The power to investigate is a central role played by Congress. House committees often call witnesses to testify in order to oversee the administration of government, to educate public opinion, and to inform the process of crafting new legislation. Occasionally, when the House weighs contempt-of-Congress charges against uncooperative witnesses, the Historian’s Office receives the question: where have contumacious witnesses, placed in the custody of the Sergeant at Arms, been imprisoned?
Some 19th-century press reports refer to the “Capitol Prison” or “Old Capitol Jail.” Actually, this brick building wasn’t administered by Congress, and was located a block east of the U.S. Capitol on the grounds of the modern Supreme Court Building. For much of its existence, the structure was not even a jail: Congress met there from late 1815 to 1819 as the Capitol underwent repairs after the British attack in 1814. At other times, it was a boarding house and a school. But during the Civil War the federal government used it as a prison to incarcerate spies (such as Mary Greenhow Lee), Confederate soldiers, and troublesome southern sympathizers. It was torn down in the 20th century to make way for the U.S. Supreme Court.
No evidence suggests that any room in the Capitol was ever designated for use as a jail. The handful of individuals the House has found to be in contempt and, thus, detained, were almost certainly held temporarily in the offices of the Sergeant at Arms, locked in committee anterooms, or put under guard at local hotels.
However, at least one individual—Hallet Kilbourn, a well-to-do real estate speculator—was remanded to the District of Columbia’s Common Jail. Kilbourn’s case provides an amusing and historically important example of an uncooperative witness.
In 1876, during the first session of the 44th Congress (1875–1877), the House created a select committee to investigate Jay Cooke & Company, a Philadelphia-based bank that failed spectacularly during the Panic of 1873. The U.S. was a major creditor and lost considerable money. The investigation of the “Select Committee on the Real Estate Pool and the Jay Cooke Indebtedness” stoked already inflamed public opinion in a presidential election year. The committee subpoenaed Kilbourn, manager of the bank’s highly speculative real estate scheme. When Kilbourn refused to answer committee questions or supply documents, the full House held him in contempt and turned him over to the Sergeant at Arms, John G. Thompson, who locked him up in the D.C. Common Jail.
During Kilbourn’s 21-day incarceration and for years after, the press swooned over his story. Thompson was responsible for Kilbourn's transportation to and from the jail (then two miles to the east of the Capitol near Congressional Cemetery) and for his food, catered by the House Restaurant. Aggrieved, and accustomed to hosting friends and clients lavishly, Kilbourn took revenge by ordering “the most sumptuous meals,” declared the New York Times, “frequently entertaining a number of visitors in princely style.” Kilbourn later admitted to sparing no expense: “I shouldn't wonder. I had distinguished visitors there and I entertained them as guests of the Nation.” Within days, he ran up a $488 tab (in modern dollars a roughly $12,000 bill) on wine, whiskey, oysters, broiled chickens, strawberries, and—the Times’ reporter gleefully noted—all manner of “other costly delicacies then out of season.”
When the Sergeant at Arms refused to pay the bill out of public funds, the manager of the privately-run House Restaurant sued Kilbourn for the cost and hired the lawyer Belva Ann Lockwood to argue the case before the D.C. circuit court. Separately, Kilbourn filed a lawsuit against Thompson for false imprisonment that went to the Supreme Court and became an important case limiting Congress’s contempt powers against private individuals.
In the end, though, the unpaid food tab case against Kilbourn was dismissed for lack of evidence, and the House Restaurant appears to have eaten the bill.
Sources: William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2001): 107–108; Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (28 March 1876): 2008–2020; Kermit L. Hall, ed., Oxford Companion to the United States Supreme Court, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 560; New York Times, January 7, 1878; New York Times, November 1, 1883; Washington Post, January 25, 1881.