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 (www.worldwidewords.org), 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.