Today in London radical herstory, 1611: thief, performer, libertine, fence Moll Cutpurse arrested, for cross-dressing

“Though no remarkable thing happened at her nativity, such as the flattering sooth sayers pretend in eclipses, and other the like motions above, or tides, and whales, and great fires, adjusted and timed to the genitures of crowned heads, yet, for a she politician, she was not much inferior to Pope Joan ; for in her time she was superior in the mystery of diving in purses and pockets, and was very well read and skilled too in the affairs of the placket among the great ones.”
(‘Mary Frith, otherwise Moll Cutpurse, The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I’)

Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, also known as the Roaring Girl: thief, adventurer, fence, stage performer, also possibly highwaywoman…

The facts of Moll or Mary’s life are extremely confusing, with many exaggerations and myths attached to her name. Sensationalised biographies and stage plays written both during her life and after her death helped to create and perpetuate many of these myths; to distort the reality of an already interesting life.

Mary Frith was born around 1584-85 to a shoemaker and a housewife, possibly in or around Aldersgate Street. She was commonly said to have, as a young girl, rejected what were then seen as a women’s dress, role and place: all accounts of her life emphasise how she cut her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes & hung out in taverns smoking a pipe, drinking and swearing.

A popular pamphlet claiming to recount her life claimed “She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls… She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels. Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her…” (The Complete Newgate Calendar)

But the swirl of myths that grew up around Mary’s life partly evolved to enable male commentators to pigeonhole her in one or more boxes; pretty much all with the aim of fitting her back into the gender stereotypes that were expected – whether moral and conforming to social mores, or immoral and transgressing them. Not only were published accounts of her life written by men, but those men ‘adapted’ the facts to fit their prejudices, and to follow the stereotyped patterns criminals were supposed to conform to in fictional biography. In Mary Frith/Moll Cutpurse’s case this amounted attempting to represent her cross-dressing as indicating she was a “sexual aberration, a prodigy, a monster”, anything from a transvestite usurping male power, as a “hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” On top of this, writers tried to jemmy her into other clichéd narratives of the era – the royalist rebel fighting puritan Parliament, or the righteous thief defending the poor against the rich.

“the mythmaking process of transmuting the historical figure of Mary Frith into the mythic Moll Cutpurse… the main strategy the author(s) pursued was to integrate scanty historical records into the preexisting parameters of criminal biography as they had been evolved for male criminals and, if need be, to transcend or invert the pattern…  As a result of this transmutation… the historical figure, who already in her lifetime had gone through a mythologising process, was reduced to a depersonalised entity.”

Debate about the sexual and gender identity of Mary Frith has also been popular in recent decades. What did her cross-dressing indicate? Gender rebellion or role reversal? transgressive sexuality?

The traditional picture of Moll has mainly been drawn on her fictional representations as the Roaring Girl in such plays written about her while she lives, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, 1610 (the text of which is now lost) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, as well as anonymously published biographies, notably ‘The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse. Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry disposed Persons…’ and
‘The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, commonly called Mall Cutpurse, living near Fleet-Conduit; even from her Cradle to her Winding-Sheet.’

In her teenage years Mary Frith became a cutpurse, robbing people’s purses in the street:

“I had but very little choice, so I listed my self of another Colony or Plantation (but who neither sow nor reap) of the Divers or File-clerks. A cunning Nation being a kind of Land Pirates, trading altogether in other men’s Bottoms, for no other Merchandises than Bullion and ready Coin, and keep most of the great Fairs and Marts of the world. They are very expert Mathematicians, but excellently good at Dialing; as also they are rare Figure Flingers, and most dexterous at the Tactics; they had been long incorporated, and had their Governors and Assistants as other Worshipful Companies; and had a good stock for the maintenance of their Trade.”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

Her career as a purse snatcher began for certain in her teens; in 1600, she, Jane Hill, and Jane Styles, all three ‘spinsters dwelling in the City of London’, were indicted by the Justices of Middlesex for having, on 26 August 1600, snatched a purse kept in a breast pocket and containing 2s and 11d in cash, from an unknown man at Clerkenwell. However, it is suggested that the trial jury found her not guilty of this offence.

“The petty crime that led to the arrest of the fifteen-year-old Mary Frith reveals that in her formative years as a delinquent she was plying her craft with two female partners. She was obviously working in a small female gang to reduce the risk of detection. Partnership with two women is likely to have been less combative than a partnership with men as regards dividing the loot into equal shares…”

Potential pickpockets tended to drift into delinquency at an early age. Thus all the members of a gang of nineteen “cutpurses” whom Simon Forman, in 1598, “had in Examination abought” the theft of his “purse” were between fifteen and twenty years old. The youngest, Jeames Harborte, was fifteen, that is, Mary’s age, Roger Goth was sixteen, and the oldest, Jhon Tucke and Robarte Frenche, were twenty years old. There were academies specialising in introducing boys into the art of stealing. Such a “schole howse” for pickpockets was denounced to Lord Burghley in 1585. It had been “sett upp” by one Wotton, gentleman and former merchant at Smart’s Quay near Billingsgate, “to learne younge boyes to cutt purses.”

