Posted by: internationalroutier | March 23, 2010

Colourful Characters – Mary Frith

Another series! I have always intended to do a series of bios of the major players of the 17th C but it is the little[r] people who keep grabbing my attention at the moment. I will endeavour to get onto the politicians, scientists, explorers and artists (or will happily publish articles by other P&M members!) but for the first in this series I will tell the tale of Mary Frith aka Moll Cutpurse.

Mary Frith was born in 1584 to a shoemaker and his indulgent wife.

Both the parents (as having no other child living) were very tender of this daughter, but especially the mother, according to the tenderness of that sex, which is naturally more indulgent than the male;

Mary was quite a tomboy, much the the frustration of her family including an uncle who attempted to send her to New England in the hope a fresh start would reform her. She leapt from the ship and swam to shore instead. She was no less controversial in her adulthood, apparently gleefully spending her wages drinking in “anyone’s company, and club till she had none left; and then she was fit for any enterprise” , Newgate Calendar Vol 1. She scandalised (intrigued? interested?) general society by appearing in public in men’s clothing. Plus she smoked a pipe. And swore! The old arguments in James’ I misogynisitc about whether women were inherently good or evil were giving way to plays, pamphlets and books that questioned and debated gender roles. Mary was, by her life’s example, in the thick of these debates.

After being indicted for stealing in 1600 her notoriety grew. Two plays were written about Mary and while it is difficult to tell exactly what is artistic license they do seem to have been at based in fact. The text of the first play has been lost but was recorded in the Stationer’s register August 7, 1610. It had the delightful title The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside. The text of the second survives though and is a comedy called The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker and was first published in 1611.

The fact that Moll smoked a pipe was tremendously important to both her 17thC reputation and the character that she became in The Roaring Girl. In her 1662 biography 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 it is claimed Moll was the first woman in England to smoke. Galenic medical theories of the day gave that smoking was hot and dry which was corrective to the moist, cold female humors and certainly by both Mary’s habits and dress there was not much of the modest, silent, obedient model 17Cth woman about her. Refusing to marry, Mary supported herself through her modest cutpurse (and the picking of pockets) prowess, and she is recorded as having been burnt in the hand, a common punishment for thieves, 4 times. She was also known for committing highway robberies and well as being a fence for stolen goods.

Once a gentleman who had lost his watch by the busy fingers of a pickpocket came very anxiously to Moll, in quiring if she could help him to it again. She demanded of him the marks and signs thereof, with the time when, and where, he had lost it, or by what crowd or other accident. He replied that, coming through Shoe Lane, there was a quarrel betwixt two men … and while he was looking on at the scuffle, some of them had lent him a hand too, and fingered out his watch. Moll smiled at the adventure, and told him he should hear further of it within a day or two at the furthest. When the gentleman came again, she understood by his discourse that he would not lose it for twice its value, because it was given him by a particular friend; so she squeezed twenty guineas out of him before he could obtain his watch.

The Complete Newgate Calendar
Volume I

Moll seems to have been more suited to the organisational aspects of such a life and it is said in A Book of Scoundrels, by Charles Whibley that

Already she had endeared herself to the gang by unnumbered acts of kindness and generosity; already her inflexible justice had made her umpire in many a difficult dispute. If a rascal could be bought off at the gallows’ foot, there was Moll with an open purse; and so speedily did she penetrate all the secrets of thievish policy, that her counsel and comfort were soon indispensable.
Here, then, was her opportunity. Always a diplomatist rather than a general, she gave up the battlefield for the council chamber. She planned the robberies which defter hands achieved; and, turning herself from cly-filer to fence, she received and changed to money all the watches and trinkets stolen by the gang. Were a citizen robbed upon the highway, he straightway betook himself to Moll, and his property was presently returned him at a handsome price. Her house, in short, became a brokery.

Some references are made to her being a pimp procuring prostitutes of both sexes, for both male and female customers. The way she lived her life aroused anxieties in many of her time and, perhaps surprisingly to us, particularly her smoking drew much commentary. Smoking was viewed by the moralistic Jacobeans as a noxious American import which James I questioned if it would encourage the nakedness and ‘devil worship’ of the American Indian who taught the English to smoke.

However, within the context of Moll’s day to day life smoking was probably quite useful. Tobacco is known for dulling the appetite and for a woman with an uncertain wage and a reluctance to take a husband this may have been quite handy at times! As an avowed celibate ,her smoking and male dress would have both helped avert unwanted male attention. According to her 1662 biographer Moll “Took no Sweet heart, or any such fond thing to dally with her”. Luckily for Moll tobacco also, according to theories of the day, dulled sexual appetite. This was just as well because Ambroise Pare (a 17thC physician) claimed that a maid who “imagin[ed] the act of generation” in addition to “the tickling of the genitals” could cause “female semen” to rush into the uterus and become “venomous”. Her biographer alludes to Mary’s escaping such a fate by stating that she ” never had the green sickness, that epidemical disease of maidens after they have once passed their puberty… no sighs, dejected looks, or melancholy clouded her vigorous spirits, or repressed her joviality ;she was troubled with none of those longings which poor maidens are subject to.”
Mary died in her 70’s in 1663 leaving no will, but distributed jewellery and amounts of cash amongst friends and carers as well as leaving enough for her funeral expenses. Apparently 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. ”

A little note; these are the references I have used to put together my understanding of Moll’s life and times. I am quite sure there are scads more so don’t be going cutting and pasting this blog into your thesis. This is purely for enjoyment only; so no, my reference system probably doesn’t conform to academic standards either. It can in the article you write though 🙂
*Whibley, Charles. A Book of Scoundrels
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
*The Complete Newgate Calendar Volume I;MARY FRITH OTHERWISE MOLL CUTPURSE
A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663
*Counterfeit Ladies: The Life and Death of Mary Frith the Case of Mary Carleton by Janet Todd, Elizabeth Spearing, Elizabeth Spearing (Editor)
* Mary Frith, Wikipedia
*The Smoking Girl: Tobacco and the Representation of Mary Frith. Craig Rustici



  1. i think my mother-in – law is a direct descendent of mary frith uncanny likeness.

  2. How interesting. Mary Frith has a small cameo in my new novel (work-in-progress). Thanks for the further insight.

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