A famous Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man, and died in 1663. She has the distinction of having had her epitaph written by the poet John Milton, famous for his great epic – “Paradise Lost”.
MARY FRITH, otherwise called Moll Cutpurse, from her original profession of cutting purses, was born in Barbican in Aldersgate Street, in the year 1589. Her father was a shoemaker; and though no remarkable thing happened at her nativity, such as the flattering soothsayers pretend in eclipses, and other the like motions above, or tides, and whales, and great fires, adjusted and timed to the genitures of crowned heads, yet, for a she politician, she was not much inferior to Pope Joan; for in her time she was superior in the mystery of diving in purses and pockets, and was very well read and skilled too in the affairs of the placket among the great ones.Both the parents (as having no other child living) were very tender of this daughter, but especially the mother, according to the tenderness of that sex, which is naturally more indulgent than the male; most affectionate she was to her in her infancy, most careful of her in her youth, manifested especially in her education, which was the most strictly and diligently attended, by reason of her boisterous and masculine spirit, which then showed itself, and soon after became predominant. She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden [i.e. a tomboy], 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; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.Her headgear and handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times was for girls to be dressed in) were alike tedious to her, she wearing them as handsomely as a dog would a doublet; and so cleanly, that the sooty pot hooks were above the comparison. This perplexed her friends, who had only this proverb favourable to their hope, that “An unlucky girl may make a good woman”; but they lived not to the length of that expectation, dying in her minority, and leaving her to the swing and sway of her own unruly temper and disposition.
She would fight with boys, and courageously beat them; run, jump, leap or hop with any of her contrary sex, or recreate herself with any other play whatsoever. She had an uncle, brother to her father, who was a minister, and of him she stood in some awe, but not so much as to restrain her in these courses; so that seeing he could not effectually remedy that inveterating evil in her manners, he trepanned her on board a merchant ship lying at Gravesend, and bound for New England, whither he designed to have sent her. But having learned to swim, she one night jumped overboard and swam to shore, and after that escape would never go near her uncle again.Furthermore, it is to be observed that Mercury was in conjunction with, or rather in the house of, Venus at the time of her nativity, the former of which planets is of a thievish, cheating, deceitful influence; and the other hath dominion over all whores, bawds and pimps, and, joined with Mercury, over all trepanners and hectors. She hath a more general influence than all the other six planets put together; for no place nor person is exempted from her, invading alike both sacred and profane – nunneries and monasteries, as well as the common places of prostitution – Cheapside and Cornhill, as well as Bloomsbury or Covent Garden. Under these benevolent and kind stars she grew up to some maturity. She was now a lusty and sturdy wench, and fit to put out to service, having not a competency of her own left her by her friends to maintain her without working; but as she was a great libertine, she lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private domestic life. A quarter staff was fitter for her than a distaff. She would go to the ale house when she had made shift to get a little stock, spend her penny, come into anyone’s company, and club till she had none left; and then she was fit for any enterprise. Moreover, she had a natural abhorrence to tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind, equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.
She generally went dressed in man’s apparel. No doubt but Moll’s converse with herself informed her of her defects, and that she was not made for the pleasure or delight of man; and therefore, since she could not be honoured with him, she would be honoured by him, in that garb and manner of raiment which he wore. This she took to from her first entrance into a competency of age, and to her dying day she would not leave it off.
Though she was so ugly in any dress as never to be wooed nor solicited by any man, yet she never had the green sickness, that epidemical disease of maidens after they have once passed their puberty; she never ate lime, coals, oatmeal, tobacco pipes, cinders, or such like trash; no sighs, dejected looks, or melancholy clouded her vigorous spirits, or repressed her joviality; she was troubled with none of those longings which poor maidens are subject to. She had the power and strength to command her own pleasure of any person who had reasonable ability of body; and therefore she needed not to whine for it, as she was able to beat a fellow to compliance, without the unnecessary trouble of entreaties.Now Moll thinking what course of life she should betake herself to, she got acquainted with some fortune tellers of the town, from whom, learning some smatch and relish of that cheat, by their insignificant schemes, and calculating of figures, she got a tolerably good livelihood. But her income being not equivalent to her expenses, she entered herself into the Society of Divers, otherwise called file clyers, cutpurses or pickpockets; which people are a kind of land pirates, trading altogether in other men’s bottoms for no other merchandise than bullion and ready coin, and they keep most of the great fairs and marts in the world. In this unlawful way she got a vast deal of money; but having been very often in Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate for her irregular practices, and burnt in the hand four times, she left off this petty sort of theft, and went on the high way, committing many great robberies, but all of them on the Roundheads, or rebels, that fomented the Civil War against King Charles I; against which villains she had as great an antipathy as an unhappy man that, for counterfeiting a half crown in those rebellious times, was executed at Tyburn, where he said that he was adjudged to die but for counterfeiting a half crown; but those that usurped the whole Crown, and stole away its revenue, and had counterfeited its seal, were above justice, and escaped unpunished.
