On Friday, April 4, I went down to the 2014 Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) Conference in Pennsylvania to preside over a panel I developed titled “Race, Sex, Class, and Bawdy-House Life in 19th Century America.” The panel examined American life during the 19th century, focusing on increased anxieties about race, sex, class, immigration, expansion, urbanization, and industrialization as reflected in novels, short stories, newspapers, and illustrated magazines.
In the 19th century, population growth led by immigration and westward expansion created rapid development of cities in the East and in the West. With this influx came a surge in building construction as well as rooming-house living. Further, additional inducements for the new city dwellers included easier access to drugs, prostitution, gambling, and other temptations. The panel explored 19th century print culture to show how it reflected, as well as responded to, the era’s anxieties about race, sexuality, and class.
The purpose of my paper, “Illustrating Prostitution in Antebellum New York: ‘Loathsome Spectacles,’” was to frame the ongoing critical conversation about urban anxieties and ambivalence regarding the foregoing. This idea of the “loathsome spectacle” was utilized to describe all those who transgressed the paradigms of virtue and respectability promoted by conduct manuals and religious tracts of the time. Drunkards were viewed with contempt, and prostitutes, whose trade was certainly plied amidst the respectable middle class, including, of course, newspapermen, were similarly and hypocritically scorned.
I spoke about three cases that came to public attention in 1836. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, published in January of that year, was a sensational story—a lurid exposé of nuns forced into sex with priests, pregnant nuns whose babies were birthed, baptized, and then strangled and buried in a lime pit in the basement of the convent hospital. This notorious text fueled already strong anti-Catholic sentiment, even when Monk’s “disclosures” were proven to be untrue. I also touched on the case of Helen Jewett, a sex worker who was murdered in April of 1836 by a client/paramour named Richard Robinson (later acquitted), in one of the most sensational and, of course, widely illustrated stories of the time.
The other part of my presentation focused on the story of Peter Sewally, a black, transgender prostitute, whose case excited both the derision and the fascination of the public, and where race, sex, and class intersected in a spectacular way. In June of 1836, in Greenwich Village, Sewally, wearing women’s clothing and using one of his many aliases (Mary Jones), had stolen money from a client—a white laborer named Robert Haslem—after a sexual assignation.
Sewally is arrested for grand larceny, and during a body search, it is discovered that he is not biologically female. The ensuing trial provided even more sensational fodder for the newspapers. It turns out that Sewally had created a makeshift vagina from two pieces of meat, which she held between her thighs under her dress, and which fooled clients into thinking they were having sex with a woman. Her nickname during the trial was “Beefsteak Pete!”
In addition, Sewally defiantly and proudly attended his trial in women’s clothing, explaining that he was “induced” to dress in female attire by other prostitutes. After the trial, he was convicted and sentenced to five years at Sing Sing. In The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory, Tavia Nyong’o writes of the acceptance that this black, transgender prostitute found in his community—among other sex workers as well as his own black community.
Peter Sewally was called a “Man-Monster” in the famous lithograph that was sold during the trial, and which I have reproduced here. On the contrary, this is no monster—Peter Sewally looks quite fetching!
The other panelists, Theresa Vara Dannen (“Women as a Force for Social Change: Interracial Marriages in 19th Century Connecticut”), Hannah Ruehl (“The Industrial Age Amateur in Life in the Iron Mills: A Reprimand”) and William Mark Poteet (, “Huck Finn Returns: The Influence of Lighting Out for the Territory on Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware”) presented wonderful work as well—it was an exciting evening!