Moders, Mary (1643–1673)

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Moders, Mary (1643–1673)

Adventurous Elizabethan-era Englishwoman who was first celebrated and later hanged for her fraudulent exploits. Name variations: Meders; also known as the German Princess. Born on January 11, 1643, in England; died by hanging on January 2, 1673, in Tyburn, England; daughter of a chorister at Canterbury cathedral; married a man named Stedman; married a man named Day, in Dover; married John Carleton, around 1663; children: (first marriage) two who died young.

Charged with bigamy; acquitted; fled to Germany; returned to England; married a third time; charged with bigamy and acquitted; became a success on stage (1663); convicted of robbery and transported to Jamaica as punishment; escaped back to England and discovered; hanged (1673).

Unwittingly, Mary Moders may have helped to perpetuate the archaic belief that teaching a woman to read was a dangerous act. She was born in 1643, probably near Canterbury, England, the daughter of a chorister at the cathedral there. After being taught how to read by her father, which was at the time a rare occurrence for girls of her modest social status, she became a voracious bookworm, and borrowed often from the church library. Moders was particularly entranced with books that featured cunning and beautiful heroines who triumphed over adverse and unfair circumstances. As a teenager, she even began to think of herself as a princess or noblewoman. Blessed with intelligence as well as beauty in an era when learned women—even aristocratic ones—were often considered "unfeminine," she had an excellent memory and picked up several languages. Had she been born into the noble milieu she so desired, Moders might have found an outlet for her energies in holding literary salons, advising kings, or even writing novels herself under a pseudonym, but the circumstances of her background prevented her from entering such worlds.

Instead, Moders was probably forced into wedlock to an apprentice shoemaker, a situation she likely found loathsome. Her two children died as infants, and she seemed determined to live beyond her husband's means. She then left him and went to Dover, where she married a surgeon named Day. He was well-to-do and could keep her in the lifestyle she desired, but in time she was found out as a bigamist and a trial was held at Maidstone. Since her first husband could not afford to travel to the trial and testify against her, the case was dismissed. Moders next went to Holland, and then to Germany, where she did quite well working in a Cologne brothel. One elderly client in particular she charmed into giving her a valuable medal bestowed on him for services to the king of Sweden; when she agreed to marry him, she managed to extract a large sum of money from him as well. In a matter of hours, she had fled with everything, sold the medal in Amsterdam, and returned to England.

When she arrived in Billingsgate in March 1663, Moders was an attractive 20-year-old in need of a meal and lodging. In those days, it was extremely difficult for a woman to travel alone, and a solitary one in a strange town was usually suspected of being a prostitute. That first day back, Moders went for breakfast to a tavern patronized by wealthy young men, several of whom made suggestive remarks upon seeing her alone. In response, she cried and won their friendship by telling them she was actually a German princess whose father had disapproved of her suitor and cast her out of the house. The well-connected young men gave her money, and the innkeeper put her up for free. In turn, his brother-in-law John Carleton fell in love with her and, though he was wealthy, Moders pretended to be uninterested because he was a "commoner." Carleton wooed her successfully nevertheless, and they were wed. Shortly after the ceremony, however, an anonymous letter was sent to Carleton's father that unmasked her identity. Moders was tried for bigamy a second time, this time at the Old Bailey, but her first two husbands did not appear at the trial and she was again set free.

Moders was by now quite famous in England, and she was offered excellent money to perform on the London stage. Later in 1663 she starred in The German Princess, which was based on her exploits and written for her by the playwright Holden. It was a box-office success, and even the diarist Samuel Pepys was particularly entranced by Moders and saw the play several times. Backstage, affluent men both married and single clamored for her company, and after entering into liaisons Moders blackmailed some of them. After the play's run ended, she began enlisting the service of an accomplice who pretended to be her husband; she would then bring a suitor home and be "discovered" with him by her jealous and angry "spouse." The suitor, fearing a publicized scandal, would pay them a sum of money and flee. (It is doubtful she invented this scheme, but it has remained popular with con artists since.) Moders also cheated merchants by ordering costly goods and having them sent to addresses where she knew the residents to be away on vacation; she then intercepted them upon delivery.

A life of crime proved detrimental to her famed beauty, however, and Moders was considered to have lost her charms by her late 20s. Enamored men whom she might bilk grew scarcer, and for money she began stealing silver tankards from taverns and reselling them. When she took one from Covent Garden and was caught, she was sent to the prison at Newgate, found guilty of robbery, and sentenced to death. Such harsh sentences for property theft were common at the time, but someone (perhaps an old paramour) interceded on her behalf and the sentence was commuted to banishment. Moders therefore was boarded onto a ship with other criminals and sent off to Jamaica. However, she apparently had a bit of gold with her that she managed to conceal—likely the gift of another admirer—and some two years later used it to get back to England.

Mary Moders was living in a boarding house in London when, through sheer bad luck, a guard from one of the prisons in which she had been incarcerated made a casual inspection of the house for stolen goods and recognized her. After she was sentenced to death for returning to England, she claimed she was pregnant. There was a well-established precedent of women "pleading their bellies" because they would not be executed until after they had delivered, but midwives who inspected her found she was lying. Moders was publicly hanged in Tyburn in January 1673, and buried in St. Martin's Churchyard. Her career may be summed up from lines she spoke during the epilogue to The German Princess:

The world's a cheat, and we that move in it,
In our degrees, do exercise our wit;
And better 'tis to get a glorious name,
However got, than live by common fame.


Nash, Robert Jay. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan