Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Black Maria

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 8, 2014

In some circles, Black Maria is a form of whist in which players avoid winning tricks containing hearts or the queen of spades, but in other circles, Black Maria is a police van used for transporting prisoners. Black Maria is also referred to as Mother’s Heart because no matter how many are already in the van, there’s always room for one more.

On July 10, 1931, the Canberra Times carried a brief description of how the Black Maria came to be. The paragraph at the bottom of page 3 read:

The expression “Black Maria” with application to a prison van originated in America over 60 years ago. A big negro woman called Maria Lee kept a seaman’s “lodging-house” in Boston. the men were usually unruly and Maria was often called upon to help to get them under lock.

Travelling back twenty years, the Lodi Sentinel edition of October 22, 1912 attributed Black Maria to an African-American woman living in Boston, MA during Colonial times. Allegedly, it all began when Maria brought three drunken sailors to the lockup all at the same time because they were too much trouble to keep in her boarding-house. And the story goes that she became of greater and greater help to the police, especially when sailors in the area got so out of hand that even the police couldn’t subdue them. The article states this:

Few people know of Black Maria Lee as the boarding-house keeper of Colonial days, but she handed her name down as a menace to the vicious of future generations, in the modern jail wagon. To “send for the black maria” is as much of a threat now as it was in Maria Lee’s times.

A decade before that on January 31, 1902 the Amador Ledger carried the story about Black Maria. Also a brief story, it read thusly:

The following is given as the origin of the term “Black Maria.” When New England was filled with emigrants from the mother country, a negress named Maria Lee kept a sailors’ boarding house in Boston. She was a woman of great strength and helped the authorities to keep the peace. Frequently the police invoked her aid, and the saying, “Send for Black Maria,” came to mean, “Take him to jail.” British seamen were often taken to the lockup by this amazon, and the stories they spread of her achievements led to the name of Black Maria being given to the English prison van.

But that explanation disappears completely and is actually dispelled in the monthly magazine, The Guardian” in the February 1859 edition. The magazine was devoted to “the social, literary, and religious interests of young men and ladies.” when the editor, Reverend H. Harbaugh, wrote:

What do we mean by Black Maria? That is a proper question, and it shall be answered. It is not a colored woman, as the reader perhaps hastily supposed, that is to form the subject of our present article.

Not to prolong suspense we will at once proceed to define. Black Maria is the name given to a certain strangely constructed vehicle, used in some of our larger town and cities to convey prisoners from the prison to the court house and back again.

The editor’s research indicated that Mary (or Maria) in Hebrew meant bitterness, and then offered his opinion that “he who rides in [the police wagon] was made in the image of God, and designed for a better end.” By choosing the ways of crime, the accused, riding in disgrace through the streets courtesy of the Black Maria, was surely bitter about his disgrace of riding in the Black Maria.  The wagon, of course, was painted black hence the color reference.

According to the St. Louis Police Veteran’s Association website run by the City of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in Missouri, the City of Saint Louis Police Department purchased its first Black Maria in 1850 because it was too difficult for patrolmen to walk their suspects back and forth to jail.  It was a horse-drawn carriage, also painted black, with the carriage acting as a secure prison cell complete with iron bars on the windows and doors. Years later, on April 9, 1866, another Black Maria was purchased, and the idiom is used in the minutes of the board meeting of the St. Louis Board Of Police Commissioners.

In “The Knickerbocker” also known as the “New-York Monthly Magazine” in Volume 17 which was published in June of 1841, the magazine included a story entitled, “The American At Home: A Ride In An Omnibus.”  The story included this passage:

One of them I knew; and a better patriot, when he is not drunk, is not to be found in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. At the east wing was standing, pensive and melancholy, the Automedon of ‘Black Maria,’ the equipage used in carrying criminals to court and thence to their prisons, melancholy, no doubt, in apprehension of being turned out of office. These are fearful times! This public functionary is in the thief-taking line, and doubtless, availing himself of his official influence, has been meddling in politics, thereby subjecting himself to the displeasure of government. His black wagon stands just underneath the Philosophical Society, a conspicuous figure in the group; bearing about the same relation to the other equipages as the hangman to the rest of the community.

It’s a fact that magistrates Sir John Gonson, Sir Thomas De Veil, and, Henry and John Fielding were responsible for creating the first professional police and justice system in England in 1720. This resulted in a number of horse and foot patrols, at night and during the day, and this police presence deterred most criminals for committing crimes. Fifty years later, the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 was responsible for the creation of seven police offices, and each office had three stipendiary magistrates plus six constables responsible for detecting and arresting criminals. Then in 1800, the Thames Police Office at Wapping opened with three stipendiary magistrates and one hundred constables.

With the passage of Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, the concept of policing was firmly entrenched in England. When the second Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1839, constables were no longer employed by the magistrates, and became a police organization instead. Somewhere between 1839 and 1841, police wagons came into use to aid officers on foot and horse patrol.

Idiomation therefore places believes it is reasonable to peg the idiom Black Maria to 1840, between the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 and the publication of the story on published in June of 1841 in the Knickerbocker magazine.

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