On 18 March 1602, cordwainer Thomas Dobson and the silktwister William Simons, both of the parish of St. Giles outside Cripplegate, gave evidence to Middlesex magistrates, that “Marya FFrithe” should appear at the next session of gaol delivery on suspicion of having taken “a purse with XXVs of Richard Ingles.”

In 1608, Mary seems to have turned accuser: on 13 May that year, “Maria Feith de Southworke,” spinster, and John Clementes, servant to Edward Carrell, of Hastings, Sussex, (both men being soldiers), accused Edward Welles and Gilbert Dadson of felony.

Facsimile engraving from a 17th century original  of Moll

1609 On 8 September 1609, “Maria ffrythe,” living in the parish of St Olave, Southwark, “Spinster,” was alleged to have burgled the house of Alice Bayly in St Olave by night and stole 7 [pounds sterling] 7s in money, “twoe angells of gold,” “one twentie shillinge peece of gold,” “twoe half crownes of gold,” a gold ring rated at 6s, and “twoe cristall stones sett in seluer” valued at 20d.

Again, it seems Mary was found not guilty (in March 1610). This does not necessarily mean that she did not break into the house: she may have come to an arrangement with Alice Bayly, who was present at the hearing, to return part of the stolen goods. Such deals with victims were common, because recovered stolen goods, in the event of a conviction, would be confiscated by the crown.

‘Moll’ was recorded as having been burned on her hand four times, a common punishment for thieves.

Cross-dressing in male attire and a high-profile ‘debauched’ lifestyle, however, got her into as mch trouble as thieving, but may have helped her gain a kind of profile that enabled her to escape petty thievery and set up independently in business, as a fence.

How early she took to cross-dressing is unknown – the assertions in the sensationalist biographies and theatrical portrayals, that she dressed as a boy from an early age, may or may not be accurate. There is a tradition that relatives embarrassed either by her criminal activities or her unorthodox social behaviour tried to ship her off to the early colonies in New England: She had an uncle, brother to her father, who was a minister, and of him she stood in some awe, but not so much as to restrain her in these courses ; so that seeing he could not effectually remedy that inveterating evil in her manners, he trepanned her on board a merchant ship lying at Gravesend, and bound for New England, whither he designed to have sent her. But having learned to swim, she one night jumped overboard and swam to shore, and after that escape would never go near her uncle again.”

“Among the rest Tobacco was grown to be the great Mode, and much in use, and a sect of Swaggerers there were which from thence were denominated the Puffers and high Huffers; I was mightily taken with this vanity, because of its affected singularity; and no Woman before me ever smoked any, though I had a great many to follow my example…”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

‘Moll’ was notorious for frequenting the tobacco shops and smoking: almost as much as transvestism, pipe-smoking became crucial to her image in her youth. Her stage portrait on the 1611 title page of The Roaring Girl shows her smoking a pipe.

Smoking was not only the latest fashion, but also had become associated in popular culture with music, and lecherousness. It “became a stage convention about 1599 to poke fun at the gallants who affected smoking tobacco and playing the ‘bass viol da gamba’ to ensnare women. The foppish Fastidius Brisk in Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) plays on the viol while smoking and courting Saviolina.(35) Gregory Gudgeon, the city lecher in Thomas Middleton’s The Family of Love (1602), keeps “a viol da gambo and good tobacco.” “

Mary Frith was not the first female smoker in England: by 1589 “men & women were indulging in the new custom of smoking earthernware or silver pipes. By 1615 smoking was “commonly used by most men & many women.” But Mary was unusual and pioneering for a woman, in hanging out in tobacco shops, generally the exclusive haunts of men.  This may be the aspect of her smoking that caused civic and ecclesiastical authorities outrage: a lower-class woman frequenting the tobacco shops suggested to them an infringement of both gender boundaries and of class privileges.
“The authorities considered smoking as becoming the upper classes but as unbecoming to the lower orders. King James in his proclamation issued on 17 October 1604 levied a heavy custom on the weed and distinguished between “the better sort” of people who “have and will use the same with Moderation to preserve their Health,” and “a number of riotous and disordered Persons of mean and base Condition, who, contrary to the use which Persons of good Calling and Quality make thereof, do spend most of their time in that idle vanity.”

Another of Moll’s alleged feats (as claimed in her later ‘Confession’) was her ride between the London boroughs of Charing Cross and Shoreditch on the famous performing horse Marocco while wearing male attire, in order to win a wager from the horse’s owner, William Banks. She carried with her a banner and a trumpet to give her ride a dramatic air and related how she caused a riot in the streets after she was recognised, some of the crowd clamouring for her to be pulled from the horse and others cheering her on.

Perhaps Mary Frith’s most notable aspect was her wearing of clothes marked out for men.

Her notoriety as a cross-dresser, dating from some point between 1602 and 1610, had already led to her becoming a public figure, early in her life.

So much so that her name and her cross-dressing entered literature, while she was still in her 20s. Two works were written about her in 1610-11. First the 1610 drama or poem, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day, the text of which is now lost. Another play (that has survived) came a year later by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl. Both works dwelt on her scandalous behaviour, especially that of dressing in men’s attire. Both portrayed her as gender-nonconforming to an extent, such as her assertion in The Roaring Girl that she will never marry.

