Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 11, 2012
In June of 1900, the Montreal Star reported extensively on a strange, covered wagon which was regularly seen in the streets of the city during the late Victorian and early Edwardian Periods. Commonly known as the ‘Black Maria’, the horse drawn vehicle was used to transport prisoners from the various police precincts scattered throughout the municipality on their way to the historic jail at the ‘Pied du Courant’ prison complex.
The ‘Black Maria’ was also employed to carry those same offenders to and from their court appearances, more often than not at the Old Court House on the south side of Notre Dame Street in Old Montreal (today, the ‘Cour d’Appel du Québec’ Building).
While obviously most citizens had no personal connection with the conveyance in question, the ‘Black Maria’ was one of the veritable institutions of this city’s urban landscape for nearly half a century. It was, however, not unique to Montreal as it was also known in other jurisdictions as far off as Boston and London (England).
Recounted the Star in its June 30, 1900 edition: “In Montreal there have been about seven or eight ‘Black Maria’s’ since it was first introduced here. The one which is now used by the city is but a few years old. It is a massive concern holding when crowded about thirty people. There is a partition inside, which is movable so that specially sized room or compartments may be arranged according to whether or not there are more female prisoners than male. This does not frequently happen, the proportion as a rule being two men to one woman. There are no windows in the ‘Black Maria’, but small holes are so arranged that there is no inconvenience on the score of foul air. As soon as the prisoners are in, the door is closed and locked, not to be opened until the unfortunates are told to step out into the gaol yard, thence to the office, where they are registered previous to commencing a term under the guidance of Governor Vallee”.
As an aside, it should be noted that Charles–Amédée Vallee, who was the chief administrator of the ‘Pied-du-Currant’ Prison from 1891 until its closing in 1913, was also an intimate friend of Quebec Premier Honoré Mercier to whom he owed his appointment. It was Mercier who, in May of 1890, set aside the land for the future construction of Bordeaux Prison in the city’s north end. Later, the ‘Black Maria’ was often seen entering and leaving the new prison’s gates.
The origin of the designation ‘Black Maria’ is somewhat contentious. In its account, the Montreal Star maintained that the evocative name came from England some forty years earlier and was in honour of a particularly rambunctious and difficult prisoner of African – American origin. Yet, despite all her mischievousness, Maria was so popular with the authorities that when she died, it was decided to dub the vehicle ‘the Black Maria’ in her memory, or at least so the story went.
According to the same report, the epithet eventually made its way across the Atlantic to North America where it first took hold in New York City and spread from there to the various police departments around the continent.
Other sources place the nickname’s origin much earlier – at about 1835. Interestingly, it was almost certainly pronounced ‘mah-RYE-ah’ in the nineteenth century fashion as opposed to the now very common pronunciation of ‘mah-REE-ah’ with which we are all very familiar.
Regardless as to the enunciation, individuals were given a free ride in the Black Maria to the city jail at ‘Pied-du-Courant’ for multiplicity of reasons. Indeed, the miscreants constituted quite a mixed bag.
For instance, the prison’s report for the year 1906 indicated that at the end of that year there were some 274 men and 112 women incarcerated within the structure’s stonewalls, 386 in all, in a building meant to house only 225. Amongst the misfortunate inmates, there were to be found a variety of professions – from lawyers to barbers, carpenters to hotelkeepers, etc.
There was also a great assortment of ages, including twelve fifteen-year-olds serving their time in the distinct company of hardened criminals.
Despite their diversity, however, they all shared one thing in common – all were taken to their internment in the notorious ‘Black Maria’.