Mary Jones (1803 – Unknown) was a New York old pro and hustler who was given the name Peter Sewally at birth. Mary Jones was of African descent and much of her early life is lost to the archive, but newspaper records indicate that she spent much of her life as a prostitute, worked as a domestic laborer in bawdy houses, and was invisible to the public, with a brief moment of service in a state militia.
Mary Jones made her life and earnings in Lower Manhattan, donning male clothing during daylight hours and elegant women’s clothing at night. In 1836, her obscure life quickly became public after a grand larceny arrest in Manhattan.
On the evening of June 11, Mary Jones met Robert Haslem, a white man, on Bleecker Street and after a brief conversation, they moved to an alley off Greene Street to have sex. Haslem later discovered his wallet had been stolen, replaced with one belonging to another man. Haslem tracked down the wallet’s owner and out of fear of being exposed for solicitation, the man refused to report the incident to police. Haslem wasn’t nearly as secretive and filed charges against Mary Jones.
The sensational arrest and trial led to two new nicknames: “Beefsteak Pete,” because Mary Jones allegedly used slabs of beef to mimic a vagina, and “the Man-Monster,” but it isn’t clear if this name was in reference to her race, sexuality and sex work, or criminal activity, or a culmination of the three. Jones was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing for the charges filed by Haslem.
Mary Jones was released in 1841, continued engaging in sex work, and in 1846 was committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) before returning to prison for a six-month term. Mary Jones’ greatest contribution is likely her introduction into the archive, offering historians and activists a glimpse into the lives of old pros, transgender, and queer experiences in the early 19th century.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
Katz, Jonathan Ned. Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Katz chronicles intimacy between men in the 19th century and includes Mary Jones in his examination. An adapted article by Katz also appears on the OutHistory website accessible. Link to the source.
“‘Homosexual’ and ‘Heterosexual’: Questioning the Terms,” in A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Martin B. Duberman, ed. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Nyong’o, Tavia. The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Nyong’o’s work examines the performance of racial hybridity and ambiguity in the 19th century with a discussion of Mary Jones’s case.
Stephen A. Maglott, “Peter Sewally (Mary Jones),” The Ubuntu Biography Project, accessed October 26, 2020. Link to the source.
Brief biographical entry. The Ubuntu Biography Project is a digital encyclopedia that pays tribute to LGBTQ+ people of African descent.
“Conviction of Beefsteak Pete,” New York Herald, (May 13, 1848), Digital Transgender Archive, accessed October 21, 2020. Link to the source.
A newspaper clipping that includes an illustration of Mary Jones. The image is also available via the Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts digital collections. Link to the source.
“Beefsteak Pete Arrested,” in National Police Gazette, (April 3, 1858), accessed October 21, 2020. Link to the source.
Newspaper clipping about the arrest of “Beefsteak Pete.” This article indicates that he lived a decade after his release from Sing Sing.