Frith, Mary (c. 1584–1659)
Frith, Mary (c. 1584–1659)
British pickpocket and highway robber who formed her own gang . Name variations: Moll Cutpurse; Molly Cutpurse; Mary Markham; Molly Frith. Born in London, England, around 1584; died in 1659; daughter of a shoemaker.
One of Britain's most infamous and powerful outlaws, Mary Frith started down the wrong path early in life, defying her parents and teachers. A homely girl by conventional standards and scorned by her female peers, Frith took to competing with the boys in her neighborhood, often winning her way with her fists. While still in her early teens, she abandoned dresses for breeches and a doublet, the costume she wore until her dying day.
Frith worked unsuccessfully as a domestic servant and fortuneteller before coming to the attention of the Society of Divers, who, noting her long middle finger, pegged her as a natural pickpocket. Finding her niche, she excelled in her new profession, flaunting her success by obtaining the finest men's wardrobe available, smoking a pipe, and frequenting the local pubs. Around 1605, she took to the stage of London's Fortune Theater, belting out bawdy songs and making lewd speeches. Her performances gained her dubious acclaim as the first professional actress in England and also brought her to the attention of Elizabethan playwrights Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, who made her a character in their 1907 drama, The Roaring Girl. Five years later, dramatist Nathan Field also immortalized Frith as a despicable character in his play Amends of Ladies.
After being caught picking pockets several times and having her hands branded, Frith moved on to highway robbery. At first operating within other bands, she later formed her own gang and terrorized the area until she wounded a prestigious military figure during a robbery and was jailed and condemned to death. Able to bribe her accuser and free herself but spooked by the incident, Frith decided to open the Globe Tavern, which soon became a gathering place for criminals who used the premises to guzzle ale and plan their capers. In addition to running the establishment, Frith became a master fence, receiving and selling stolen goods at enormous profit. In return for exclusive contracts, she provided her thieving partners with lists of the great merchants and
tradespeople in England, which she obtained through high-placed government contacts.
During her long career, Frith also dabbled in procurement and blackmail. Aside from her single incarceration, she avoided further confrontations with the law until early in February 1612, when she was arrested, not for any of her serious crimes, but for wearing male attire in public. Tried and convicted, she was sentenced to do public penance by standing in the square at St. Paul's Cathedral during a morning sermon and proclaiming her remorse. Not only did Frith perform her penance (supposedly drinking herself into oblivion so as to appear properly contrite), but arranged to have her best pickpockets present in the square to loot the pockets of the onlookers. For the next two decades, she reigned supreme among London criminals, adding to her already great fortune. At the time of her death at age 73, however, she had gone through most of her money and left what little there was to three maids in her employ. At her request, she was buried face downward in her grave, because, she said, "I am unworthy to look upwards, and that as I have in my life been preposterous, so I may be in my death."
Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts
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