Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
In the summer of 1836 in New York City, a white man named Robert Haslem met a black woman named Mary Jones on Bleecker Street. The two proceeded down Greene Street (now approximately Minetta Street), where they became intimate. On his way home, Haslem noticed that his wallet was missing; in its place was another man’s wallet. Haslem tracked down the man, who admitted to also having relations with Mary Jones, but was unwilling to report the theft of his wallet to the police. Haslem disclosed his story to the police and an officer went in search of Mary Jones. The officer found her and feigned interest. When she led him down Greene Street and initiated contact, he arrested her. He continued his investigation by searching her and discovered, to his shock, that Mary Jones was actually a man.
Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones, lived and worked at a Greene Street brothel as a domestic worker. He donned female attire while at the brothel, claiming that the customers enjoyed his feminine appearance. The police officer searched Jones’s room and found more men’s wallets. Sewally had been supplementing his income by dressing as Mary Jones and pickpocketing the men with whom he had encounters.
Sewally was charged with grand larceny and forced to appear in court as Mary Jones. This caused quite a stir among the media and the general public. Indeed, media accounts of Sewally’s trial focused more on his manner of dress than the crime he was charged with. The jury convicted Sewally and sentenced him to five years imprisonment at Sing Sing. Soon afterward, the lithograph above was published in New York City. Its sensational title, “The Man-Monster,” clashes with the graceful portrayal of Sewally clothed in a pretty dress.
For more information about Peter Sewally, please visit these websites: