Green’s Dictionary of Slang

Black Maria n.

also black mariah, Maria, mariar, sable Maria
[SE black, the colour of the van, but the ety. of Maria is unknown; suggestions include an abbr. of married, two or more prisoners chained together; a play on the -ria of Queen Victoria’s name (which fails in the face of its origins in the US, although V.R. was inscribed on the British vans) and Brewer’s suggestion in Dict. of Phrase and Fable (1894) of a derivation f. one Maria Lee, a Black madam of Boston, Mass. So large and fearsome was Ms Lee that she was regularly called upon by the local police to help them first arrest and then take criminals to prison. According to F&H, themselves citing ‘a writer on slang’, the term was coined c.1838 in Philadelphia, although the OED first use is 1847 (usefully for Brewer from a Boston newspaper) and DSUE (1984) notes Joseph Neal’s story The Prison Van, or The Black Maria (1844)]

1. (orig. US) a prison van for conveying prisoners.

[US]N.Y. Transcript 24 Dec. 2/5: Escape. — 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’.
[US]Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, PA) 14 Sept. 2/1: No longer grace can be allowed these indifferent partizans: after the stated hour, the committee must wake them, shake them, and if still indifferent, force them into a carriage, like convicts in ‘Black Mariah,’ and drive them to the polls, nolens volens.
[US]J.C. Neal Pic-nic Sketches 15: He walked toward the corner of Fifth and Chestnut streets – [...] where ‘Black Marias’ most do congregate.
[UK]J. Greenwood Seven Curses of London 120: Black Maria is the only one that’s doin’ a trade now. Every journey full as a tuppenny omnibus.
[UK]Five Years’ Penal Servitude 61: On alighting from the ‘sable maria’ we were ushered through a door into a long, white-washed passage, with cells on one side.
[UK]J. Greenwood Dick Temple III 18: [He] inquired [...] of another when he last had a ride with ‘Black Maria’ – that term being robbers’ cant for the sombre police van.
[UK]G.R. Sims Three Brass Balls 206: It is the time when ‘Black Maria,’ the prison van, stands waiting at the door, and the signal is given that the prisoners are coming out.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 5 Nov. 12/4: Governor Carington was at Redfern railway station about 9:45 last Thursday morning and with his customary luck ‘Black Maria’ came rolling up close behind him. There never was a man haunted by a gaol-van as Carington is.
[UK]Sporting Times 4 Jan. 1: In order to duly prepare themselves for the new year, Gubbins and the Australian spent the better part of New Year’s Day in Bow Street Police Court. After duly inspecting the court, an adjournment was made to the cells. After a lot of strategy had been employed, Gub was at length enabled to bolt the door of a cell into which the colonist had ventured and, if it had not been for the good, kind gaoler, the gentleman from the Antipodes would probably have sojourned in durance vile until the arrival of Black Maria.
[Aus]Truth (Sydney) 25 Feb. 1/2: The barbarous, disgraceful, ‘gaol upon wheels’ vulgarly and familiarly designated as ‘Black Maria’.
[US]C.R. Wooldridge Hands Up! 75: Men of prominence in the speculative world mingled with those who made dollar deals and they sat side by side in the ‘Black Maria’.
[Aus]Sun. Times (Perth) 3 Sept. 4/7: An ancient hard case philosopher was convicted to six months’ imprisonment. ‘Thanks, yer ’Onor,’ he replied gratefully, previous to skipping into the Black Maria.
[UK]J. Buchan Greenmantle (1930) 288: There was a closed carriage waiting which they motioned us to get into. It looked exactly like the Black Maria.
[UK]T. Norman Penny Showman 14: I therefore went down with the rest [...] into the cell to await the Black Maria to cart us off.
[US]Odum & Johnson Negro Workaday Songs 75: Good God a’-mighty! / What’s a fellow gonna do, / When ol’ black mariah / Come a-sailin’ after you?
[US]M.C. Sharpe Chicago May (1929) 228: I boarded in Prison. I went there in the Black Maria.
[Aus]K. Tennant Foveaux 246: In the midst Emily Anseer, all flying hair and garments, was busily hacking the ankles of two policemen painfully endeavouring to drag her to the black maria.
[US]J. Archibald ‘Knife Thrower’ in Popular Detective June [Internet] Call the mechanized Maria will you?
[US]Louis Jordan ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ [lyrics] When the policeman said, ‘Where you goin’ there, bub?’ / Now, they got us out of there like a house on fire, / Put us all in that Black Maria.
[Ire](con. 1940s) B. Behan Borstal Boy 25: I heard the Black Maria back into the yard.
A. Buzo Norm & Ahmed (1973) 20: They were all singing Sweet Adeline in the Black Maria. What a bunch of ratbags they were!
[UK]A. Bleasdale Scully 71: I could see [...] the police cars on the old tram lines and a Black Maria.
[Can]R. Caron Go-Boy! 24: There was an exchange of papers and the gate swung wide allowing the Maria to roll triumphantly in.
[Ire](con. 1930s) L. Redmond Emerald Square 136: Then came the black Maria, loaded with police.
[Ire](con. 1945) S. McAughtry Touch and Go 98: They beat him up and threw him into the Black Maria.
[UK]K. Sampson Awaydays 110: Busies are swarming everywhere, nicking every likely head and lobbing them in the Maria.
[UK]Indep. Rev. 30 Aug. 1: I was taken off in a black mariah.
OnLine Dict. of Playground Sl. [Internet] Black Mariah n. Name given to the van the police used to collect and transport offenders to and from the scene of apprehension, to police stations and/or courthouses.

2. (orig. US) a hearse.

[US]‘Ned Buntline’ G’hals of N.Y. 23: I never cried when father and mother died, nor when the Black Maria carted ’em away.
[US]Wentworth & Flexner DAS.

3. (orig. US) an ambulance.

[UK]S. Berkoff West in Decadence and Other Plays (1985) 106: And bring the black marias out like wailing banshees.