Not only was she portrayed on stage, she herself performed – at least a few times of stage, and possibly in the street.

The Epilogue of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse, published in 1611, famously promises the Fortune Theatre’s audience,
“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

And a few days later in April 1611, ‘Moll’ did indeed make her stage debut at the Fortune playhouse “in mans apparell & in her bootes & with a sword by her syde.” She later told the Bishop of London that “there vppon the stage in publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparrell,” she “playd vppon her lute & sange a songe” and made “some other immodest & lascivious speaches,” for about half an hour, the average length of an afterpiece.

Merely appearing on the stage itself was transgression – women were barred officially from performing in plays (Never forgetting however, that cross-dressing for men was a staple of the theatre – boys played female parts, since women were generally barred from the stage). If she did also perform in the street, she may well have been breaking the strict licensing rules around performance – unlicensed playing in taverns and streets went against the 1606 regulations issued by the company of musicians in the interest of public order. Offenders were fined 3s. 4d. for each infringement to the regulations.

Gustave Ungerer suggests that Mary Frith created a public persona as a cross-dressing performer, inventing her own professional signature, “a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income”, to get ahead in the cut-throat entertainment business of Southwark and the City of London. Possibly with a scheming eye towards rising from the lowest rungs of the social ladder – from cutpurse, to performer, through to businesswoman.

For obvious reasons, ‘Moll Cutpurse’s’ dressing ‘as a man’ opens up questions around her sexuality and attitudes towards sex and gender; however, women’s transvestism of the time could also be turned towards crime, as much as a “quest of her sexuality”. There was a notable transvestite scene in the capital, which had appeared in the 1570s and was to reach its peak in the 1620s.

Women wearing men’s garb seems to have been increasingly notable in that period: this caused a stir among the socially conservative, who fretted that this was an ‘affront to nature’ as well as being irreligious and a danger to the norms of society. In the years after ‘Moll’s’ famous stage debut, the controversy reached a height, and led to the publication Hic Mulier, a pamphlet attacking cross-dressing women.

For since the days of Adam women were never so Masculine: Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother to the youngest daughter; Masculine in Number, from one to multitudes; Masculine in Case, even from the head to the foot; Masculine in Mood, from bold speech to impudent action; and Masculine in Tense, for without redress they were, are, and will
be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous.” (Hic Mulier, 1620)

The author of Hic Mulier slams women dressing as men and appeals to their menfolk to intervene and correct them! Also, hilariously, identifying God as the first fashion designer: Remember how your Maker made for our first Parents coats — not one coat, but a coat for the man and a coat for the woman, coats of several fashions, several forms, and for several uses — the man’s coat fit for his labor, the woman’s fit for her modesty. And will you lose the model left by this great Workmaster of Heaven?”

The implication in the text is that this ‘fashion’ extended to various classes of society: part of the problem as usual was that what was stylish, if a bit risqué and exciting among the upper classes couldn’t be allowed to spread to the lower orders, as this might make it subversive and threaten stability.

Interestingly, a riposte to Hic Mulier, Haec Vir, published in 1620, partially refuted the charges: the characters Hic Mulier (manly Woman) and Haec Vir (Womanly Man) debate feminity and masculinity, with Hic Mulier here accusing her opposite of being effeminate and blaming masculine women on ‘soft’ men, but veering a bit into proto-feminist self-determination as well… It’s a fascinating mix, part dig at the male courtiers around alleged bi- or homosexual king James, part assertion of female autonomy, part complaint about metrosexual guys nicking yer earrings & eyeliner … Whether as a moral or to evade the censor, the two agree to go back to gender-appropriate clobber at the end.

What is partly being attacked in Hic Mulier appears to be women dressing in a sexually dominating way, or in clothes which emphasise overt sexual desire and autonomy. This was associated with whores, but also feared and hated by men who held sexual autonomy, desire, action, to be a male prerogative, to be denounced and pushed down when it came to women.

King James – generally keen to spread misogyny whenever he could – also intervened in the debate in 1620, commanding the clergy to teach, “against the insolencie of our women, and their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed dublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettoes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment.”

There was a relationship between transvestism and crime. Quite apart from any rebellion against rules and social codes, transvestism was also used to commit and disguise theft.

Were her street performances, her appearances in male garb, her posing in tobacco shops, at least partly a smokescreen to distract an audience, while accomplices robbed them?

According to London diarist John Chamberlain, Mary “used to go in mans apparell,” and thereby “challenged the fetid of” the town fops. Male performers and fops used to strut the streets displaying their fine clobber, helpfully providing a target for pickpockets.

In Moll’s examination by the Bishop of London in January 1612, she acknowledges that her new career as a public figure dressed up in male attire was designed as a commercial joint venture between herself and a gang of footpads. Thus, she “confessed” to having “vsually associated her selfe with Ruffinly swaggering & lewd company as namely with cut purses, blasphemous drunkards & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour.” The examination also confirms that while mounting her street and floor shows she was deftly practising her light-fingered art: she “confesseth” to the Consistory of London that “she is commonly termed Ma[ll] Cutpurse of her cutting of purses.”

