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shameless pleading

Black Maria/Paddy wagon

You have the right to remain flummoxed.

Dear Word Detective: I have seen the term “The Black Maria” referred to in terms of what we call a “paddy wagon” here in the States. However, I also recall reading this same description in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books referring to a black car used by the KGB or police to secretly take away prisoners in the middle of the night. I’ve always wondered where that term came from, and thought you might enlighten me. — John Moffo.

Hmm. Interesting. My spell-checker is fine with “Solzhenitsyn,” but chokes on your last name, Moffo, which you share with the late great Italian-American operatic soprano Anna Moffo. I find my spell-checker’s choices fascinating. It’s like having a little person living inside my computer deciding whether people, places and things are famous enough to pass muster. The rest of the time, of course, the machine is as stupid as a toaster.

A “Black Maria” is, as you say, a police van or similar conveyance used to transport prisoners to jail or to court appearances, and it’s worth noting at the outset that “Maria” in this case is usually pronounced “mah-RYE-ah,” as was common in the 19th century, rather than “mah-REE-ah.” Then again, “usually” is a bit of a stretch, because I haven’t heard the term spoken aloud in decades. “Paddy wagon” is far more common.

As is common when phrases involve personal names, a number of theories have been proposed tracing “Black Maria,” which first appeared in print around 1835, to actual people named Maria. Michael Quinion, at his World Wide Words website (, mentions two such theories suggested by his readers. One, centering on an upper-class woman in 19th century London who was known for wearing splendid black dresses, fails on the simple fact that “Black Maria” is indisputably of American origin. The other, of a large African-American woman named Maria who ran a Boston boarding house and assisted the police in apprehending fugitives, is too cute for my taste and, more importantly, doesn’t explain why the term first appeared in New York City.

The most credible theory yet advanced of the origin of “Black Maria” does tie the phrase to an actual “Maria,” but not a human one. “Black Maria” was a famous racehorse of the day, born in Harlem in 1826, whose exploits were widely celebrated in the newspapers. It seems entirely plausible that the name of the horse thereafter would be sardonically applied to the police carriages, usually colored black, which swiftly transported miscreants to jail.

Incidentally, “paddy wagon” takes its name from “Paddy,” a familiar form of the name Patrick (from the Irish form, Padraic or Padraig), which was used in early 20th century America as a derogatory term for Irish immigrants. One might assume that this use is similarly derogatory, referring to a supposed propensity of Irish-Americans to be arrested, but big city police forces of the period were themselves composed largely of Irish-Americans, so the term may well have simply referred to a wagon driven by “the paddies,” i.e., the police.

20 comments to Black Maria/Paddy wagon

  • Yours is a quote for all times:

    “It’s like having a little person living inside my computer deciding whether people, places and things are famous enough to pass muster. The rest of the time, of course, the machine is as stupid as a toaster.”

    “…the machine is as stupid as a toaster.”

    I think it neatly replaces the very old adage: “The only real use for a computer is to tie a rope on it and use it as an anchor.”

    Nice turn of the phrase, writer.

    It reminds us to always respect the tool as just what it is. Like a hammer or a screwdriver or a toaster it will not last forever, it is useful in VERY specific instances and is usually (at a cost)replaceable.

    Tool. Tool. Tool. Nothing more.

    Data is something else, of course, but is even more ephemeral than hardware. Data simply equals money, and as the financial system keeps reminding us money is quite ephemeral.

    Just a thought.

    Sincerely yours,
    Mike Maddux

    P.S. Best to you all… English is the greatest language in the world simply because we are not afraid to borrow and we eschew rigor. Probably goes with our democracy. Ain’t we the cat’s meow.



  • Topi Linkala

    How come ‘Black Maria’ is americanism as we here in Finland call our paddy wagons with the name ‘Musta Maija’. ‘Musta’ is finnish for ‘black’ and Maija is finnishization of Maria. Finnish paddy wagons have never been black, they’ve always been dark blue with white markings.

    Our ethymological dictionary puts its ethymology as translation on swedish term which originates as a translation on a dutch term.

  • Jon Butterfield

    My mother was taken to the hospital in a ‘Black Maria’ January 1944 in Chicago. Snow had totally crippled the city and she of course she went into labor with her first baby, the only moving thing in the whole city was the heroic policeman that got that big black panel truck through all that terrible weather to my mom, then, through the blizzard safely to the hospital where my oldest sister was born. My mom is 87 now and say’s she can still see the rough gentle faces of those men.

  • Brenda Humphrey

    My mother often referred to her father’s paddy wagon as the Black Maria. He was town marshall of a small town in
    Indiana during the depression.

  • juancho

    You know it means no mercy
    They caught him with a gun
    No need for the Black Maria
    Goodbye to the Brixton sun

  • mrsfontes

    What about the idea that “maria” is the plural for the Latin “mare” or “female horse.” A black wagon pulled by horses . . .

  • Dennis

    My father used to use this term when describing the RCMP prisoner panel trucks of the 40’s and 50’s in Prince George BC Canada. There were many beer parlour fights in those days in what was a rather wild frontier town full of loggers and ranchers in those days. I think he may have had a few rides in the Maria himself! I have seen it spelled with h at the end “mariah” to make it easier to pronounce. For some reason the word paddy wagon was used for a vehicle used to pick up mental patients as it was padded inside to prevent people from injuring themselves. Also interesting is the use of the word goal to describe a jail, as the term the prisoner was sentenced to 30 days in goal was used in newspaper reporting up into the 1980’s.
    The term beer parlour was common also, with its separate ladies and escorts signage above the door ways. They only served beer in those days, and to get hard drinks you had to go to the lounge.

