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.

Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

Stumping for Suffrage

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson's father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had "an allergy to children." A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy's dish." She spent the next few years fighting for women's right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn't pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

Hitler: "A Man Whose Countenance Is a Caricature"

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband's many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis's many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler's rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. "When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany," she wrote. "In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

While Thompson misjudged Hitler's appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson's 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were "unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality." It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

"My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all," Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. "That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris."

A Woman on a Mission

Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, "On the Record," which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies' Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler's movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University's first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women's club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn's accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson's popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in "a million boys' lives in blood and pain." Other detractors dismissed Thompson's "perpetual emotion," a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

The Grimmest Party Game

In the years that followed, Thompson's life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson's busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis's most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis's work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson's articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper's story "Who Goes Nazi?" found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler's brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. "Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi," Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. "It's an amusing game," she concluded. "Try it at the next big party you go to."

Remembering Nellie Bly, Rabblerouser and Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth Jane Cochran came into the world on May 5, 1864. Mrs. Cochran delighted in the baby, her first daughter, dressing Elizabeth in a pink gown for her christening.

The fun was not to last. When Elizabeth was only six, her father died without warning and without a will, plunging Elizabeth and her family into dire financial straits. Several years later, Mrs. Cochran remarried, to a man who was often drunken and abusive. As soon as she was old enough to work, Elizabeth left home to train as a teacher, but ran out of tuition money after only one semester. With no money and no other ideas, she and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding house.

What girls are good for

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth found her calling. The city's Dispatch ran a weekly column by a self-important man named Erasmus Wilson, who called himself the “Quiet Observer.” One week in 1885, Wilson published an op-ed entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The answer, according to him, was housework. It was unseemly and ugly for ladies to work, he wrote, describing working women as a "monstrosity."

Elizabeth was having none of this. She penned an angry letter to the editor, signing it, provocatively, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was no work of art—Elizabeth had left school at 15, after all—but editor George Madden was impressed by its writer’s fervor. He placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Dispatch, inviting the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. She did, and he offered her a job. To protect her identity and her reputation, Madden soon recommended she select a pen name. The two settled upon Nellie Bly, after a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly came out with guns blazing. From the very beginning, she was determined to write stories that mattered. She had no experience, no education, and little polish, but she had a fire in her belly that few newspapers had ever seen. She wrote about women’s labor laws. She wrote about sexist divorce laws. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico, but before long she was expelled for exposing government corruption.

The Dispatch editors were not pleased. They attempted to rein her in by assigning her stories about flower shows and fashion. Nellie Bly would have none of that. She quit, but not before leaving a spectacularly frosty message on the desk of the Quiet Observer: “Dear Q.O.: I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

“Who is this insane girl?”

The year was 1887, and Nellie Bly had just talked her way into a job at the New York World. For her very first story, Bly agreed to feign insanity in order to gain entry to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

After checking herself into a women’s boarding house under yet another fake name, Bly began acting erratically, peppering her speech with Spanish nouns and claiming she had lost her memory. That night she asked for a pistol. This was apparently all it took; the proprietress called the police, who hauled Bly off to court.

Reporters in the courtroom were instantly captivated by “Nellie Brown.” On the stand, Bly spun a sensational tale of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. A physician who had examined her declared her “demented.”

That weekend, the New York Sun (a World competitor) carried breathless descriptions [PDF] of the enigmatic woman, from the contents of her pockets to the sound of her voice. “WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL? SHE IS PRETTY, WELL DRESSED, AND SPEAKS SPANISH.”

Bly spent 10 days in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, during which time she saw and was the victim of horrific treatment. The asylum’s residents were mostly poor and immigrant women, some of whom were locked up simply because they could not speak English. The women were beaten, starved, and forced into ice-cold baths—a fate from which even Bly’s nice clothes could not save her.

Upon her release (arranged by an attorney for the newspaper), Bly recorded every single awful thing she had seen. She detailed the conditions in which her fellow residents were forced to live, and the punishment they endured: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

The paper published "Ten Days in a Madhouse" in serial form. By the time the last installment hit newsstands, New York was paying attention.

Bly’s fearless reporting paid off. A grand jury investigation of the asylum confirmed many of her observations, and the institution was eventually shut down.

Still, Bly was just getting started.

Nellie Bly buys a baby

Bly became a sort of journalistic Robin Hood, exposing the darkest corners of New York City society. Wherever women, children, or the poor were being mistreated, you’d find Nellie Bly. She went undercover as a poor clinic patient and narrowly escaped [PDF] having her tonsils removed. For her story “The Girls Who Make Boxes,” she joined the ranks of young women working in a factory. She visited seven different doctors and got seven different diagnoses and an “extraordinary variety” of prescriptions.

She visited a home for “unfortunate women.” She lived for two days in one of New York’s poorest tenements in the hottest part of the summer. She bought a baby on the black market. No, really: she bought a baby.

"I bought a baby last week, to learn how baby slaves are bought and sold in the city of New York. Think of it! An immortal soul bartered for $10! Fathers-mothers-ministers-missionaries, I bought an immortal soul last week for $10!"

What could possibly top that?

Bly decided to conquer the world.

Around the world in 72 days

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, first published in 1873, was all the rage in 1889. Eighty days was pretty impressive given the transportation options at that time, but Bly thought she could do better. After convincing her editors to finance the whole thing, Bly bought a sensible dress and set off.

The rest, of course, is legend. Bly made it home in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. She even had time to stop in France for tea with Jules Verne. The story made her a household name.

Inspired by Bly’s work, other women began to follow in her daring footsteps. Because these undercover stories were the province of “girls,” their brave work was dismissed as “stunt reporting.” Today we’d call it investigative journalism.

A second career

Bly met industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and married him a few days later, leaving the newspaper life behind. Seaman was 40 years older than his bride, but neither seemed particularly fussed by the age difference. Their marriage lasted nearly ten years, until Seaman’s death in 1904.

Elizabeth Cochrane (she later changed her name to add the e) Seaman inherited all of her late husband’s holdings, including his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Another widow might have handed the company over. Bly decided to run it herself.

Bly had no experience in this arena, but that had never stopped her before. By 1902, she was filing patents for new types of oil barrels.

As an employer, Bly embodied all the principles she had championed in her stories. She paid her workers fairly and offered them access to gymnasiums, libraries, and healthcare. This was unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. Treating employees like human beings was expensive, and before too long her businesses went under.

Bly returned to the newsroom during World War I. She was still working in 1922, when she died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

Nellie Bly was an unwavering advocate for social change, a journalistic dynamo, and a force of nature. She wasn’t the first woman of her time to join a newsroom, but she was certainly the most ferocious.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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