Moll “voluntarily confessed that she had long frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious places in this Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man resorted to alehowses, Tavernes, Tobacco shops and also play howses there to see plaies & pryses.” Needless to say that these haunts, the theatres included, were an ideal hunting ground for a criminally minded pack of thieves waiting for Mary Frith’s beck and call. What better “pryses,” that is, presses, crowds, to relieve of their purses than guests in taverns, befuddled by drink and dazzled by Moll playing on her lute and singing a bawdy song and most likely performing a jig, or guests in a tobacco shop mesmerised by Moll smoking a pipe. pickpockets thrived under the screen cast by the music of popular entertainers.

But her Cross-dressing may also have become a performance in itself: challenging the gallants and fops on their own turf, making a name for herself… as well as asserting her own control over her image, a partial refutation of the rumour, myth and dismissal in the male-strom.

“…She let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind. She addressed the audience of the Fortune Theatre, some 2,340 spectators, telling them unashamedly and disarmingly “that she thought that many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging, they should finde that she is a woman.” This declaration was classified by the ecclesiastical judges as “immodest & lascivious speaches” that she “also vsed at that time.” There was, however, nothing lascivious about the reaffirmation of her womanhood. Her disclosure may also have been meant as a rejection of Middleton and Dekker’s fictional representation of her as a hermaphroditic ideal.”

However, Moll’s appearance at the Fortune was with the consent of these two authors, after the scripted play about her life was performed, suggesting all parties were to an extent co-operating for the purposes of making money, with a healthy dose of publicity thrown in to enhance everyone’s rep. On Moll’s part this may have contained some ambivalence, or not. Was she eying a more permanent move from street cockiness & performance for criminal purposes, into the theatrical life (marginally less illegal and marginal, though only just, at the time) ?

Gustave Ungerer suggests that crucially her performance demonstrated how she “appealed to the lower classes, the groundlings of the Fortune Theatre, and also drew the middle-class audiences, the gallants she used to challenge in their own field.” She had honed her art in the streets, taverns and tobacco shops, absorbing the subversive and irreverent oral tavern culture, and developing a mashup of bawdy, bantering comic give n take standup and burlesquing musical interlude. In her twenties, probably at the peak of her creative ability, ripe for a sideways move onto the boards, already having an image readymade (the male attire).

“In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer. A graphic demonstration of the costume change is afforded by the unauthorised woodcut of the original edition of The Roaring Girl. It shows the image of a woman dressed up in male clothes, brandishing a sword, smoking a pipe, but not playing the lute. The caption, printed lengthwise on the left-hand margin, reads: “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing.” The wording sealed the demystification of Mary Frith’s sexual and gender ambiguity, signaling her desire to legitimate her profession and to earn her livelihood as a cross-dressed entertainer.”

However, if this was Mary’s aim, it was to be stymied by the City authorities.

A woman in male dress (in breach of the sumptuary laws) entertaining an audience in a public theatre, was provocation enough; her history of dress violations, outdoor pranks, and unlicensed entertainments must have also been noted. However, another not unimportant factor was the crowds any repeat of the show had the potential to draw in: uncontrollable throngs with the chance of disorder, not to mention the gangs of cutpurses (whether in deliberate league with Mary or not!)

“an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel…”

Mary Frith was arrested in April 1611, shortly after the Fortune show, and committed to the Bridewell, the not-quite-prison/proto-workhouse, an institution dedicated to containing and attempting reform of Londoners seen by the authorities as living immoral or troublesome or unruly lives. This included prostitutes, the destitute, poor orphans, those who outraged social conformity and people living on the margins. The Bridewell had started life as a royal palace, become disused and been pressed into service first as a kind of hostel for relief of the urban poor. This rapidly evolved into a correctional facility; the kind of moral improvement by force developed here laid the groundwork for four centuries of the workhouse and poor laws.

Released after a short stay, Moll’s card was now clearly marked. She was arrested again for being dressed indecently, on 25 December 1611, and accused of being involved in prostitution. She was picked up “in Powles Church,” obviously St. Paul’s Walk, near the cathedral, “with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion of a man with a mans cloake on her to the great scandall of diuers persons who vnderstood the same & to the disgrace of all womanhood.” The constable who apprehended her sent her back to Bridewell, where she spent Christmas and the next few weeks locked up,

She was then interrogated by the Bishop of London on 27 January 1612. The Bishop of London reprimanded her for her habits – for the wanton pleasure of smoking and for making music in public – both activities seen to be inventions of the devil, made to inflame the passions of the addicts and of the listeners and to entice them to fall into debauchery.

In her interrogation Mary did confess to being still “associated … with cut purses” and to frequenting the “lewd company” of “blasphemous drunkardes & others of bad note & most dissolute behaviour.”

While ‘Moll’ in her theatre performance had asserted that her crossing of gender boundaries was NOT transgressive, disruptive, immoral or reprehensible, and thus not punishable, this didn’t wash with the guardians of public morality. The Bishop accused her of being a prostitute, since a cross-dressed woman was implying the assuming of the sexually active role of man, which according to the contemporary moral prism suggested a whore. While women entered prostitution and employed cross-dressing for social, economic, and security reasons, there is no evidence available to prove that Mary Frith was a cross-dressed prostitute.

