Mary Jones (1803 – Unknown) was a New York old pro and hustler who was given the name Peter Sewally at birth. 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.
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 his grand larceny arrest in Manhattan. On the evening of June 11, 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 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 5 years in Sing Sing for the charges filed by Haslem. 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 6-month term.
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.
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.
Share this Old Pro story with your community on social media
Check out more episodes of The Oldest Profession Podcast
International Whores' Day Ceyenne Doroshow & Kaytlin Bailey in ConversationiTunes | Stitcher | Spotify On June 2nd, 1975 over 100 sex workers occupied the Church of Saint-Nizier in Lyon, France. They hung a banner which read "Our children do not want their mothers...
A Special Tribute to Margo St. JamesiTunes | Stitcher | Spotify Margo St. James, who founded the prostitutes’ rights organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and later the St. James Infirmary, passed away this year on January 11, 2021. As a tribute to...
Tina Horn iTunes | Stitcher | SpotifyTina Horn is a writer, teacher, and media-maker. Tina is the creator and writer of the sci-fi sex-rebel comic book series SfSx (Safe Sex) and the author of two nonfiction books and has contributed to or creative directed...