Ah, Constant Reader. You’re looking spiffy today—moseying around the house in your bathrobe, finally catching up on all those podcasts you’ve been collecting for the past several months. Maybe you’re partaking in an impeccably-dressed Belgian waffle. Of course you can gobble a Belgian waffle outside of traditional breakfast hours. It’s the year 2020, young Padawan; proceed as you deem appropriate.
But ‘tis not a 21st-century stage upon which we build our story today, a tale based on true events**! Our destination is London in the early 1600s, and our heroine is the globe’s first celebrity criminal.
**Mostly. At least half. Or perhaps a tad less than that. All right, some of the “facts” here might be accurate. A little.
“The Globe?”, you ask, moderately intrigued. “The London theatre in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed?”
Well—no. I was using the word as a synonym for “Earth.” But the Globe does, in fact, feature in our story. The original theatre caught fire in 1613, and its replacement demolished by the Puritans two decades later. But while the second Globe was still standing, a pub called The Globe Tavern sprang up next door. In time, it would become the center of criminal activity in London, the preferred meeting place of every accomplished pickpocket, highway robber, and scruffy-looking nerf-herder in the city.
And the proprietor of this illicit establishment? Why, it was Moll Cutpurse, London’s Queen of Thieves.
DO WE SIT ON A THRONE OF LIES?
The accounts of Cutpurse’s life are loud, vividly-colored, cartoonish, with most commonly-known details unable to be verified. Here’s a comprehensive list of the facts we know about London’s most notorious pickpocket and fence:
- The Queen constantly ran afoul of the London Fuzz, and had the court dates to prove it
- Moll’s hands were burned on at least four different occasions as punishment for her thieving ways
- She attended a play about herself and caused quite a ruckus
That’s it, dear Reader. Those are the only three things we can declare with certainty.
Three years after her death, an anonymous biography surfaced bearing the title The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly called Mal Cutpurse, Exactly Collected and now Published for the Delight and Recreation of all Merry Disposed Persons. Centuries later, Moll’s spirit would dive into a spiral-bound journal owned by a young Fiona Apple, inspiring the singer to pen album titles that made record executives cry. Much of the biography’s narrative is inconsistent at best. Following her death, Moll’s history was hijacked by a number of groups who, in an attempt to exploit her adventures for their own purporses, exaggerated her experiences even further.
So how much of Moll’s story actually occurred? It’s unclear. Many of her more absurd endeavors are likely embellished or fabricated. And is Uncle Joseph going to happily ignore that probability because he favors a world where every Myth of Moll is a documented historical event?
YOU BET YOUR SWEET BIPPY HE IS.
INFRACTIONS TO MISDEMEANORS
Even Mary Frith’s birth year is confused; she was born to a cobbler and a housewife in the year 1584. Or six years later, as her biographer claimed. Or potentially four years prior.
Her thieving powers manifested at an early age. In 1600, the Long Arm of the Law in Middlesex hauled a still-juvenile Mary into court for stealing two shillings and elevenpence, worth approximately $40 in 2020. “Maybe it’s a phase,” her mum whispered to Mary’s father at the trial. “Like Reebok Pumps or yelling ‘yeet’ in public too much. We’re a respectable family, and she’s had her 15 minutes of rather public rebellion, so we’re done. Right?”
Naturally, Mary had zero interest in ceasing her new favorite pastime. As her abilities increased in skill and market value, she recruited a supporting cast of lackeys, toadies, and flunkies. She likely didn’t refer to them as “flunkies,” which is unfortunate because any manager who neglects to toss “flunky” around semi-regularly eschews their full leadership potential, particularly if one happens to be a child operating a criminal enterprise.
Once her new hires were welcomed aboard, Mary kicked her business plan into action. The flunkies would distract pedestrians, while she snuck up behind the victims and cut their purse strings, as was the fashionable method of robbery in the St. Paul’s Cathedral area. As her pile of purse-corpses grew steadily higher, so did Mary’s status in the pickpocketing industry. Her burgeoning celebrity brought with it an alias: “Moll” was common slang for a woman of disreputable character, and her new surname practically selected itself.
As a teenager, Moll was caught stealing…or her family had become exhausted with her “unfeminine behavior,” depending on which version of the story you’re hearing. Her uncle, a minister, lured her down to the docks with a promise that they’d watch a wresting match together, but then tricked her onto a New England-bound ship instead, intending to “reform her character.” The mental gymnastics required for the minster to absolve himself of any ethical transgression in that situation would impress most personal trainers. But Moll’s unanticipated voyage proved to be very brief indeed. She flung herself overboard before the ship sailed and paddled to shore…or, if you heard the remix, she hired a crewmember to transport her back using the cash she’d brought to bet on the wrestling match.