In reply to the bishop pressing her “to declare whether she had not byn dishonest of her body & hath not drawne also other women to lewdnes by her perswasions & by carrying her selfe lyke a bawde”, Mary “absolutly denied that she was chargeable with eyther of these imputacions.”

The bishop, unable to pin the charge of prostitution, nonetheless, “thought fit to remand her to Bridewell … vntill he might further examine the truth of the misdemeanors inforced against her without laying as yet any further censure vppon her.”

Like all Bridewell inmates, Mary would have undergone the regular punitive regime of reform consisting of corporal punishment and hard work, a process that used to last two or three months, especially if inmates showed no tendency to be ‘reformed’. Inmates were dressed in blue garments and ordered to beat hemp and flax; and regularly beaten themselves. In compliance with the rules of the governors, she had to account to them, in their weekly routine sessions, for her misbehaviour and immorality.

Other cross-dressing women had already been subject to this process: Joanna Goodman, who in 1569 was whipped for dressing as a male servant, and Mary Wakeley, who in 1601 was detained for her misconduct as a transvestite…

Katherine Cuffe suffered the same fate, in February 1599, for cross-dressing as a boy and “for her wicked lyfe and great offence” committed within the boundaries of the Inner Temple. She confessed to the court which met in Bridewell on 13 February 1599 that Ambrose Jasper, the cook of the Inner Temple, had asked her “to come in boyes apparrell” to his room “for that he would not haue her come in her owne apparrell least that she should be espyed.” In compliance with her lover’s cunning strategem, she turned up in male disguise, flouting the rules of an all-male academic institution. She “laye” with Jasper “allnight” and he “had th’vse and carnall knowledge of her bodye a little before Christmas last.”

Depictions, Moralism, Myth

As with many figures, both real and imagined, Moll Cutpurse’s life and image was co-opted to reinforce prejudices or sell tickets/pamphlets, sometimes both. In Moll’s case this process began in her own youth with the staging of The Roaring Girl and other literary representations, but as with many another historical figure layers of myth and moralising were alter laid on top, until the ‘real’ Mary was buried under legend. It was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries for more or less accurate hack biographies/fake autobiographies to be rushed out on the occasion of a celebrity death (with execution literature a speciality); often ‘facts’, legends or anecdotes from one life would be pasted into another for sensationalist appeal. Much as woodcuts made for one purpose would be re-titled and used for another.

Moll’s various depictions are early examples; how much of the ups and downs of her life are true to life is uncertain. An added layer of mystification is added, as she was clearly at least partly party to the myth-making about herself; when others were out to profit by inventing her life, she might as well do it herself, and slyly profit from the jumble of moralising, titillation, and projection.

Do clothes make the Man?

There is a strong link between ‘Moll’s notorious cross-dressing early career and her later rise to businesswoman: clothing. From offending against the ‘sumptuary laws’ regulating appropriate attire for her sex and class, she moved into a trade where clothing was itself a popular commodity, and stolen cloth and apparel was often altered to be unrecognisable when sold on (if it couldn’t be profitably returned to its former owner). It’s worth reading Natasha Korda’s The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage” here, where the links between both costume and its creation/repair, and the fencing and secondhand trade in clothing and the theatre, are pointed out. Korda emphasises how workers in the theatre also doubled as clothing-dealers – notably around the Fortune Theatre, where Moll made her appearance – showing individuals moving between the two,  as economic necessity dictated. But stage performance and the performance of trading, dealing, fronting up a gang, are also linked: Mary Frith created Moll as a character, in many ways, although others wrote some of the scripts, she cannily played the role when she needed to. And if the fame it brought was double-edged, she was able to turn it to her advantage to continue to make a good living.

The 1611 ‘Roaring Girl’ play also can be read to be expressing concerns about clothing (among other things), and how much clothing makes the person, more specifically, does male clothing makes a man a man, and make Moll a man for wearing it? This is expressed throughout the play in jokes and comments, and, as Marjorie Garber observes, the multi-layered sex/gender costuming (two women, played by young boys, dressing as men, one later revealing herself as a woman, the other (Moll Frith) asserting her continued femaleness though in male dress). Obviously also theatre didn’t just involve ‘dressing-up’, wearing a costume, but the idea that disguising by changing clothing actually altered Moll’s ‘case’ is definitely thrown up. Pre-saging some current 21st century debates about the nature of gender… However, how much the real ‘Moll’ bought into any of this is speculation.

The Roaring Girle, was not Frith’s only on-stage representation. Later in 1611, Nathan Field’s play Amends for Ladies was performed, very much a riposte to the Middleton/Dekker play, and Moll appears as a subversive, transgressive personality, parading the sins of thieving and lust, But clearly introduced only as condemnation. Such subversive attitudes must be punished and so Moll is put in the pillory as an emblem of everything seen as wrong with the over-independent female.