A long time had Moll Cutpurse robbed on the road; but at last, robbing General Fairfax of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate. After this she was condemned, but procured her pardon by giving her adversary two thousand pounds.Now Moll being frightened by this disaster, she left off going on the highway any more, and took a house, within two doors of the Globe tavern in Fleet Street, over against the Conduit, almost facing Shoe Lane and Salisbury Court, where she dispensed justice among the wrangling tankard bearers, by often exchanging their burden of water for a burden of beer, as far the lighter carriage, though not so portable.
In her time tobacco being grown a great mode, she was mightily taken with the pastime of smoking, because of its singularity, and that no woman ever smoked before her, though a great many of her sex since have followed her example.
Moll being quite scared from thieving herself, she turned fence that is to say, a buyer of stolen goods; by which occupation she got a great deal of money. In her house she set up a kind of brokery, or a distinct factory for jewels, rings and watches which had been pinched or stolen any manner of way, at never so great distance, from any person. It might properly enough be called the Insurance Office for such merchandise, for the losers were sure, upon composition, to recover their goods again, and the pirates were sure to have a good ransom, and she so much in the gross for brokage, without any more danger, the hue and cry being always directed to her for the discovery of the goods, not the takers.
Once a gentleman who had lost his watch by the busy fingers of a pickpocket came very anxiously to Moll, inquiring if she could help him to it again. She demanded of him the marks and signs thereof, with the time when, and where, he had lost it, or by what crowd or other accident. He replied that, coming through Shoe Lane, there was a quarrel betwixt two men; one of which, as he afterwards heard, was a grazier, whom they had set in Smithfield, having seen him receive the sum of two hundred pounds or thereabouts in gold. There was one Bat Rud, as he was since informed, who, observing the man hold his hand in his pocket where his gold was, just in the middle of a lane whitherto they dogged him, overthrew a barrel trimming at an ale house door, while one behind the grazier pushed him over, who, withal, threw down Bat, who was ready for the fall. Betwixt these two presently arose a quarrel, the pickpocket demanding satisfaction, while his comrades interposing, after two or three blows in favour of the country- man, who had drawn his hand out of his pocket to defend himself, soon drew out his treasure; and while he was looking on at the scuffle, some of them had lent him a hand too, and fingered out his watch.Moll smiled at the adventure, and told him he should hear further of it within a day or two at the furthest. When the gentleman came again, she understood by his discourse that he would not lose it for twice its value, because it was given him by a particular friend; so she squeezed twenty guineas out of him before he could obtain his watch.Moll was always accounted by her neighbours to be an hermaphrodite, but at her death was found otherwise. She had not lived long in Fleet Street before she became acquainted with a new sort of thieves, called heavers, whose employment was stealing shop books from drapers and mercers, or other rich traders; which bringing to her, she, for some considerable profit for herself, got them a quantum meruit for restoring them again to the losers. While she thus reigned free from the danger of the common law, an apparitor, set on by an adversary of hers, cited her to appear in the Court of Arches, where was an accusation exhibited against her for wearing indecent and manly apparel. She was advised by her proctor to demur the jurisdiction of the Court, as for a crime, if such, not cognisable there. But he did it to spin out the cause and get her money; for, in the end, she was there sentenced to stand and do penance in a white sheet at St Paul’s Cross during morning sermon on a Sunday.They might as soon have shamed a black dog as Moll with any kind of such punishment; for a halfpenny she would have travelled through all the market towns in England with her penitential habit, and been as proud of it as that citizen who rode to his friends in the country in his livery gown and hood. Besides, many of the spectators had little cause to sport themselves then at the sight; for some of her emissaries, without any regard to the sacredness of the place, spoiled a good many clothes, by cutting part of their cloaks and gowns, and sending them home as naked behind as Aesop’s crow, when every bird took its own feather from her.
However, this penance did not reclaim her, for she still went in men’s apparel, very decently dressed; nor were the ornaments of her house less curious and pleasing in pictures than in the delight of looking glasses; so that she could see her sweet self all over in any part of her rooms. This gave occasion for folks to say that she used magical glasses, wherein she could show the querists, who resorted to her for information, those who, stole their goods; as likewise to others, curious to know the shapes and features of their husbands that should be, the very true and perfect idea of them; as is very credibly reported of your African sorcerers. We have a tradition of it in the story of Jane Shore’s husband, who, by one of the like glasses, saw the unchaste embraces of his wife and Edward IV.