Cutting purses off tourists’ belts proved a profitable opening venture, but how would Cutpurse unlock the next level?
She did what all aspiring criminal masterminds do: became a comedy musician.
THE CUTPURSE’S WISE INVESTMENT
Sometime after returning from her impromptu dip in the Atlantic, Moll began what appeared to be a side career as a working musician, gaining name recognition outside thieving circles. She landed tavern gigs where she would sing, dance, and play the lute (without a license). She also began to dress in“stereotypically-male” clothing, a detail not mentioned in earlier court records.
“OK, so she wore doublets and breeches. She even smoked a pipe and swore to her satisfaction. Good on her! What’s wrong with that?”, you ask. You did not ask, but perhaps in alternate timeline, you did.
In 17-century London, a female-presenting human wearing “male” clothing was forbidden. Arrest records for that period tell us that Ladies of the Night would often disguise themselves as men in order to evade the attention of local authorities. This practice also ensured that if a wife witnessed her husband in the company of said Ladies, the husband could claim he’d been speaking with a man, so his wife therefore had no cause for concern. Moll proudly considered “male” clothing her uniform, and expanded her act to include tobacco shops and playhouses, slowly gathering both enthusiastic supporters and disgusted adversaries.
“Why,” people might’ve thought, “would someone deliberately provoke the police like that? Why would anyone risk making a spectacle of themselves?”
Because, faithful Reader—if everyone in the room is focusing on the funny, slightly-scandalous singer, that means no one’s paying attention to the singer’s flunkies. Moll robbed audiences as they cheered for her, completely oblivious as their valuables silently disappeared.
Once, a showman named William Bankes bet Moll 20 pounds (about $2,600 today) that she’d be too chicken to ride the three miles from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed in her illegally “male” clothing.
“No one,” Moll muttered darkly as she locked her death stare onto Biff’s smirking face, “calls me chicken.”
Not only did our heroine parade herself through London in those banned breeches, kids, but she did so waving a banner and carrying a trumpet, as she believed the occasion required as much drama as possible. She was immediately recognized. “CANCEL HER,” half the mob howled. “WE STAN!”, her fans shouted back. A riot erupted on the streets.
And what of the renowned horse Moll rode during her Ballyhoo March? Was it Shadowfax? Mister Ed? Quick Draw McGraw?
None of those commendable equines, my friends, but one worthy of commemoration in his own right: Cutpurse won the bet riding Marocco, a performing horse owned by Bill Banks, the man who’d challenged her.
“A performing horse, Uncle Joseph?”, you’re thinking. “Do you mean a racehorse of some kind? Increased speed, endurance, that sort of thing?”
No, dear Reader. Marocco danced. He could play dead, walk on two or three legs, identify different colors, bow to royalty, throw dice and, most famously, count.
Did Moll’s Riot ever actually transpire? It’s not likely. The magical horse made Banks enough bank that he began touring in the mid 90s. By 1601, Marocco HQ had relocated from London to Paris. Even if we accept Moll’s birth year as 1584, she would’ve been a teenager during Marocco’s UK dates. At least one source indicates that the Cutpurse Abandons Ship story arc didn’t occur until 1609, and it’s generally held that the horse died three years prior.
Fun fact: In the early 1600s, William Bankes was arrested twice—once in Paris, then again in Orléans—and charged with sorcery. He escaped the first charge by revealing that many of Marocco’s tricks were done through a series of subtle hand gestures. His sentence for the Orléans offense was to burn at the stake. The Church offered Bankes one final show to redeem himself, however, and when Marocco witnessed a crucifix-wielding priest in the crowd, the horse knelt before the cross, proving to all that Bankes was firmly Team God and not Team Lucifer. The Church, embarrassed that it had obviously backed the right horse while thinking it was the wrong one, apologized and paid the showman handsomely for its mistake.
The essential fact to note in this anecdote is that before they attempted to set Bankes aflame, Parisians adored his horse and frequently addressed the animal as “Monsieur Marocco.”
MONSIEUR MAROCCO. I mean, come on.