In Mary Frith’s case the Bridewell treatment failed to change her ways:
‘They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood: or that Parson who being enjoined to wear the Surplice contrary to his will’

On 9 February 1612 Mary was required to do a penance for her “evil living”, standing in a white sheet at St. Paul’s Cross (the scene of her transgression) during the Sunday morning sermon. A letter from John Chamberland, a keen observer of town and court life, to Dudley Carlton, noted that “last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants),” had done penance in public; Chamberlain noted she was later suspected of having been “maudelin druncke.” “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarters of sack”.

Ungerer suggests the severity of her treatment in the Bridewell may have influenced her to give up the public performance aspect of her life, as it was attracting too much repressive attention, and turned to ‘brokerage’ as an alternative career… By the time of her marriage she was already fencing goods on her own account.

According to the (admittedly dubiously accurate) biographies of ‘Moll’, doing penance in the pillory didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for cross-dressing: “this penance did not reclaim her, for she still went in men’s apparel, very decently dressed”. If anything she or her mates may have turned the pillory appearance to advantage, as allegedly many in the attending crowd had their clothes slashed (or got pockets picked?): “Besides, many of the spectators had little cause to sport themselves then at the sight ; for some of her emissaries, without any regard to the sacredness of the place, spoiled a good many clothes, by cutting part of their cloaks and gowns, and sending them home as naked behind as Aesop’s crow, when every bird took its own feather from her.

A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers, who by such an hazardous seizure have as thems”
(The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse)

By 1614 (possibly), and by the 1620s certainly, Mary Frith was, according to her own account, working as a fence and a pimp.  It appears from a Star Chamber bill of 1621 that by 1621 Mary Markham, alias Mary Frith, alias Mary Thrift, alias Mal/Moll Cutpurse, was running a licensed fencing business or lost property office in the city of London; probably around Fleet Street. The Bill of 1621 locates Moll’s brokerage and receiving house in Fleet Street, as does The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. She was still living in this area at her death nearly 40 years later.

Elsewhere she is said to have rented a shop in Shoe Lane (the southern end of the notorious Saffron Hill rookery), which ran down to meet St Bride Street, slightly north of Fleet Street.

“she turned fence that is to say, a buyer of stolen goods ; by which occupation she got a great deal of money. In her house she set up a kind of brokery, or a distinct factory for jewels, rings and watches which had been pinched or stolen any manner of way, at never so great distance, from any person. It might properly enough be called the Insurance Office for such merchandise, for the losers were sure, upon com position, to recover their goods again, and the pirates were sure to have a good ransom, and she so much in the gross for brokage, without any more danger, the hue and cry being always directed to her for the discovery of the goods, not the takers.”

Her old connections among street-thieves and cutpurses would have served her well in the ‘brokerage’ business – doubling as a fence and also a recoverer of stolen goods on behalf of the owners – for a fee. This kind of industry was to be perfected by figures like Jonathan Wilde a century later: combining effectively running gangs of thieves and selling stolen goods, (but dobbing them in to the authorities if it was profitable) and returning goods to the robbed for a price.

Fencing stolen goods was a not uncommon way, in those times, for independent women to make a living. Largely excluded as they from any skilled, paid work regulated tightly by the male-only urban Guilds – run by men and dominated by the powerful masters in various trades – early modern working women found work where they could in London’s black economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth. These ‘disorderly’ commercial practices were as common as they were frowned on by the guilds and City authorities: increasing guild restrictions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on female labour only pushed more women into this sector. The famously litigious Guild structures were generally keen to prosecute women who imposed on their male only rules (as well as non-Guild men who tried to set up in regulated businesses, and the Guilds’ own journeymen who attempted to combine collectively to fight for better conditions and pay). In this sense, as Natasha Korda points out, women’s work in the era Mary lived in should probably be seen as a spectrum from legal to illegal – criminal ways of making a living were hardly less heavily punished in many cases than legal methods when a woman took them up.

Selling of secondhand and stolen goods – a huge business, with the distinction between the two at most times loose at best – operated on this spectrum on the edge of legality; much of the merchandise in question often being clothes, fabric, household items. Women were often movers and shakers in this trade, as well as its offshoot –  quasi-official activity in the return or custody of stolen goods, and thence to emergent ‘thief-taking’.

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (allegedly auto-biographical, though this may be utterly untrue) describes her operation:

“In my house . . . I set up a kind of Brokery or a distinct factory for Jewels, Rings and Watches, which had been pinched or stolen. . . . I might properly enough call it the Insurance Office for such Merchandize, for the Losers were sure upon Composition [i.e. payment of a fee] to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were as sure to have good ransome, and I so much in the Grosse for Brokerage [i. e. a percentage of the whole for acting as agent] without any more danger; the Hue and Cry being always directed to me for the Discovery of the Goods not the Takers. A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between the illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers. . . . My House was the Algiers where they traffiqued in safety . . . and publiquely exposed what they got without the danger of Inquisition. . . . I may be said to have made a perfect regulation of this thievish Mystery, and reduced it to certain rules and orders, which during my administration of the Mistressship and Government thereof, was far better managed then afterwards it was. . .”

The fight to stay alive being what it was, many combined several trades, from necessity, so for instance alehouse owners might move into buying and selling goods, already having premises; broadening your options was generally useful.

