The Roaring Girl

Possibly Mary Frith
Unknown artist, published by William Richardson, etching, late 18th to early 19th century
MaryFirth-Roaring Girl
Nicole DeGuzman
Unknown artist
National Gallery
A 1916 engraving of Old St Paul's as it appeared before the fire of 1561 in which the spire was destroyed.
wikipedia.org
A Scene in Bridewell, plate IV. William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress, April 1732. © Tim Hitchcock.
© Tim Hitchcock.
A scene from William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress, depicting inmates at Bethem Royal Hospital
(Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

Mary Frith aka Moll Cutpurse

Mary Frith was born at Barbican on Aldersgate Street in 1584, and grew up to be one of the most famous women of her age.

Her life and times have been well-documented, not least in her own words in a 1662 autobiography, but also in The Newgate Calendar.
From what little infomation we have it appears that she came from a relatively respectable background. Her father was a shoemaker, and her uncle a churchman. However, as she grew up, she was troublesome, disruptive and pretty much uncontrollable. She looked destined for a short life of crime followed by the long drop.

Masculinity

That “boysterous and masculine spirit” most defines Frith’s girlhood. Biographies characterize her as a girl exceedingly active, physical, energetic, and all other such rambunctious descriptors. “A very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in Boys play and pastime”. She fought and ran and beat boys at their own games. She sought out trouble, frequented the bear garden, and attended “other Rabble-rout Assemblies”. Regular girls’ activities never suited her, and “she was not so to be tam’d, or taken off her rude Inclinations; she could not endure that sedentary Life of Sewing or Stitching”      Nicole DeGuzman

Her first brush with the law

 In her first brush with the law in 1600 she was arraigned for the theft of two shilling and eleven pence from a man in the Clerkenwell area of London. A hundred and fifty years later that sum would have been enough to qualify as “grand larceny” and to see her hanged, but luckily for Mary the law at this time was less bloodthirsty, and her uncle was able to facilitate her released.

Shortly after, her family resolved to rid themselves of the problem and decided to ship her off to the American colonies where young women were much in demand and she would have no trouble finding a husband and settling down. One wonders if they really knew her. Mary, as expected, was less enamoured with the idea and jumped overboard at the first opportunity and swam to shore before the ship sailed, her future life of crime beckoning.

 

Her career criminal

After joining a gang of pickpockets who preyed on people in the area of St Paul’s Cathedral, Mary became a ‘Whipster’, one of the skilled pickpockets who actually did the ‘Feat’ while the mark was distracted by the “Bulk” who then handed the goods off to a ‘Rub’. Mary proved to be a skilled Whipster, and was soon aptly named ‘Moll Cutpurse’.  Moll being short for Mary and a well known term to denote an unfeminine, bawdy and somewhat less than ladylike woman.

Repeated scrapes with the law would have gained any woman a degree of notoriety. However, what elevated Mary to celebrity status, apart from her smoking, cursing, thieving, pimping, swearing, harbouring crooks and  frequenting taverns, was that she flaunted herself in men’s clothing.
Although it was a crime for women to dress as men, they were not generally prosecuted as long as they weren’t too public about it. Moll was extremely public about it and she was barely into her twenties before titillating stories of her behavior began to circulate through London.  She soon became an urban legend. The authorities hated her and the criminal world loved her.

Cross dressing

She likely began dressing in male clothing in her twenties (there is no mention of any clothing transgression in records of her arrests in 1600 and 1602), possibly to enhance her act as an entertainer. She first became publicly known for her comedic musical performances in taverns, where she would sing, dance, and play her lute (without a license), all while dressed in male clothing. She then moved her act into tobacco shops and playhouses. The literary historian Gustav Ungerer suggested that her cross-dressing was a device of her criminality as pickpockets often operated in busy places like playhouses, and the cross-dressed Mary, performing a bawdy song and jig or smoking a pipe in a tobacco shop, would have provided a powerful distraction while her accomplices took advantage of the crowd.

The Theatre

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.

