4. The Man-Monster's Legacy

Though mocked, imprisoned, and rendered "notorious" in his own day, Sewally has recently become an important person in queer, black, and transgender history, and his story has inspired artists.

Imagination and reenactment have taken over where the historical record ends, as we see in three examples of contemporary artists who draw upon Sewally's story and the Man-Monster print.

Lezley Saar's "The Con Art of Peter Sewally" (1998)
Lezley Saar's larger than life-sized mixed-media portrait of Sewally was inspired by the artist's encountering the Man-Monster print in Charles Addams' Dear Dead Days, a book of historical oddities and images published in 1959.

Knowing little else about his story than what the image and caption provided, Saar's portrait nonetheless intuits several key truths about his story as we now know it. Placing a convict's plate around his neck, she likens the print to a modern day "mug shot."

But this is a double portrait, as Sewally's other face appears upside down and to the right, his other body floating mysteriously upwards and off the canvas. Neither body is the true Sewally and one is impelled to re-orient ones gaze to see it all. Saar's poetic image places Sewally/Jones in a space between genders.


Lezley Saar, The Con Art of Peter Sewally, 1998, mixed media, 86" x 48.5" x 5"


Anarchy Andi's Tattoo
In homage to Sewally, Anarchy Andi flaunts the imputed stigma of queerness back at society. In the shape of a tattoo, the print itself becomes part of a "rig" with which to go "sailing along the street."


Vaginal Davis' "VD as PS"
Vaginal Davis, performance artist and drag queer punk, has lectured about Peter Sewally, the "She-Monster of Olde New York" as she calls him, and aspires to play him/her on screen. Ms. Davis has contributed an original painting to this exhibit, in the form of a 'concept drawing' for the potential movie role.


Painting by Vaginal Davis. "VD as PS" (2011). 

The People vs Mary Jones: Rethinking Race, Sex and Gender through 19th-Century Court Records. Presents documentary evidence from the New York City Municipal Archives, and a thoughtful, new interpretation of Sewally. --Jonathan Ned Katz, March 28, 2023.