The markets in second-hand and stolen goods and clothing merged and morphed: frippers (used clothing dealers) worked as pawn-brokers (and vice versa), pawnbrokers as receivers of stolen goods, and receivers as “thief-takers.” ‘Brokers’ with knowledge of criminal networks could return stolen property to its owners, others altered the goods beyond recognition for resale, or sold “the stolen goods vnto duchmen, Scotts and French Brokers,” as a letter from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to the Queen’s Attorney General complained in 1601.

My case is altered

As Natasha Korda points out, the caption of the woodcut used to illustrate Middleton & Dekker’s Roaring Girl, “My case is alter’d, I must worke for my liuing”, contains sexual innuendo – ‘case’ was commonly used as slang for female genitalia. The play repeatedly suggests that Moll’s anatomical sex has been altered by her male apparel, as when Sir Alexander Wengrave declaims “Heyday, breeches! What, will [my son] marry a monster with two trinkets?”

Mary’s true motives are hard to read and impossible to pin down at this distance. What if any gender bending was actually involved here? The temptation to put 21st century labels on her should probably be resisted (though Ellen Galford’s 1984 novel ‘Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’ turns her life into an enjoyable lesbian romp)

It’s not really a reliable clue, since the ‘auto’ bit of the autobiographical The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith might well not be gospel, but in it ‘Moll’ makes pains to separate herself from at least one other ‘cross-dresser’:
“There was also a fellow a cotemporary of mine, as remarkable as my self, called Aniseed-water Robin: who was clothed very near my Antic Mode, being an Hermaphrodite, a person of both Sexes; him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him Man and Woman, had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the Male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the Female: being but one step removed from a Natural Changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then Counted for an Artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spite in sending that thing into the world to Mate and Match me, that nothing might be without a peer; and the vacuum of Society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an Antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the Boys to fall upon, and throw Dirt at him, I made him quit my Walk and Habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my Neighbours, who used to say, here comes Malls Husband.”

Aniseed-water Robin seems to have been a well-known seller of aniseed-water who was indeed said to be hermaphroditic, and appears in various verses and accounts, in some of which s/he was claimed to have impregnated him/herself…!

If this is genuinely Mary or really represents her views/acts, there could be all sorts of reasons for her distinguishing herself from ‘Robin’ –The dislike of a cunning operator for competition in the cross dressed local celeb stakes? A transvestite for self-promotional gain fearing a more genuine intersex outsider? Or was it “here comes Malls Husband.” she objected to? – still refusing to countenance even the mocking suggestion of marriage?
Her contempt for Robin could of course be an insertion from a dubious biographer with his own dodgy agenda… This does echo the arguments in the ‘Haec Vir’ pamphlet somewhat…

Stephen Orgel suggests that the Mary shown in the surviving sources was essentially conservative, with “middle class aspirations”, or at least seeking a socially & economically stabile position, if through ‘edgy’ means; “a wit, a trickster, an outlaw, though on the whole not dangerous”. The contemporary sources do tend to emphasise her fundamental support for royalty, law and society, while provoking and at the boundaries of what was acceptable in her own interest, or at least learning early from her run-ins with law and order to cunningly operate in the hinterlands…

Although she was portrayed as a ‘sexual aberration’, and despite the theatrical assertions that she ‘would never marry’, in fact in March 1614, she DID marry – to one Lewknor Markham, an ‘esquire of Nottingham’. However, this may well have been a marriage of convenience, giving Moll useful legal cover in the case of actions against her for fencing stolen property. Moll’s criminal and then notorious theatrical past had laid on her a reputation as anything from monster, to sexual aberrant, to hermaphrodite; marriage conveyed status, respectability, cultural normalcy. She also used the marriage and her old and new names cunningly to outwit legal pursuit over the dubious origin of the goods she sold:

“Mary Frith took advantage of her rise in status as a married woman in claiming to be, as the case required, either a feme sole, a single woman, or a feme covert, a married woman under coverture whose legal identity was covered by her husband. As feme sole, she could pose both as a spinster, as Mary Frith, and as a married woman, as Mary Markham, who with respect to property and business was as independent of her husband as if she were unmarried. As feme covert, however, she could not contract and was liable to lose her right for independent action with regard to property and real estate as well as her right to sue and be sued on her own behalf. Thus, in 1624 when Richard Pooke, hatmaker, sued “Mary Frith alias Markham of London, Spinster,” for some unpaid beaver hats, the attorney warned Pooke not to sue her as feme sole under the name of Mary Frith, for she had already defeated other complainants by claiming that she was feme covert, married “to one Markham.” She did, indeed, resort to this legal double game in defending herself against Pooke’s complaint, arguing “that she is Maryed to the same Markham and soe being a feme Covert, she cannot be ympleaded as feme Sole”

Mary probably entered her marriage on condition that she had the right to run a business on her own account, and the couple certainly had not lived together for several years prior to her 1624 court appearance. Either her view on marriage had evolved from the time of Middleton and Dekker’s play, or she always took a flexible approach to matrimony, with her own interests in mind, and the social (and legal!) advantages to the forefront of her thoughts… From pickpocket she had risen socially, carefully building herself a position of intermediary between thief and victim, between law and crime – a fertile and profitable hinterland (as Jonathan Wilde was to later prove).

