Mary Frith was born to a shoemaker and a housewife in Barbican, Aldersgate Street near St Paul’s Cathedral in 1584. Mary was ‘tomrig’ or hoyden, wild and aggressive from an early age. The first record of Frith in trouble with the law comes when she was indicted in Middlesex for stealing 2s 11d on the 26 August 1600.
Mary had an uncle, her father’s brother, who was a minister. He attempted to send her to New England in the hope a fresh start would reform her and took her to a merchant ship lying off Gravesend. However before the ship sailed, Mary jumped overboard one night and swam to shore, resolving never to go near her uncle again.
Mary drank in taverns, carried a sword, smoked a long clay pipe and sometimes dressed as a man. In her 1662 biography The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, Commonly called Mal Cutpurse; it is claimed Moll was the first woman in England to smoke. She would also steal purses from passers-by, both inside and along the approaches to St Paul’s Cathedral, using an accomplice who distracted the victims’ attention while Mary cut the strings that secured the leather purses to their belts - a skill that earned her the nickname of’ Moll Cutpurse’. Her other name was, "The Roaring Girl" taken from roaring boys; the young gentlemen who caroused in taverns, and then picked brawls on the street for entertainment.
Mary was indicted in Middlesex on 26th August 1600 for stealing 2s when she was sixteen and presented herself in public in a doublet and baggy breeches, smoking a pipe. She also appeared frequently at The Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate for her irregular practices, and burnt in the hand four times and she is recorded as having been burnt in the hand, a common punishment for thieves, 4 times.
Her notoriety resulted in two plays being written about her; The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day in 1610, and a year later, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker wrote, The Roaring Girl.
Mary often performed in men's clothing at the Fortune Theatre in 1611. On stage she bantered with the audience and sang songs while playing the lute. Her habit of wearing men’s clothes resulted her in being cited to appear in the Court of Arches, where she was sentenced to stand and do penance in a white sheet at St Paul's Cross during morning sermon on a Sunday. This was hardly a punishment for an exhibitionist such as Mary Frith, who continued to wear male clothing, and adorned her house with many mirrors so she might admire herself in every room.
Women who dressed in men's attire on a regular basis were generally considered "sexually riotous and uncontrolled", but Mary claimed to be uninterested in sex.
On 9 February 1612, Mary was required to do a penance for her "evil living" at St. Paul's Cross. She put on a performance, apparently weeping bitterly and appeared penitent, but according to observers:
‘She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin drunck being discovered to have tipled three quarts of a sack before…’
She married Lewknor Markham (possibly the son of playwright Gervase Markham) on 23 March 1614. It has been alleged that the marriage was little more than a charade, contracted to give Frith a counter when suits against her referred to her as a "spinster". Lewknor probably took a cut of Mary’s earnings in return for her using his name.
By the 1620’s, Moll lived within two doors of the Globe tavern in Fleet Street, over against the Conduit, almost facing Shoe Lane and Salisbury Court, where she turned to fencing. Victims of pickpockets would come first to Moll and offer her compensation in exchange for the retrieval of their stolen goods. The thieves, having obtained adequate ransom for their booty, handed them over. This arrangement kept both sides happy and alleviated the need for ‘the hue and cry’ as the authorities always knew where to look for stolen property.
As part of the society of ‘divers’, ‘file clyers’, ‘cutpurses’ or ‘pickpockets’, Mary was also a pimp, procuring young women for men, but also respectable male lovers for middle-class wives. In one case where a wife confessed on her deathbed to infidelity with lovers provided by Mary, she convinced the woman's lovers to send money for the maintenance of the children that were probably theirs.
She also became acquainted with, ‘heavers’, who stole shop books from drapers and mercers, or other rich traders. These they brought to Moll, who would offer them back to their owners for a fee.
Showman William Banks bet her £20 that she wouldn’t ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. But she did so in style, flaunting a banner, blowing a trumpet and causing a riot in the process. Part of the excitement was due to the fact that the horse she was riding was Morocco, the most famous performing animal in London. Shod in silver, it could dance, play dice and count money. Its most famous trick was climbing the hundreds of narrow steps to the top of old St Paul’s and dancing on the roof.
Contrary to her riotous lifestyle, Mary’s house in Fleet Street was always immaculate and surprisingly feminine, thanks to three full time maids. She kept parrots and bred mastiffs, pampering her dogs like children. Each of them slept in their own bed, complete with sheets and blankets and fed on special food she boiled up herself.
Mary was an ardent Royalist, and was approaching sixty when she turned highwaywoman during the Civil War. Like her highwaymen friend, Captain James Hind, gained satisfaction by robbing Parliamentarians, her most memorable exploit was when she robbed General Sir Thomas Fairfax. She held up his carriage on Hounslow Heath and relieved him of two hundred and fifty ‘jacobuses’. She shot Fairfax in the arm and then killed two horses of his escort to prevent pursuit.
She was captured at Turnham Green when her horse went lame and sent to Newgate, tried and sentenced to death. However, she avoided her date with the hangman, by paying a 2000 pound bribe, and released on 21 June 1644 from Bethlem Hospital after being cured of insanity.
According to the Newgate Calendar: ‘After seventy four years of age,
Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to
the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which
had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and
that the devil had got within her doublet.’
|The Bethlem Hospital by Hogarth|
Moll died on 26 July 1659, and in her will she expressed a desire to be buried 'with her breech upwards, that she might be as preposterous in her death as she had been all along in her infamous life.'
She was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street, and her marble headstone was inscribed the following epitaph, composed by John Milton (1608 - 1674), but seven years later it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London:
Here lies, under this same marble,
Dust, for Time's last sieve to garble;
Dust, to perplex a Sadducee,
Whether it rise a He or She,
Or two in one, a single pair,
Nature's sport, and now her care.
For how she'll clothe it at last day,
Unless she sighs it all away;
Or where she'll place it, none can tell:
Some middle place 'twixt Heaven and Hell
And well 'tis Purgatory's found,
Else she must hide her under ground.
These reliques do deserve the doom,
Of that cheat Mahomet's fine tomb
For no communion she had,
Nor sorted with the good or bad;
That when the world shall be calcin'd,
And the mixd' mass of human kind
Shall sep'rate by that melting fire,
She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her.
Reader, here she lies till then,
When, truly, you'll see her again.
The account of her life and crimes, with all its 17th Century prejudices towards women printed in The Newgate Calendar is well worth reading
|From History and Women|