One of the most scandalous cases in the summer of 1836 in New York City involved a wallet-snatching black prostitute who went by the name Mary Jones…but was later revealed to be a man named Peter Sewally. Sewally’s trial proved to be a spectacle that resulted in a newspaper frenzy as the competing papers New York Herald and New York Sun tried to out-do each other over reporting the most lurid details about Sewally and his transgressive deception. Sewally’s female image was also published as a popular lithography by yellow paper publisher H.R. Robinson (seen above). His case is a highlight in sex worker, queer, and African-American histories, and it all started on June 11th, 1836, when Robert Haslem reported his wallet being stolen while cruising the midnight alleyways of New York.
That night, Haslem, a white mason worker, approached Mary Jones for a tryst, which took place on Greene Street, then known as a site for prostitution. After the encounter, Haslem realized on his way home that his wallet with $99 dollars missing, replaced by an empty one with a bank receipt. He tracked down the owner of this wallet the next day, who denied being the thief but mentioned that his wallet, too, was stolen by Mary Jones the night before. Both men then went to the police and hatched a plot with Constable Bowyer to capture the thief in the act.
That evening, Bowyer went in search of Mary Jones and spotted her, where he was then propositioned to follow her to Greene Street. At her apartment, he arrested her and numerous empty wallets were found. Upon searching her, Bowyer then discovered that Mary Jones was, in fact, not a woman at all.
Five days later, Sewally was brought to court for grand larceny. Interestingly enough, despite being a a male prostitute, Sewally was not charged with sodomy. Could it be that Haslem denied the type of relations he had with Sewally? Possibly, but from what the papers reported, another explanation arose involving Sewally tricking his clients into thinking they were engaged in sex with a woman by using two appropriately-placed slabs of meat under his skirt; from then on, the public dubbed Sewally “Beefsteak Pete.”
During the trial, Sewally came dressed as a woman, much to the uproar of the courts. He then continued to defend his cross-dressing lifestyle as being encouraged and accepted in his own community. In a rare historical account from a queer sex worker of color, Sewally explained in court records:
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 &c and they induced me to dress in Women’s Clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own Colour dressed in this way — and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way —
During the sensationalism of the trial, lithographer and yellow paper printer H.R. Robinson, known for his tabloid-esque illustrations (earlier that year he had printed a lithograph illustrating a news story about a murdered prostitute by showing her topless in bed), came up with a lithograph for Peter Sewally: the image he titled “The Man-Monster.” Most tellingly, the image is a tastefully done illustration of someone who appears to be a black gentlewoman; it is only the caption below that would reveal the image to be provocative as a cross-dressing man.
After the trial, Sweally was sentenced to five years in state prison. Years later, reports of later arrests of “Beefsteak Pete” were recorded in 1845 and 1846, but there is no further mention of what happened to Sewally later on in life.
Professor Tavia Nyong’o, in his book, The Amalgamation Waltz, comments that what would’ve been seen as a shameful image in nineteenth-century America becomes transformed by Sewally’s testimony where “the queer subject transforms 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” (Nyong’o, 88). Peter Sewally, by defending his cross-dressing in court by explaining how his female identity was encouraged by his fellow black prostitutes and accepted in the African-American community, reveals a supportive side to a stigmatized community that was previously unknown to the white public. In turn, despite the lithographs of Sewally parodizing him by portraying him as an image of excessive feminine respectability, Sewally’s image in the American racial imagination has radically changed from a position of sensationalism and shame to a figure of black and queer pride, being displayed in both fine art and as tattoos, such as Lezley Saar’s painting “The Con Art of Peter Sewally.”
A detailed history of Peter Sewally’s story see: Peter Sewally – Mary Jones, June 11, 1836 by Jonathan Ned Katz
Tavia Nyong’o. The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (University of Minnesota Press, 2009).