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Forgotten Foremothers: Mary Jones

Kathryn S. Gardiner  | Published on 12/11/2020

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women's rights

In 1836, Mary Jones entered a courtroom charged with grand larceny. The audience mocked and laughed at her, even pulling her wig from her head. In her testimony, we hear the words of the first Black transwoman in recorded New York history.


“I have been in the practice of waiting upon girls of ill fame and made up their beds and received the company at the door and received the money for rooms,” she said, speaking of her experience as a sex worker. “[T]hey induced me to dress in women’s clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties of people of my own colour dressed in this way – and in New Orleans I always dressed this way.”


To explore the history of individuals who have been overlooked or oppressed by our culture is to confront outdated labels, terms that have become slurs, and documents full of inhumane phrasing and rhetoric. An equal challenge is that we cannot know what pronouns and self-labels historical persons would have used for themselves. This is most certainly the case with Mary Jones, who was born Peter Sewally. As Mary seems to have dressed as a woman and presented herself as a woman in her everyday life and throughout her trial, it seems appropriate to use she/her pronouns, but it must be noted that this is a choice by this author and not one confirmed by the individual in question.  


Mary Jones was born on Dec. 12, 1803. Nearly nothing is known of her life before her 1836 arrest and what we do know comes from her court testimony.

On Tuesday, June 11, 1836, a white man named Robert Haslem solicited Mary's services. Upon returning home Haslem discovered that his wallet had been replaced with that of another man. He tracked down this other man and learned that he, too, had been Mary's client but had not wanted to pursue the crime for fear of exposing his own sexual activities. Haslem had no such concerns: he reported the crime to a constable who arrested Mary Jones that very night. The authorities searched Mary, finding more stolen wallets and discovering that Mary had been assigned male at birth.



H.R. Robinson.  "Illustration of Mary Jones (1838)."  Drawing.  1836.  Digital Transgender Archive,  https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/q237hs14t  (accessed December 11, 2020).



Newspapers coverage was, like the courtroom audience, insensitive and sensational. A published lithograph dubbed her “The Man-Monster” and the Sun described her in predatory terms, writing that Mary “generally promenades the street, dressed in a dashing suit of male apparel, and at night prowls...in the disguise of a female, for the purpose of enticing men into the dens of prostitution, where he picks their pockets if practicable, an art in which he is a great adept.”


Mary pled not guilty and spoke on her behalf. “I have been in the state service,” she told the jury, referencing her time in the military and likely seeking mercy. It’s difficult to imagine any jury having much understanding for a Black, queer, gender-nonconforming person in 1836; Mary’s jury certainly did not. She was sentenced to five years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

Her name appears in the papers again in 1845 when the Commercial Advertiser reported her as a “villainous character” who was “perambulating the streets in women’s attire.” A year later, the New York Herald reported on her second arrest, calling her “a notorious black rascal who dresses in female attire and parades about the street.” She was sentenced to Sing Sing for another five months, this time for crossdressing. She disappears from history following this second release from prison.


These few records of Mary’s life and the lithograph which endures as the only image of her have been preserved by the Digital Transgender Archive, a site dedicated to preserving the long, often deliberately obscured history of trans people around the world. Author Travia Nyong’o, who wrote The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory, says this of Mary: She “[transformed] shame and stigma not by transcending them or repressing them but by employing them as resources in the production of new modes of meaning and being.” Filmmaker Tourmaline created “Salacia,” a short film based on Mary’s life. The film was commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum for a 2019 display and is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 


These may seem unexpected, even disproportionate tributes to a person whose life is a mystery but for these public and often cruel experiences. But Mary Jones stands as proof that, though our understanding of humanity and our words for describing it are ever evolving, the people who find comfort and recognition in terms like “trans” and “non-binary” have always been a part of this world. The words are new; the people have a long, vital history that is worth uncovering, learning, and protecting. 


References:

H.R. Robinson.  "Illustration of Mary Jones (1838)."  Drawing.  1836.  Digital Transgender Archive,  https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/q237hs14t  (accessed December 11, 2020).


"Mary Jones, 1836". 2014. Transas City. http://transascity.org/mary-jones-1836/.

Nyong’o, Tavia. The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.