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  • Unfortunately, the zillions of references to Mariah Carey on the Web drown out two actual examples of this word in use, in song lyrics:

    Here come the big black mariah, here come the big

    black mariah

    Here come the big black mariah, I seen the big

    black ford

    —Tom Waits, “Big Black Mariah,” Rain Dogs (1985)

    When in town I keep head down

    Kneel on the croft when the mariah comes round

    Fat-assed workmen, I scurry around

    There’s few good places to hide bags behind

    —Mark E. Smith/The Fall, “Carry Bag Man,” The Frenz Experiment (1988)

    Sometimes spelled “maria,” it’s US and UK slang for a police van, and in US English it can mean a hearse. An article in American Speech traces it to Philadelphia in the 1840s:

    OED2 lists 1847 as the earliest date in their files for Black Maria ‘van for the conveyance of prisoners’ (Boston source). However, “The Prison Van; Or, The Black Maria” is the title of a story about Philadelphia by Joseph C. Neal in Godey’s Lady’s Book (Nov. 1843, 225–29; I am indebted to David E. E. Sloane for directing me to this first publication of Neal’s story). Neal, a Philadelphia journalist, adds in a footnote: “The popular voice applies the name of ‘Black Maria’ to each of these melancholy vehicles and, by general consent, this is their distinguishing title” (225). Barrère and Leland (1889) commented that the term “is said to have originated in Philadelphia in 1838.” (Leland was an American born and reared in Philadelphia.) The name might have originated in connection with the transportation of prisoners to the new Moyamensing County Prison, which opened on the edge of Philadelphia in 1835. Flexner (1976, 275) asserts the existence of (but unfortunately does not reference) a citation dated 1840. The original allusion of Black Maria remains uncertain.
    —Irving Lewis Allen, “Earlier Dates for Black Maria, Hobohemia, and Rush Hour,” American Speech, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Winter, 1993), pp. 442–443.

    Thanks to The Google, we can now easily push that date back. In 1841:

    At the east wing was standing, pensive and melancholy, the Automedon of ‘Black Maria,’ the equipage used in carrying criminals to court and thence to their prisons, melancholy, no doubt in apprehension of being turned out of office. These are fearful times! The public functionary is in the thief-taking line, and doubtless, availing himself of his official influence, has been meddling in politics, thereby subjecting hilself to the displeasure of government. His black wagon stands just underneath the Philosophical Society, a conspicuous figure in the group; bearing about the same relation to the other equipages as the hangman to the rest of the community.
    —“The American at Home: A Ride in an Omnibus; From the French,” The Knickerbocker, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 17, 1841

    In 1840:

    What I referred to was—Charles Strine, of Philadelphia, who drives the prison coach called the Black Maria, in the fall of 1838—it seems to me, but I will not be certain—he said I could get $25 or $30 if I would come to New York to vote; that was the way I understood it.
    John M. Snyder quoted in Extra Globe, October 26, 1840, Vol. 6, No. 26

    According to a 2001 article on World Wide Words, the earliest known citation is 1835:

    However, we now know, as the result of research by George Thompson, that the term was in use in New York about a decade earlier, since the term was used in at least two newspaper reports, one of 1835 and the other of 1836. The former was in the New York Transcript of 24 Dec 1835 and said “A man named Henry Stage ... contrived to make his escape on Saturday last while on his way from Bellevue prison to the city in the carriage generally known as ‘Black Maria’ ”.
    —Michael Quinion, “Black Maria,” World Wide Words

    Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s 1905 (and possibly earlier editions) Dictionary of phrase and fable says the term honors a woman in Boston:

    The tradition is that the van referred to was so called from Maria Lee, a negress, who kept a sailors’ boarding house in Boston. She was a woman of such great size and strength that the unruly stood in dread of her, and when the constables required help, it was a common thing to send for Black Maria, who soon collared the refractory and led them to the lock-up.
    Quinion points out that there is no evidence for this, and that a more likely source is “a black racehorse whose most famous exploit is in New York in 1832.”

    November 29, 2009