Gender Bending in 19th Century New York

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.

Lithograph issued by Henry R. Robinson. The Man - Monster. Artist unknown. Museum of the City of New York. 95.54.11.

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:

Peter Sewally – Mary Jones, June 11, 1836

City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920

2 responses to “Gender Bending in 19th Century New York

  1. His situation 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 occurred on Greene Street, then known as a website for prostitution. After the meeting, Haslem understood on his way home that his wallet with $99 dollars missing, replaced by an empty one with a bank receipt.

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