GA Voice

Moll Cutpurse: ‘Bawd, Bully, Pick-purse, Receiver, Forger, Fortune Teller’

- María Helena Dolan

When you hear the term “militant bisexual woman,” a certain image may come to mind. That image is probably not that of a 17th century female “highwayman” who ran a gang of cutthroat thieves, swaggered through London streets in male drag and lived unrepentan­tly to the age of 75.

Born instantly rebellious, Mary Frith was indulged by middle-class parents. She grew up “very tomrig and rumpscuttl­e” and became an exceptiona­l horsewoman and fine shot. But Daddy Frith eventually thought to guide his rebel girl into womanly ways.

Endure a proscribed and deadly sedentary life sewing samplers? According to The Newgate Calendar—a series of 18th- and 19thcentur­y criminal biographie­s named for Newgate prison in London, “[H]er needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.”

Despairing, her father sought to pack her off to the colonies (i.e. America) dressed as a man for a life of indentured servitude. Placed on a Boston-bound merchant ship, the 14-yearold managed to jump overboard and swim ashore to fulfill her criminal destiny.

Early on, Mary excelled at cutting the “purse” worn at the waist by Elizabetha­n and Jacobean men. She graduated to running a gang of cut-purses and and finally robbing carriages with aplomb. And she warmly received the name “Moll,” which denoted a woman of scandalous reputation.

Tall, with piercing blue eyes and dark, curly locks, she took to wearing elegant men’s clothes, with richly appointed doublets and always topped with a black cape, tricorn hat and a fine pipe. In fact, she is said to be the first woman to smoke tobacco in England.

Moll spoke with the stentorian tones of a general. She sauntered through London streets, radiating power and sexuality, turning the heads of both men and women, her minions and her manner usually affording proof against impediment.

Such a mythology grew around her that she was nicknamed “the roaring girl,” which she adored. A successful play was written about her with The Roaring Girl as its title.

The play’s author, Thomas Middleton, declared Moll a “handsome and graceful woman,” kindhearte­d and generous in her dealings with other criminals, a woman who covered the walls of her houses with looking glasses and amused herself with lovers of both sexes.

She excelled in carriage-robbing on the many highways and byways of London, suddenly appearing bestride her horse, in mask and swirling cape. She could resort to female dress if chased, thus confoundin­g pursuers.

Of course, she could not always elude the law. She had her hand branded — the fate of thieves — and served some time. In fact, she was once jailed for riding at full gallop through the center of town, dressed outlandish­ly, a large cape flowing behind her, blowing a trumpet — all to win a wager. But she always redounded to her chosen life.

It was the wearing of men’s clothes that particular­ly infuriated the moralists. She was arrested from time to time for this particular crime. As Moll told it:

“An Accusation was exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel … I was sentenced … to stand and do penance (naked but) in a white sheet at Paul’s Cross (Cathedral) during morning Sermon on a Sunday

They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment.”

When asked if she would ever wed, Moll replied, “I have no humor to marry. I love to lie a’ both sides of the bed … I have the head of myself and am man enough for any woman.”

Her career on the highways ended after an exchange of gunfire and a great chase, successful until her horse gave out. Tried and jailed and forced into female clothes, she bought her way out of Newgate prison with a £2000 bribe (this was equivalent to the purchase of 242 horses or the paid wages for 40,000 days of skilled tradesmen. Crime paid).

She was still able to buy a house on Fleet Street, near the Globe Theater, where she began an extremely lucrative trade fencing stolen goods.

Unfortunat­ely, almost seven decades of riotous living took a toll. With no husband or children, Moll had no hedge for old age. But despite spells spent in Bethlem Hospital, a psychiatri­c facility, she died in her own bed, unrepentan­t to the end.

 ?? HISTORICAL IMAGE ?? Moll Cutpurse
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