Fertile, profitable, but still unstable. A fence sat always on the fence, between abetting the underworld and acting for the lawful. When prosecutions were largely private, litigation against a receiver of stolen goods was often on the cards. In 1621, Mary was indited by Richard Dell and his wife Margaret, after apparently naming them as having robbed Henry Killigrew, gentleman, relived of “certen peeces of gold and some seales and other thinges” by a prostitute he was dallying with, down Blackhorse Alley. Killgrew had been advised to seek Mary’s hep with recovering his valuables, and she had fingered the Dells, confirmed by Killigrew identifying Margaret Dell as his sometime night-time companion.  Margaret Dell was committed to the Compter prison.

Richard Dell labelled Mary Markham as “a notorious infamous person, and such a one as was well knowne & acquainted with all theeves & cutpurses.” Mary retorted that she had a royal commission to examine thieves, and threatened that if the Dells “gaue her any ill wordes or language, she … might and did giue them some reply in some tart or angry manner agayne.”

Such murky dealings cemented Mary Frith’s reputation as a somewhat dubious broker, which lasted until her death in 1659. Merlinus Anonymus, a mock almanac by the royalist Samuel Sheppard, published in 1653, has the following calendar entry for 11 March: “Mrs. Frith tax’d for conivance and acquitted by a Jury of pick pockets’.

In Merry Mad Queries for the People’s Information (1659), a copy of which was acquired by the publisher George Thomason on 13 June 1659, a week after Mary Frith had signed her will, one query reads: “Whether Mrs. Mary Frith commonly called by some Mall Cut-purse, having formerly done so good service at the Bear Garden, and many other things for the good of the Nation, being now aged and having no children of her own body lawfully begotten, as ever I heard of, might not do a pious Act to appoint one to succeed her to help the people to their purses again when she is gone?”

And in Sir John Berkenhead’s Libri Theologici, Politici, Historici, Nundinis Paulinis (una cum Templo) prostant venales … Done into English for the Assembly of Divines (1651/52) Berkenhead couples William Lilly, the astrologer of the Parliament, and Mary Frith, the retriever of stolen goods, listing a spoof joint book venture of Lilly and Frith; “Pancirolla Medela. A way to find out things lost and Stoln; by the said William Lilly. With a Claris to his book, or the Art of his Art. By Mistris Mary Frith.” Berkenhead was seemingly poking fun at both Lilly’s dubious divinations and on the impotence of Mary Frith to beget children, though dressed as a man.

Being recouered of their former sences

In the early 1640s Mary Frith was declared insane and hospitalised in Bethlehem Hospital. The administration, the running of the asylum, and the vicious and inhuman ‘treatment’, (generally beating and punishing the inmates), lay in the hands of the governors of Bridewell, subsidised by the City parishes. How had Moll Cutpurse ended up there? Sectioned after some arrest and committal to the Bridewell? Pretending madness in order to avoid the political turmoils and survive the economic disruption of the civil war?

She is recorded as being released after being cured of insanity: the Bridewell governors meeting on Friday, 21 June 1644, “thought fitt & ordered … that Gilbert Stopford, Katherine Killingham alias Killigrew, Anne Parrett, Mary Frith, Margery Houghton, Robert Crockett and Mary Thornton shal bee delivered & discharged out of the Hospital of Bethlem, London, being recouered of their former sences & may bee kept & provided for in any other place as well as in the hospitall of Bethlem. And that they bee every of them respectively sent to the severall Parishes from whence they came.”

One of the most famuous tales recounted of Moll Cutpurse, is that in her 60s she robbed Parliamentary Civil War supremo General Fairfax “of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate.” From where she is said to have escaped, or bribed her way out…

Is this true though? It’s a great story, which we’d love to believe just because it so outrageous; but doubt has been cast on it. It runs somewhat against the patterns of her life, and of petty crime generally, for a London-bred thief and fence to ‘go out on the roads’. The publisher George Horton, who put out the 1662 account, The Womans Champion; or The Strange Wonder Being a true Relation of the mad Pranks, merry Conceits, Politick Figaries, and most unheard of Stratagems of Mrs. Mary Frith, had a specifically anti-parliamentary agenda, being a dedicated royalist with a penchant for ensuring an anti-republican slant was overlaid on works he sponsored. Cocking a snook at parliamentary general Fairfax was not the only apparent royalist attitude this work attributes to Mary – whether accurately or not is anyone’s guess.

She had lived for some time before at a house in Fleet Street, possibly around the site of the present no 133 Fleet; dying there aged around 78 on 26 July 1659 of ‘dropsy’ (oedema, or fluid retention).

She was buried in nearby St Bride’s Church, in an unmarked grave.


Some good reading on Moll/Mary:

Gustave Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.”

The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith

Mary Frith, Otherwise Moll Cutpurse in The Complete Newgate Calendar, Volume I

Natasha Korda,  The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the “All-Male Stage”

See chapter 6 in Linda Woodbridge, Woman and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womanhood, 1540-1620

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl

Ellen Galford,  Moll Cutpurse, Her True History’  (historical novel)

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