Mary Frith, 17th-Century London's Smoking, Thieving, Foul-Mouthed "Roaring Girl"

One of early modern Britain's most memorable underworld characters, Mary Frith flouted convention at every turn. Far from being the weak, timid woman who stayed at home taking care of children as Elizabethan ideals demanded, she took to the streets and stage, making a spectacle of herself that earned both official opprobrium and not a little public admiration.

Mary was making a name for herself while she was barely out of her teens. Born circa 1584 near St. Paul's Cathedral in London as the only child of a shoemaker and a housewife, she acquired a reputation as a tomrig (tomboy) or hoyden (boisterous girl) in her neighborhood. The Newgate Calendar—a series of 18th- and 19th-century criminal biographies named for Newgate prison in London—would later relate:

"She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet [burial shroud]; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels."

By age 16, Mary had already kicked off her career as a thief. She was arrested on August 26, 1600, suspected of having nicked someone's purse at Clerkenwell in central London. Two other girls were arrested for the crime as well, suggesting the three were working as a gang. Though Mary confessed at the subsequent trial, she was found not guilty, and it wasn't long before she was busted again for theft: In March of 1602, she was prosecuted for having taken "a purse with XXVs [25 shillings] of Richard Ingles."

Mary's father's brother was a minister and, noticing his niece's penchant for trouble, reportedly arranged a spot for her on board a ship headed for the New World. But Mary refused to make the trip: It's said that she jumped overboard while the ship was still in the harbor and swam back to shore. After that, she resolved to never go near her uncle again, and began hanging out in the seedier areas of London. She made a decent living there as a pickpocket, and over the course of her career, reportedly had her hand burned at least four times—a then-common punishment for theft.

Soon, Mary's occupation led her to acquire a nickname: She was known on the streets as Moll Cutpurse, for the purse strings she slashed. Moll was a double entendre: Not only was it a nickname for Mary, it also was a term for a disreputable young woman, e.g., a gangster's moll.

It was around this time that Mary started wearing men's clothing, a practice she continued for the rest of her life. Although doing so was unusual, Mary wasn't the only woman of her day who wore men's garb; it was something of a fad among young, lower-class women who frequented London's theaters and brothels in the 1600s. These ladies, colloquially called Roaring Girls—a play on roaring boys, males who would holler at and bully passers-by—were also known to crop their hair and carry swords, as Mary did.

But Mary's choice of clothing carried consequences—King James was incensed by the cross-dressing fad—and on Christmas Day of 1611, she was arrested and sent to Bridewell Prison. She was tried for "wearing indecent and manly apparel." After her sentence was served, she was made to wear a white sheet at the open-air pulpit of St. Paul's Cross during the Sunday sermon, which was meant to humiliate her. Mary wasn't the least bit ashamed, though, as recorded in her claimed autobiography (although the extent to which she wrote these words herself is debated by historians):

"They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood."

By then Mary had become a figure of local notoriety. In fact, two plays had already been written with her as the protagonist: John Day's The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside in 1610 and The Roaring Girl or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker the following year (a theatrical hit in which she made a cameo, possibly becoming the first English woman to perform in a public theater). Of the public penance at St. Paul's in 1612, the writer John Chamberlain penned to Dudley Carlton: "She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarts of sack [white fortified wine].”

So generally unashamed was Mary that—according to legend—when her friend the showman William Banks dared her to ride about three miles from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man on his famous dancing horse, Marocco, she accepted the bet of 20 pounds—but not before she got herself a trumpet and a banner, just to make sure no one missed her. Mary later said that as she rode, she pretended to be "Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso," and that the journey was a lark until she reached Bishopsgate, with a mile left to go, whereupon:

" … passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, 'Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down.'

"I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure …

"So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature."

A drawing of Mary Frith from the title-page of The Roaring Girl
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Part of Mary's fame also came from the fact that she smoked a pipe, which was considered exclusively a man's pursuit in the 1600s. It became her signature, and today she's thought of as England's first female smoker. Hanging around tobacco shops seems to have inspired another of her salacious-for-the-era hobbies: playing the lute in public. In 1611, she even debuted on the lute at the Fortune Theater playing bawdy songs.