Supposedly an animal-fan herself, Moll was rumored to collect parrots and, as a relaxing hobby, breed mastiffs. According to legend, each of her dogs enjoyed homecooked meals and their own beds, complete with sheets that Moll used to tuck them in. If both sides of the law agree on anything, it’s that pampering one’s fur babies is the highest calling.
In the Cutpurse era, working-class bros with a penchant for bar brawls were referred to as “roaring boys.” Moll became known as a “roaring girl,” and even had a play of the same name written about her. In fact, she had two, but the text of John Day’s Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside has not endured.
The surviving play, written in 1611, stressed The Queen’s scandalous behavior and emphasized her indecent fashion choices. By modern standards, The Roaring Girl portrays Moll in a relatively flattering light, and we know that on at least one evening, the real Moll made an appearance. Court records reveal that she commandeered the stage playing her lute and sprung into some “immodest & lascivious speeches” while dressed in her outlawed garments. Some historians believe her Roaring Girl cameo may constitute the first theatrical performance from a woman.
CAN WE FORGET ABOUT THE THINGS I SAID WHEN I WAS DRUNK?
The local police were not amused. Singing risqué tavern songs and abducting a theatrical performance was one matter, but doing so while wearing a man’s jacket was simply unforgivable. Moll found herself arrested in short order, and was subsequently forced into a chinwag with the Bishop of London. She confessed to intentionally donning provocative attire, copious amounts of blasphemy and vulgarity, public intoxication, and fraternizing with “lewd and dissolute company,” including other cutpurses. Probably Sandra. Isn’t it always Sandra?
But like a faux Hermès Chaine’d Ancre bag sold out of an unmarked minivan, not all the charges against Cutpurse were genuine. The Bishop attempted to trick Moll into admitting she was a “Woman About Town” and had pushed other women into prostitution. The Queen of Thieves vehemently denied the accusation; sex failed to interest her. Following her examination, the Bishop locked Moll in a “reform facility” for two weeks, and then declared that she’d be required to perform penance for her “evil manner of living,” which including standing in a white sheet at St. Paul’s Cross during the Sunday morning sermon. Moll wept bitterly and appeared contrite, but it was later determined that she’d actually just been very inebriated and had no intention of changing lanes.
THE PICKPOCKET EXTRADINAIRE OPENS AN OFFICE
By early 1614, The Queen’s reign was still thriving, and her fame along with it. Moll’s popularity—both as a heroine to the indigent and a scoundrel to the caviar class—once permitted her additional opportunities for theft. But now she’d simply become too recognizable, purse-snatching wasn’t worth the risk, and retirement sounded tremendously boring. So what did the most-skilled robber in London do to solve her predicament?
She took up fencing.
Not the sabre-dancing Olympic sport, though Moll would undoubtedly endorse such a rumor. And in her later years, she did often accessorize her outfit with daggers and short swords.
But we refer here, gentle Reader, to the other form of fencing. Legend tells us that by this point in her life, Queen Moll employed three full-time maids, and had converted a section of her home into a brokerage firm. Thieves would sell Moll their stolen goods. Robbery victims visited in the hopes of finding their items; if the Queen happened to be in possession of said items, the victims paid for their safe return. On occasion, the women that Moll hired for her escort service (which we’ll discuss in a moment) would steal from their clients and deliver the bounty to Cutpurse’s Fencing Post, a scheme that permitted Moll to rob her own customers and then charge those same customers to recover the items she’d liberated. Unlike slogging through the court system, a visit to Moll’s office often recovered a person’s valuables quickly and easily, particularly if she’d stolen the valuables herself.
Imagine for a moment, kids, that you’re a prominent 17th century fence with office hours. The city’s thieves and a slew of robbery victims routinely congregate at your home. You’re selling stolen goods and everyone’s aware of it…except the police? How is that possible?
It isn’t. The local authorities knew Moll had expanded her services—and in fact, they would sometimes recruit her to interrogate petty thieves for them! In certain circumstances, being the pond’s biggest fish means that you know many of the smaller ones. London’s most famous criminal would assist the police in arresting her colleagues and competitors by day, then casually resume her own felonious activities in the evening.
BEARDS AND LOVERS ON DEMAND
Unexpectedly swept up in the thrill of fresh criminality, Cutpurse met a charming gentleman with the improbable first name of Lewknor, tumbled deeply into passion, married him in the year 1614, and bid her wayward past adieu.
Ah, who are we kidding?
While she did wed Lewknor Markham shortly after she founded her theft brokerage firm, Lewknor does not appear in Moll’s will. There is no evidence that the two ever lived in the same residence, and during one court case, Moll failed to recall how long they’d be married.
