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Mary Judge: Fixture of Detroit’s Central Market

October 25, 2023

Through determination and resourcefulness, Mary Judge stood out from the other hucksters at Detroit’s Central Market in the latter half of the 19th century. Poor, single and an immigrant, Judge managed to make a living — and a name for herself — at a time when such women seldom gained financial independence.

Born in Sligo County, Ireland, around 1825, Judge emigrated with her parents as a baby, settled in Quebec, received her education at a convent and became a nun. Judge left her order but remained a devout Catholic. When and how she came to the Midwest remains unclear, but a Detroit-based relative of her legal guardian helped set her up as a huckster at the vegetable building at Central Market, the city’s bustling agricultural marketplace, by 1863.

"History of Detroit and Michigan," 1884

The vegetable building at Detroit Central Market, 1884. / THF139107 

Hucksters purchased goods from vendors at the market and resold them from rented stands. It was competitive work that required Judge to be clever, daring and outspoken. She scraped together anything she could to get by, hawking everything from candy, coffee (which newspaper reporters deemed “irreproachable”), flowers and fruit to friedcakes or doughnuts (“very fillin’ for the price”), gingerbread, poultry and pigs’ feet (The Evening News, February 28, 1876). Judge’s livelihood depended on her ability to capture public attention and cultivate relationships within the market community, and she succeeded remarkably well at both. The Detroit Free Press and The Evening News reported on her for more than 30 years, leaving us with a vibrant image of Judge’s time at the market.

Detroit’s Central Market was a boisterous, lively place where growers, fishmongers, vendors and peddlers competed for customers amid carnival-like attractions that included strong-man machines, magic tricks and exotic pets for sale. The Detroit Free Press reported that at the market, it was “often a feat to swallow a cup of coffee, without having it spilled” (December 19, 1869). Behind the wild atmosphere, the market was tightly regulated by a market committee which handled disputes and employed a clerk to manage the market on a daily basis. The committee reported to the Detroit Common Council, which had the final say over market operations.

Mary Judge had to perform a constant balancing act. She peddled a wide array of foods, despite city regulations prohibiting the sale of anything but vegetables from her place at the market. Judge also worked year-round to make ends meet, even though the official market season for hucksters only ran from April through October. Judge leveraged her position constantly, extolling journalists, cajoling the police and petitioning city officials for special dispensation. The Evening News described a Saturday in 1875 when Judge stood behind her coffee stand, “looking with a proprietor’s pride on her piles of fried cakes, gingerbread and pigs’ feet,” and remarked to some of her customers that she planned to offer city officials dinner to gain their favor (November 22, 1875).

Women Pushing a Handcart along Michigan Avenue at Woodward, Detroit, Michigan, 1875-1893

Mary Judge may have resembled this unidentified woman pushing a handcart in Detroit in the late 1800s. It's easy to imagine her heading to the market, prepared to build a makeshift stand, despite regulations prohibiting them. She likely wore similar multipatterned clothing, as hucksters often did to help attract customers. / Detail, THF623831

Over the years, Mary Judge wore the patience of market clerks and vendors thin, as evidenced by numerous mentions in Common Council minute books. In addition to selling things other than vegetables at her stand all year long, she flouted regulations by operating outside of the market’s vegetable building. Other vendors complained of Judge’s abusive language — something for which she was fined at least once and over which an offended rival reportedly added kerosene to her coffee. She could also be violent. According to The Evening News, Judge was once arrested while “trying to demolish the market clerk with a hammer” (June 29, 1877).

Despite its firm regulations and conflicts between vendors, the market community offered something of a social safety net. When the city removed Mary Judge’s stand to expand access for teams of horses and wagons outside the vegetable building, she and other hucksters petitioned the market committee to retain their businesses. The committee carefully considered Judge’s situation and ultimately recommended renting her a stand in the vegetable building, saying, “We find she is very poor, and unfit for any other occupation.”

Detail of minutes from the Journal of the Common Council of the City of Detroit

Detail of minutes from the Journal of the Common Council of the City of Detroit, documenting the market committee’s recommendation to rent Mary Judge a stand in the vegetable building, June 7, 1872. / Image via HathiTrust 

Immigrant women like Mary Judge had to overcome language barriers, racism, sexism and xenophobia. They had few employment opportunities outside of domestic service and rarely held public-facing positions. Judge took advantage of the public market system to gain financial independence. Huckstering required little initial investment, and she made up for her lack of capital with wit, charisma and a sharp tongue.

Mary Judge achieved unlikely success that, along with her role in market drama, kept her in the public eye. Newpapers covered Judge’s professional and personal lives, including the home she kept near the market. The Evening News reported on her first wedding in February 1876 — the start of a troubled marriage that ended with her husband’s premature death in 1879. According to the Detroit Free Press, Judge’s second husband, whom she had hired to work at her stand and married in August 1880, “took possession of all her means, which were considerable at the time, and deserted her” (July 14, 1898).

Mary Judge dramatic performances

Despite social constraints and personal hardship, Mary Judge made a life huckstering. Visitors to Detroit Central Market in Greenfield Village can “meet” her during select dramatic performances, like this one featuring Stephanie Nichols as Mary Judge from September 2023. Read about the research that informed the script on our blog. / Photos by Debra Reid and Imani Bonner

Things became increasingly dire for Judge in the 1880s. Detroit officials proposed banning wagons from the center of the city in 1888, citing unanimous public opinion about these “offensive features” at the daily market. Market vendors united in opposition to the ban, but the Common Council denied even Judge the opportunity to defend her livelihood. When the city closed the market in 1892, Judge, then approaching 70 years of age, remained. In February 1894, the council forcibly evicted her and other remaining vendors before dismantling the market. The city did grant Judge special dispensation to sell goods nearby, but she died penniless in 1898.

For more than 30 years, Detroit reporters linked Mary Judge, more than any other individual, with the city’s public market. Today, her inspiring story — and with it the story of the market itself — lives on at The Henry Ford.

Debra Reid is curator of agriculture and the environment, and Saige Jedele is associate curator at The Henry Ford. For a deeper dive on female hucksters in the Great Lakes region, see Reid’s article in the spring 2023 issue of Middle West Review.