Both works dwelt on her scandalous behavior, especially that of dressing in men’s attire, and did not show her in an especially favorable light, though the surviving play is fairly complimentary towards her by contemporary standards. The Roaring Girl, while highlighting her qualities that were deemed improper, also depicted her as possessing virtue, such as when she attacks a male character for assuming all women to be prostitutes, and when she exhibits chastity by refusing to ever marry.

Mary’s sexual orientation and identities remain elusive for various reasons. Perhaps foremost is  the fact that the source material that has come down to us is fragmentary, and written by men. Might they have been male-oriented, and just a little prejudiced?

However, Mary seems to have been given a fair amount of freedom in a society that so frowned upon women who acted unconventionally.

She often performed in men’s clothing at the Fortune Theatre in 1611 which 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, who continued to wear male clothing, and adorne her house with many mirrors so she might admire herself in every room.

 

Smoking Mary

The manner in which Mary dressed and spoke challenged the moral codes of her day. She has been regarded as the “first female smoker of England” and most images of her show her smoking a pipe, which was seen as something only men did during her time period.

Frith enjoyed the attention she drew, as her theatrical ways were intended to cause a scene and make others uncomfortable. In one of her performances, ‘Amends for Ladies’, while the other women discussed their roles as wives or maids, Mary appeared as a negative representation of freedom. By cross-dressing and breaking social boundaries she was shown as having no structure, and by gaining freedom she was shown as having lost the qualities that made her a woman. Amends for Ladies was meant to show her as a different creature entirely, not possessing the standards that a woman should hold or want to hold.

Bridewell Prison

Her lewd, exhibitionist behaviour could not go ignored by the authorities forever and on Christmas Day 1611, she was arrested and sent to Bridewell Prison. In February, she was made to do public penance dressed in a white sheet. The famed letter writer John Chamberlain reported the scene to a friend. “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent,”  he wrote, although he suspected this was all for show: “It is since doubted she was maudlin drunk. Being discovered to have tippled off three quarts of sack before she came to her penance.”

 Mary, clearly undaunted by her experiences, claimed that as she was not ashamed or repentant and that the punishment was pointless. ‘They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment.’

In any event, she was deemed to have served her sentence and sent back into polite society.

Married life

Around the age of thirty in 1614, Mary married Lewknor Markham. Why she married is uncertain as later accounts of her life maintained that she only had use for men as partners in stealing and drinking, and marrying Lewknor didn’t appear to change her much because she was up before the magistrates again in 1619. In yet another trial in 1624 she confirmed that she hadn’t seen her husband for years.

At this trial Mary was  found guilty of importing beaver fur hats and it became apparent that her main source of income was from “fencing”. She would receive stolen goods and broker their return to their owners. It was as though having given birth to the myth of Moll Cutpurse, Frith felt obliged to keep her alive.

According to an account presented in The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (1662), an alleged autobiography that was likely a fictional biography, Frith later embarked upon a new scheme. As the friend of various prostitutes and of the well-known brothel owner Elizabeth Holland, Frith had noticed that the industry catered to only one sex. Frith thus recognized an untapped market among wealthy women for attractive male escorts, and her house began to fill up with soldiers and other “gallants” coming to her for employment, as well as with women looking for lovers.     Encyclopaedia Britannica

After her prosecution in 1624, Frith all but disappeared from the official records.

At some point towards the end of her life Mary was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital, but was released in 1644, apparently cured of insanity. Later still The Newgate Calendar records that at 74 years old:

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.

She died in 1659 and was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street. John Milton wrote an epitaph which was engraved on a marble headstone, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in which he celebrates her unique and rebellious spirit:

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.

Mary was a wilful, resourceful, individualist who sculptured her personality and desires to manipulate and exploit the environment she was thrown into.

 

Sources

East End Women’s Museum

Mary Frith Aka Moll Cutpurse, The Roaring Girl by Ciaran Conliffe

Nicole DeGuzman

History and Women

Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.

The Newgate Calendar

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

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