Why bother with a union that exists solely on paper?
If you thought “Because by marrying, women could elevate their status, and I bet that any lawsuits filed against Moll under the name ‘Mary Frith’ became inadmissible once her legal name changed to ‘Mary Markham’ “, then grab yourself a cookie! Seriously. Perhaps an E.L. Fudge, if you have those, and snag one for me while you’re up? Uncle Joseph misses that chocolately elfwich goodness. The elves perform quality work.
Remember the thieving escorts Moll hired? The ones who’d steal from their clients and bring the Queen whatever they managed to lift? As a friend of Bess Holland (owner of London’s most infamous brothel) and several sex workers, Moll noticed that the brothel industry catered exclusively to men, and speculated that there might be a market among wealthy women for attractive male escorts. Once, Moll provided a married woman with multiple lovers. Years later, when that women lay on her deathbed, the Queen hunted down those lovers and convinced them to financially support the children that their affairs with her client could’ve fathered.
That anecdote painting Moll as a Child Support Enforcer is presented to us via “The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith,” her inaccuracy-ridden biography. Did it happen? Probably not. But Moll relished the perception of herself as a mysterious, perplexing figure. I suspect she’d encourage us to wonder.
I (LITERALLY) COMMITTED HIGHWAY ROBBERY, SHOT A GENERAL, QUIETLY BRIBED HIM TO DROP THE CHARGES BEFORE MY HANGING ‘CAUSE I KNEW HE NEEDED CASH TO HELP OLIVER CROMWELL FUND A WAR, AND ALL I GOT WAS…AWAY WITH IT
Gifted though she was, Moll could not ward off the trappings of her own mortality. As she aged, her legendary speed began to decelerate. Thieves typically play a myriad of roles, but Dancer is perpetually in their roster, and the Queen’s once-nimble fingers and legs would only cooperate on a schedule convenient for them.
Ever the entrepreneur, Cutpurse hired a brand-new gang of flunkies and re-invented herself yet again, this time as a highway robber. As the Big Cheese, her role during missions was to chase down coaches on her horse, wave her pistols threateningly at the driver, and order him to halt. While she held him at gunpoint, her New Flunkies would shove passengers out of the coach and steal their purses, plus any jewelry that the ladies might be wearing.
And then General Thomas Fairfax, Parliamentary commander-in-chief during the English Civil War, ruined everything.
Cutpurse had gleefully defied law enforcement all her life, and despite several arrests and a few months in “reformation houses,” she’d been incredibly lucky, having eluded any substantial consequences. That could explain why she thought it’d be a cracking idea to rob a military coach. The job quickly slammed off the rails. Moll panicked, shot Fairfax in the arm with her pistol, and attempted to flee, but ended up getting captured a few moments later. She was transported to Newgate Prison, tried, and sentenced to death by hanging.
Prior to her slated demise, Moll requested a visit from Fairfax, who was astounded to learn that he’d been robbed and shot by a woman. Not one for subtlety, Moll flagrantly dangled a gigantic bribe in front of the General’s face. She knew he’d been assisting Oliver Cromwell with finding the capital to continue their war against King Charles I, and their Kickstarter was performing poorly. If he dropped the charges against her, The Queen of Thieves promised, she’d drop 2,000 pounds into his bank account, roughly equivalent to $331,000 today. Fairfax shook on it and Moll escaped the hangman’s noose, but having tangoed with death so intimately convinced her, at long last, to retire. She surrendered her crown and vowed that she would steal no more.
BUT NOT REALLY, RIGHT? SHE SERIOUSLY JUST WALKED AWAY FROM DECADES OF THIEVERY OVERNIGHT?
Yes, dear Reader, she did. And in her twilight years, she opened the Globe Tavern…
….which quickly emerged as the Hot Spot for every other pickpocket, thief, and fence in London, a mid-1600s version of the Mos Eisley Cantina.
Mary Frith, known on the streets as Moll Cutpurse, died in 1659 from dropsy (which we’d now classify as edema), forever to reign as London’s first and greatest Queen of Thieves.
I pulled research from several different sources, but first learned about Moll from Rejected Princesses, a book celebrating badass women that most of us haven’t heard of.
I choose four of my favorite entries and asked my Patrons on Facebook to vote. Moll won this round, but I intend to tell some of the other stories in the future.
Image: Rejected Princesses