This Day in History: Mae West and Jefferson Market
82 years ago today on April 19, 1927 Mae West was convicted at The Jefferson Market Courthouse on obscenity charges for her play Sex. The play, which she also wrote, produced, and directed, was her first starring role on Broadway. The production had been open for close to a year and playing to full houses before it was raided by the police. West received a $500 fine and was sentenced to ten days in jail. She spent one night in the Woman’s House of Detention before moving to Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). She was released after eight days for good behavior and the resulting publicity only increased her fame.
The Woman’s House of Detention was demolished in 1973 and replaced with the community garden that is now on the south side of Jefferson Market. For more information on this notorious jail take a look Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women by Sara Harris, located in our reference collection and for your viewing pleasure there is the feature film House of D starring David Duchovny and Robin Williams.
Another noteworthy trial at Jefferson Market was in September 1896 when Stephen Crane testified on behalf of a young woman named Ruby Young who was arrested for prostitution. He was at the time a reporter for the New York Journal and already famous for The Red Badge of Courage which was published a year earlier. His first work of fiction, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, was published in 1893 and it was perhaps this work that led him to sympathize with Young. Crane was in a notorious area north of Jefferson Market to, as he claimed, study human nature. He witnessed Young’s arrest and appeared in court to testify on her behalf that the accusations against her were unjust. The charges were dropped and she was released. Incidentally the arresting officer was Charles Becker, who went on to have quite an infamous career in law enforcement becoming the first police office in the United States to be tried and executed for murder. For more on Becker’s story see Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century by Mike Dash. In this book Jefferson Market is described as a “scowling Gothic monstrosity that loomed over a corner on Tenth Street and Sixth Avenue”!
Probably the most famous trial at Jefferson Market was the Stanford White murder trial in 1906. Much has been written about Stanford White, his architecture, his scandalous relationship with Evelyn Nesbit, and his death at the hands of Harry Shaw.
For more information on the history of Jefferson Market please look here or stop by for a visit.