• Justine McLellan

Mary Jones The Scammer

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

June 1836, New York City. A white mason named Robert Haslem approached a back sex worker, Mary Jones, for a tryst. They had sex in an alley, and after Mary left, Robert realized that his wallet had been stolen and replaced by someone else’s, which contained a receipt. He tracked down the owner of the wallet, and convinced him to report Mary to the police.

That night, a police officer, Boyer, was posing as a John and got propositioned by Mary. He followed her to her apartment, where he arrested her upon finding numerous empty wallets. Upon searching her, he discovered that she had a penis, and that her legal name was Peter Sewally. Mary was apparently tricking her clients into thinking they were fucking a cis woman by using two carefully placed slabs of meat under her skirt. Word got out about Mary’s sexual innovation, and Sewally was dubbed “Beefsteak Pete.” Tavia Amolo Ochieng' Nyongó notes that:

having persuaded men through guile to imagine and enjoy a surrogate ‘vagina,’ [Jones] was obliged to ‘wear’ this exposed fiction publicly as a sobriquet, notoriety ensuring that even in a city of strangers, his anatomical reputation would precede him.”

At her trial, Mary testified:

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 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 trial, Jones appeared in court “à la mode de New York, elegantly, in perfect style.” A newspaper sarcastically derided Jones’s look, stating that “his or her dingy ears were decked with a pair of snow-white ear rings, his head was ornamented with a wig of beautiful curly locks, and on it was a guilt comb, which was hid amidst the luxuriant crop of wool.”

The femme street based sex worker of color accused of thievery stood no chance of being found innocent; Jones was convicted of grand larceny and imprisoned for five years. According to Tavia Amolo Ochieng' Nyongó, after being released, Jones “continued to circulate in Black New York for many years […] and studies of subsequent periods confirm the presence and popularity of drag balls in urban black centers into the early twentieth century.”


Tavia Amolo Ochieng' Nyongó's "The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory"

Michael Lyons' "Mary Jones, patron saint of the scam"

©2019 by Kaytlin Bailey and Justine McLellan.