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Black Maria

Q From David Hannah: What is the origin of Black Maria? The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Phrase & Allusion attributes it to a ‘brawny American negress’ who kept a boarding house in Boston. However, there was a play on BBC Radio 4 recently that suggests the origin lies in a lady who came to court in London wearing black dresses of exceeding splendour. Partridge refers to a story by Joseph C Neal, Peter Ploddy (1844). Can you shed some light on this matter?

A We can dispose of the fashionable London lady straightaway, as the expression for a police or prison van is quite certainly American in origin.

The Boston story is about Maria Lee, a large black woman who kept a boarding house in the 1820s with such severity that she became more feared than the police, who called on her to help them catch and restrain criminals. The story almost certainly became attached to her much later because she was well-known, black, and was named Maria, but there’s no evidence that she was actually the source of the name for the police vans. The first reference we have to such a vehicle in Boston is dated 1847, which might seem to be rather too long after her heyday for there to be a direct connection.

The book that Eric Partridge mentions is Peter Ploddy, and Other Oddities of 1844, by Joseph Clay Neal, a well-known American journalist and humorist of the period. It contains the story The Prison Van; or, The Black Maria, whose title was until recently thought to be the first known use of the term. In it, the author wrote: “In Philadelphia ... the popular voice applies the name of ‘Black Maria’ to each of these melancholy vehicles”.

However, we now know, as the result of research by George Thompson, that the term was in use in New York about a decade earlier, since the term was used in at least two newspaper reports, one of 1835 and the other of 1836. The former was in the New York Transcript of 24 Dec 1835 and said “A man named Henry Stage ... contrived to make his escape on Saturday last while on his way from Bellevue prison to the city in the carriage generally known as ‘Black Maria’ ”.

One sidelight on the term which many World Wide Words subscribers have pointed out is that it is universally pronounced /məˈraɪə/ Help with IPA (as in “I call the wind Maria”), and not the more common American /məˈriːə/ (as in “Ave, Maria”). This is probably a perpetuation in this fixed phrase of a way of saying the name that was once more common than it is now.

Douglas G Wilson has suggested a possible association with a famous black racehorse of the period, also named Black Maria, which was foaled in Harlem, New York, in 1826. She won many races (her purse winnings alone amounted to nearly $15,000, a very large sum for the period), but it seems that her most famous exploit was on 13 October 1832, when she won the race for the Jockey Club purse of $600 at the Union Course. In 1870, an article about her in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine noted that “The track was heavy, and yet, to achieve a victory, twenty miles had to be run. We wonder if there is a horse on the turf to-day that could stand up under such a performance as this?”.

The dates are highly suggestive. Here is a black racehorse whose most famous exploit is in New York in 1832, and only three years later her name is used for a police van in the same city. There can be no proof without further evidence — which may never be forthcoming — but like her many admirers, I’d put my money on her to be first past the post.

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Page created 27 Oct 2001