no longer a source of amusement. Men who might have helped her turned their back for fear of being arrested or having property confiscated.

        If she’d kept a lower profile as other more successful spies did, she might have kept operating the entire war. We know several spies were devastatingly effective and have yet have no idea who they were to this day because they remained so well hidden.

        Her biggest mistake was keeping a book with the names of all her contacts. Fifty plus names for the Federals to track down.

        Even so, she did operate a very good spy ring even after she was arrested. The boards on the window behind her were put up because she found a way to pass messages otherwise.

        She was without a doubt a remarkable woman and hailed as a hero in the south.

        You’re right, perhaps her flagrant disregard for common sense was part of her charm.

  3. This is truly fascinating stuff, Julie. Especially about Lincoln. I suppose he justified his rather unconstitutional methods by appealing to the war situation? It still seems a bit extreme, even given the hostilities.

  4. I agree with the other three: it’s captivating! I learned a lot of things. It’s nice to read about such a brave woman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *