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."
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.