One night late, Moll going home almost drunk from the Devil Tavern, she tumbled over a great black sow that was roosting in a dunghill near the kennel; but getting up again, in a sad dirty pickle, she drove her to her house, where, finding her full of pigs, she made her a drench to hasten her farrowing, and the next morning she brought her eleven curious pigs, which Moll and her companions made fat and ate; and then she turned the sow out of doors, which presently repaired to her old master, a bumpkin at Islington, who with wonder received her again. Having given her some grain, he turned her out of his gates, watching what course she would take, and intending to have satisfaction for his pigs wheresoever he should find her to have laid them. The sow, naturally mindful of her squeaking brood, went directly to Moll’s door, and there kept a lamentable noise to be admitted. This was evidence enough for the fellow that there his sow had laid her belly; when knocking, and having entrance, he tells Moll a tale of a sow and her litter. She replied he was mad. He swore he knew his sow’s meaning by her grunting, and that he would give her sauce to her pigs. “Goodman Coxcomb,” quoth Moll, “come in, and see if this house looks like a hog sty”; when, going into all her rooms, and seeing how neat and clean they were kept, he was convinced that the litter was not laid there, and went home cursing his sow for misinforming him.
To get money, Moll would not stick out to bawd for either men or women; insomuch that her house became a double temple for Priapus and Venus, frequented by votaries of both sorts. Those who were generous to her labour, their desires were favourably accommodated with expedition; whilst she lingered with others, laying before them the difficult but certain attainment of their wishes, which served as a spur to the dullness of their purses. For the Lady Pecunia and she kept the same pace, but still in the end she did the feat. Moll having a great antipathy against the Rump Parliament, she lit on a fellow very dexterous at imitating people’s hands [i.e. handwriting]; with him she communicated her thoughts, and they concurred to forge and counterfeit their commissioners’ and treasurers’ hands to the respective receivers and collectors, to pay the sums of money they had in their hands, without delay, to such as he in his counterfeited orders appointed.So that, wheresoever he had intelligence of any great sum in the country, they were sure to forestall the market. This cheat lasted for half a year, till it was found out at Guildhall, and such a politic course taken to avoid cozenage that no warrants would pass among themselves. But when the government was seized and usurped by that arch traitor, Oliver Cromwell, they began this trade afresh, it being very easy to imitate his single sign manual, as that ambitious usurper would have it styled; by which means her man also drew good sums of money out of the Customs and Excise nay, out of the Exchequer itself, till Oliver was forced to use a private mark, to make his credit authentic among his own villains.
After seventy four years of age, 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 belly, from a withered, dried, wrinkled piece of skin, was grown to the tightest, roundest globe of flesh that ever any beauteous young lady strutted with. However, there was no blood that was generative in her womb, but only that destructive of the grape, which by her excesses was now turned into water; so that the tympanied skin thereof sounded like a conduit door. If we anatomise her any further, we must say her legs represented a couple of mill posts, and her head was so wrapped with cloths that she looked like Mother Shipton.It may well be expected that, considering what a deal of money she got by her wicked practices, she might make a will; but yet, of five thousand pounds which she had once by her in gold, she had not above one hundred pounds left her latterly which she thought too little to give to the charitable uses of building hospitals and almshouses. The money that might have been designed that way, as it came from the devil, so it returned to the devil again, in the Rump’s Exchequer and Treasury at Haberdashers and Goldsmiths Hall. Yet, to preserve something of her memory, and not leave it to the courtesy of an executor, she anticipated her funeral expenses; for it being the fashion of those times to give rings, to the undoing of the confectioners, who lived altogether by the dead and new born, she distributed some that she had by her among her chief companions and friends.
These rings (like princes’ jewels) were notable ones, and had their particular names likewise; as the Bartholomew, the Ludgate, the Exchange, and so forth; deriving their appellations from the places whence they were stolen. They needed no admonition of a death’s head, nor the motto Memento mori, for they were the wages and monuments of their thieving masters and mistresses, who were interred at Tyburn; and she hoped her friends would wear them, both for her sake and theirs. In short, she made no will at all, because she had had it so long before to no better purpose; and that if she had had her desert, she should have had an executioner instead of an executor.
Out of the one hundred pounds which she had by her, she disposed of thirty pounds to her three maids which she kept, and charged them to occupy it the best way they could; for that, and some of her arts in which they had had time to be expert, would be beyond the advantage of their spinning and reeling, and would be able to keep them in repair, and promote them to weavers, shoemakers and tailors. The rest of her personal estate, in money, movables and household goods, she bequeathed to her kinsman Frith, a master of a ship, dwelling at Reddriff, whom she advised not to make any ventures therewith, but stay at home and be drunk, rather than go to sea and be drowned with them.
And now the time of her dissolution drawing near, she desired to be buried with her breech upwards, that she might be as preposterous in her death as she had been all along in her infamous life. When she was dead she was interred in St Bridget’s churchyard, having a fair marble stone put over her grave; on which was cut the following epitaph, composed by the ingenious Mr Milton, but destroyed in the great conflagration of London:”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.”