Friday, 7 December 2012

The Considerable Crimes of the Cutpurse Cross-Dresser

                                  When Mary Frith was a little girl she was described as ‘…  a very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle,’ which isn’t a description we use of little girls too often in our own day (although perhaps we should); she was, as we might say instead, a tomboy. She would run, jump, hop and fight with boys, and very often beat them, and soon developed a taste for tavern-life. Her parents had thought to put her into service but she had no love for housework and had a ‘… natural abhorrence to the tending of children.’  Instead, she grew up to be ‘a lusty and sturdy wench,’ took to a life of crime and gained notoriety as a bully, forger, receiver of stolen goods, fortune-teller and as a pick-pocket, from which she earned her nickname of ‘Moll Cutpurse.’ 

A Cutpurse

In those days (the early 1600s) before pockets became popular, people would carry their money and valuables in a purse on their belts or girdles, and a cutpurse would surreptitiously cut the strings by which it was suspended and steal it away. They worked in teams; a ‘bulk’ would create an obstruction or distraction (usually starting a fight), the ‘file’ (like Moll) would cut the purse whilst the third, the ‘rub’, would carry it off. For a £20 wager, Moll dressed in a doublet and breeches, boots with spurs and with a trumpet in her hand and a banner over her back, rode from Charing Cross to Shoreditch on Morocco, a famous performing horse. 

Morocco - the Performing Horse

Moll was hauled before an ecclesiastical court for the ‘crime’ of impropriety, (wearing men’s clothes), and was sentenced to do penance wearing a white sheet at the door of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, after which she regularly wore men’s clothes, feeling that she had paid for the licence to do so. She was said to have wept copiously as she underwent the punishment, which undoubtedly pleased the authorities, until it came out later that she had drunk six pints of wine before she went to be punished. She was also, it is said, the first woman who regularly smoked tobacco in England. 

Moll Cut-Purse Smoking

She was a fine horsewoman, an adroit fencer and fought readily with a cudgel, and contrary to the norm of her day, she appeared on stage in plays and also played the lute to an audience (when only male performers were allowed in the theatre). She also made what is considered to be a marriage of convenience in 1614, to counter allegations that she was a ‘spinster’ (which was code for ladies who, shall we say, favour the flatter shoe). 

Middleton and Dekker - The Roaring Girle - 1611

Moll was known as a ‘roaring girl’, after the ‘roarers of her day – young men who drank heavily in taverns and then fought savagely in the streets, just for the hell of it – and a play by Middleton and Dekker ‘The Roaring Girl’ (1611) was written about her exploits, presenting her in a flattering, if idealized, light. Another play, Amends for Ladies, a comedy also featuring Moll Cutpurse, by Nathaniel Field, appeared in 1639. 

Nathaniel Field - Amends for Ladies - 1639

After King Charles returned from the Scotch War in the same year, she rushed out into Fleet Street, shook and kissed the King’s hand shouting, “Welcome Home, Charles,” and paid £20 for wine to be poured down the Great Conduit which brought fresh drinking water into the city of London. When the Civil War broke out, Moll declared herself most definitely for the King, and her exploits as a highwaywoman served the Royal cause, as she only robbed Cromwell’s supporters. She was said to have robbed General Fairfax and his men of 250 Jacobuses (a golden coin worth 25 shillings), on Hounslow Heath, shot him through the leg and killed two horses belonging to his servants, was pursued and taken prisoner by the Roundheads and sent to Newgate Prison, where she gained her freedom with a bribe of £2,000. 

Moll (or Mall) Cut-Purse

She considered the robbery to be just, as the Parliamentarians had, in her opinion, stolen the crown from her King. She used the proceeds from her highway robberies to buy food and provisions for the cavalier soldiery. In later life, she became a procuress and ran a bawdy house, catering for both male and female clientele, high and low alike, and made more money by becoming a go-between that negotiated between thieves and the robbed for the safe return of stolen property. She also had trained animals, which she exhibited for profit, and can be seen with an ape, a dog and a parrot in a contemporary portrait. 

Moll Cutpurse and her animals

She died from dropsy, on July 26th 1659, aged 74, and left only £100 out of an estimated fortune of once over £3,000, having given away most of the proceeds of her crimes, much of it to distressed cavalier soldiers. She left her remaining money to a relative, John Frith, a shipmaster at Rotherhithe, advising him to spend the money on wine, like a man, rather than risk drowning in salt water, like a dog, with £20 to be set aside and spent to make wine run once more down the Fleet Street Conduit.

Middleton and Dekker - The Roaring Girle - 1611

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