  • Natalie James

    I love this, there are so many old sayings that are disappearing and the people who used them too old too remember them or their meanings, or these older folk are simply not with us today. To know we can come here and find out what the sayings originally meant is great. I remember the “black mariah”, my parents saying behave or the black mariah will come. Conjured up a picture of some black ghostly wagon being pulled by black horses driven by some ghostly looking headless boogeyman hahaha the imagination, usually scared us enough to behave.

    • I am in my eighties and always heard my Irish side of the family (Clarks and Scotts) describe the Irish hearse as a black myrhia or some similar spelling, but my spell checker will not accept it or any version that I attempt. I know only that many published books that refer to the old Irish black hearses alway used my “lost” spelling of the word – but, I can assure you that all contain the alpha character “y.”

      We always state that one cheated the black myrhia(sp) another time when describing a close encounter …

  • john o'brien

    my family from the ‘old sod’ of Ireland tell me the ‘paddy’ was a drunken wastrel as opposed to the ‘patty’s’ who drove the thing.the ‘black mariah’ was in effect your hearse for when it came for you, from the brits or constabulay, you wouldn’t be coming back.

  • “Come on bay beeeee. Getinto my big black caaaar…
    Sounds ominous.
    (And it is. : )

  • Big Black Mariah

    I’m cutting through the cane break rattling the sill
    Thunder that the rain makes when the shadow tops the hill
    Big light on the back street hill to evermore
    Packing down the ladder with the hammer to the floor

    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah baby
    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Ford

    Well I’m all boxed up on a red belle dame
    Flat Blue Johnny with a blind man’s cane
    A hundred yellow bullets with a rag out in the wind
    That old blind tiger an old bell

    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah baby
    Here come the Big Black Ford yeah

    Now we’re all boxed up on a red belle dame
    Flat Blue Johnny with a blind man’s cane
    A hundred yellow bullets with a rag out in the wind
    That old blind tiger on a

    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah baby
    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Ford

    Oh yeah
    Big Black Mariah here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah
    Here come the Big Black Mariah

  • elf

    It looks like even in russian language we got Blac Marusia (Marusia is variant of Maria name) from poem of Anna Akhmatova, who knew Black Maria from James Joyce’s “Ulisse”

  • Shakespeare Mahechani

    My understanding of the expression the “Black Mariah or Maria” is that it originated from America where it referred to Police vans. These vans were named after Maria Lee who was a Black American woman who ran boarding houses for sailors in Boston, Massachusetts. It goes that Maria was monstrously huge and any man who would dare to challenge her to a fight either had a death wish or was plain crazy. When the Police were trying to get a suspect into one of their vans and he was putting up resistance, all they did was call Maria. When she arrived at the scene, all the suspect had to do was take one good look at her and he practically ran into the van rather than face her. As a consequence, these vans became known as “Black Mariahs or Black Marias.”

    Yours sincerely
    Shakespeare Mahechani

  • BixB

    I heard the term “mariah” used this evening in an episode of the BBC drama “Ripper Street.” By context I assumed they were referring to some type of carriage, and a paddy wagon makes sense. Had never heard it outside of its use in the song where it’s used in reference to a wind. As to the origin, given the date and location of first usage in print (NYC, 1835) the theory that the name comes from a famous contemporary black racehorse seems to make the most sense.

  • One need only watch the first Sherlock Holmes with R Downy Jr….the opening scene when LeStrade arrives and orders his officers to “Put them (the criminals) in the back of the Mariah”….Pretty cool. Great movie btw!

  • Jo

    Mare means sea in Latin MrsFontes. Mare when used for horse is Old English.

  • SJ Tuznik

    The racehorse explanation makes no sense to me. I can’t see a horse known for speed having its name connected to a police transport which was never known for swiftness. With no phones, you could rarely ‘send for the wagon.’ Instead, you would march your prisoner(s) through the street to jail with, if necessary, citizen assistance. The police wagon would be brought out in expectation of trouble or mass arrests. And once the prisoner is in the wagon, there’s no need for speed.

    As “paddy” is a racial slur well established before the 1800s, the term “paddy wagon” must definitely mean the vehicle delivering or carrying away “paddies.” I can more easily see it meaning the delivery of police (mostly Irish in New York) to a scene, rather than the more socially conscious reference to the amount of Irish taken away by it.

    Between 1803 and 1853, convicts were shipped from England to Australia. It is possible that “Black Mariah” as a police prisoner transport may refer to the name of a ship that carried prisoners overseas to an unknown fate, just like the police wagons.

    With a further Irish connection, “Black Mariah” might also refer to a ship conveying the Irish (and other Europeans) to the United States in record numbers during the great potato blights beginning in the 1830s.

    (Of course, Black Mariah may be a reference to some unrecognized death figure from myth, legend or song…)

    Anyway, to me, “paddy wagon” refers to cops coming onto a scene, and “Black Mariah” refers to people being taken from the scene.

  • Gordon Foster

    I was born in Glasgow Scotland in 1953 and as a child can remember clearly that the black mariah was indeed what we now refer to in Canada as a paddy wagon or prisoner transportation vehicle. Used to transport multiple prisoners from say a crime scene or from jail to the courthouse.

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