We all know that a paddy wagon is a truck that police use to transport a whole bunch of perps at once, either from a crime scene “down to headquarters,” or from jail to court or from court to prison.
The term came into wide usage in the 1930s, and references either the fact that a lot of the big city police officers of that era were Irish (thence “Paddy”), or it’s an allusion to the fact that the most frequent riders in paddy wagons were drunken brawlers – and many of them in that era were Irishmen.
The term is used less frequently these days because of that chance of offense. That same sensibility was part of the end of the previous well-known term for police transport vehicles.
Modern etymologists have traced back the cop slang “Black Maria” for a “paddy wagon” back to a champion New York City black race horse of the 1820s named “Black Maria.” Shortly thereafter, the black, horse-drawn carriages used to transport criminals quickly became commonplace from London to San Francisco.
The term is used heavily in Buffalo newspaper reports in the 1870s, and refers to the shiny black carriage used mostly for rounding up drunks from the streets.
In the early 1870s, a Buffalo Police officer named Bob Sadler took the reins behind the horses of the Black Maria, and drove it every day for 28 years. Never a day off, never a weekend or a holiday.
“Bob handled a couple of generations of criminals and was in continuous contact with the lowest stratum of human life for nearly 30 years,” wrote The Buffalo Express upon his death in 1900, “But Bob didn’t have a mean word or a rough hand for the poorest devil of them all.”
“It’s my business to be adrivin’ this rig ’n I got no business to be anywhere else,” The Express quoted Bob as saying often during those three decades.
In 1905, a Buffalo Express writer took a ride on the Black Maria as it made the rounds picking up the drunk and disorderly.
“After one experience it would be hard to find a man who could wish for a second ride in this vehicle of woe,” wrote the uncredited scribe, who spent a morning with five hung-over prisoners, jostling along the streets in the dark, hard-benched box on the back of a wagon with no springs or any other manner of comfort.
For nearly 80 years, the common parlance – and even the official – name for the drunk tank vehicles in Buffalo was “Black Maria.” In 1938, Buffalo Police wanted to make an official break and change the image of the transport vehicles.
Police Commissioner Glenn McClellan thought “Police Ambulance” was a more dignified term, so the Black Marias were rechristened, right down to small red crosses on the side. The Red Cross objected though, and lost to history is what the trucks were called officially from there on out.