Around the age of 30, Mary seems to have made a move toward settling down. She married Lewknor Markham (possibly a son of Gervase Markham, a noted author of poetry and cookbooks) in 1614. But historians think it was probably a ruse, set up to give her a means of defending herself in court when she was defamed as a spinster. Although it was often said that women who dressed in men's clothing were "sexually riotous," according to later biographies Mary herself purportedly had no interest in sex, be it with men or women.

After spending years in and out of jail for petty theft, Mary also began working as a fence—a buyer and seller of stolen goods—which was a much less dangerous job than being a pickpocket. She set up a pawn shop of sorts in her house, where she’d store her purchases, then sell them back to their original owners at a profit. She also supposedly acted as a pimp, finding young women for men as well as male lovers for married women, sometimes using her own house as a brothel. From these gigs, she amassed a healthy income and invested it in her home, which has been described as “surprisingly feminine” and was decked with mirrors all over, to stroke her vanity. She employed three full-time maids and kept mastiffs and parrots, doting especially on the dogs—each one had its own bed with sheets and blankets, like a human's.

But working as a fence may have grown boring for Mary, because during the early 1640s she supposedly made another career switch, becoming a highway-woman who held up travelers at gunpoint. Despite her decades-long criminal lifestyle, she also supposedly became a Royalist, siding with the king and against the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. In her purported autobiography, she claims to have genuflected before the king when other "Saucy Rogues" wanted him dead, and brags that she was the "onely declared person in our street against the Parliament." Whether she truly supported the monarchy is a subject of debate—some historians believe the story is nothing more than posthumous myth-making, while others argue it's largely accurate, and that she may have supported the monarchy because they "were not as inclined to legislate morality."

Mary doesn't seem to have worked as a highway-woman for long (if she did at all), and disappeared from public view for several years. In 1644, at aged 60, she was released from Bethlem Hospital, a.k.a. Bedlam, London's famous psychiatric asylum, having been allegedly cured of insanity.

She died of dropsy (now known as edema) on July 26, 1659. The Newgate Calendar said of her death: "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."

Her will, written as Mary Markham, lists several benefactors, none of which were her husband (he may have died earlier). She also adopted a practice that was common for widows and spinsters of the time, naming a woman to execute her will—in this case, her niece Frances Edmonds. She was buried in the churchyard of St. Bride's on Fleet Street, having instructed Edmonds to pay extra for her to be interred among the rich and prestigious. Although it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, her marble headstone reportedly bore an epitaph by the poet John Milton, who was a fan of hers:

"Here lies, under this same marble,
Dust, for Time's last sieve to garble;
Dust, to perplex a Sadducee,
Whether it rise a He or She,
Or two in one, a single pair,
Nature's sport, and now her care.
For how she'll clothe it at last day,
Unless she sighs it all away;
Or where she'll place it, none can tell:
Some middle place 'twixt Heaven and Hell
And well 'tis Purgatory's found,
Else she must hide her under ground.
These reliques do deserve the doom,
Of that cheat Mahomet's fine tomb
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.
Reader, here she lies till then,
When, truly, you'll see her again."

However, like much of her life, the true story of her epitaph may never be known.

Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English

Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base
Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base

If asked to name a pirate from history, many people will mention Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd. If pressed to name a female pirate, they might mention Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean alongside Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham in the early 18th century. Anne Bonny, however, was far from the only female pirate to terrorize the seas. More than a century before Bonny's birth, another woman ruled the waves, debated with Queen Elizabeth I, and sat at the head of a prosperous pirate empire. She was Grace O'Malley, Pirate Queen.

Grace With the Cropped Hair

Known in Gaelic as Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace was born in Ireland sometime around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, ruler of the territory of Umhall and the lord of an ancient, powerful dynasty in the province of Connaught. The Ó Máille family's money came from the seas, raised in the form of taxes levied on anyone who fished off their stretch of the Irish coast. The family were also shrewd traders and merchants, trading (and sometimes plundering) as far away as Spain. Ó Máille castles also dominated the southwest coastline of County Mayo, providing protection from invasion for the wealthy lord's territory. At a time when the Tudors in England were ramping up their conquest of Ireland, such defensive measures were vital.

The folklore of Grace O'Malley begins in her childhood, when she supposedly begged her father to let her join him on a trade mission to Spain. When he refused his daughter's request on the grounds that her long hair would be hazardous on the rolling deck of a ship, she hacked off her mane, earning herself the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or "Grace with cropped hair."

