The Roaring Girl
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 first brush with the law
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
East End Women’s Museum
Mary Frith Aka Moll Cutpurse, The Roaring Girl by Ciaran Conliffe
History and Women
Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature.
The Newgate Calendar