Though little is known of Grace's early life, when she was about 16 she made a political marriage to Dónal Ó Flaithbheartaigh, heir to the lands of Ó Flaithbheartaigh. It was an excellent dynastic match, but despite bearing her husband three children, Grace wasn't made for housewifery. She had more ambitious plans.

Soon Grace was the driving force in the marriage, masterminding a trading network to Spain and Portugal and leading raids on the vessels that dared to sail close to her shores. When her husband was killed in an ambush by a rival clan around 1565, Grace retreated to Clare Island, and established a base of operations with a band of followers. According to legend, she also fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—and for a time life was happy. But when her lover was murdered by a member of the neighboring MacMahon family, Grace led a brutal assault on the MacMahon castle at Doona and slaughtered his killers. Her actions earned her infamy as the Pirate Queen of Connaught.

Though Grace remarried for the sake of expanding her political clout, she wasn't about to become a dutiful wife. Within a year she was divorced, though pregnant, and living at Rockfleet Castle, which she'd gained in the marriage and which became her center of operations. According to legend, the day after giving birth to to her ex-husband’s son aboard a ship, she leapt from her bed and vanquished attacking corsairs

Grace continued to lead raiding parties from the coast and seized English vessels and their cargo, all of which did little to endear her to the Tudors. She was known for her aggression in battle, and it's said that when her sons appeared to be shirking, she shamed them into action with a cry of "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?"—which roughly translates as "Are you trying to hide in my arse, where you came out of?"

In 1574 an English expedition sailed for Ireland with the aim of putting an end to her exploits once and for all. Though they besieged Rockfleet Castle, no one knew the coastline better than Grace, and she repulsed them with the might of her own ships.

But Grace made history in 1593 after her son was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught. Appointed in 1584, Bingham had taken office as part of English efforts to tighten their hold on Ireland, and in 1586 his men had been responsible for the death of one of Grace's sons. Bingham also took cattle and land from Grace, which only served to increase her thirst for revenge. Yet she was a politician as much as a warrior, and knew that she couldn't hope to beat Bingham and the forces of the English government single-handedly.

Instead, she took the diplomatic route and traveled to England, where she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to discuss the release of her son and the seizure of her lands. In addition, she challenged Gaelic law that denied her income from her husband's land and demanded that she receive appropriate recompense. She argued that the tumult reigning in Connacht had compelled her to "take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past." Bingham urged the queen to refuse the audience, claiming that Grace was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years," but Elizabeth ignored his entreaties. Perhaps the monarch was intrigued by this remarkable woman, because Grace's request was granted, and the two women met in September 1593.

A Meeting With the Queen

An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
Anthologia Hibernica volume II, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Grace's Greenwich Palace summit with the queen has become legendary. She supposedly wouldn't bow to Elizabeth, whom she didn't recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Though dressed in a magnificent gown that befit her status, she also carried a dagger, which she refused to relinquish. The queen, however, was happy to receive her visitor—dagger and all. The summit was conducted in Latin, supposedly the only tongue the two women shared. Ignoring the fact that they were virtually the same age, Elizabeth decided that there was only "pity to be had of this aged woman" whom she believed "will fight in our quarrel with all the world."

By the end of the long meeting, an agreement had been reached. Bingham would be instructed to return Grace's lands, pay her the funds she had demanded, and free her son. In return, Grace would withdraw her support of the Irish rebellion and attack only England's enemies.

Yet the victory was short-lived. Though her son was freed, Bingham's censure was brief, and Grace received back none of the territory she had lost. Grace was furious, and she soon withdrew from public life.

The last years of Grace O’Malley are shrouded in mystery. It’s believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603—the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. Her memory lives on, not least in the Irish ballads, which remember her with these verses:

In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude
She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Additional Sources: Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley; Pirate Queen; Anecdotes of the Aristocracy; "The day the Virgin Queen bowed to the pirate queen," Times of London; A Forgotten Part of Ireland; "Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend," History Ireland.

Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.

Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.

Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."

Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.  

Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937
Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937.
Library of Congress, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote. 

In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.

It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." 

This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.

Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

This story originally ran in 2016.

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