Moll Curpurse: England's First Great Female Criminal

by Jay Robert Nash

The most notorious female criminal in early British history was Moll Cutpurse, born Mary Frith on London's AlderSgate Street around 1584. Her parents were hardworking, law-abiding middle-class citizens and there is little or nothing to suggest a criminal influence in Moll's background. The little girl was, however, extremely homely and, as she aged, Cutpurse would develop a decidedly masculine-looking face. Moll's parents denied her nothing, even providing tutors for her, but from an early age she rebelled against them. One historian described her as "above breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig, rumpscuttle, or hoyden."

Donning men's clothing, Moll became a fortuneteller, befriending the members of the lowest criminal element in London. Most of her friends belonged to the Society of Divers, a diver being one who dove into the pockets of wealthy passersby to pick wallets and purses. One of the most adept of these was Mary Jones who was later celebrated in The Beggar's Opera as Jenny Diver.

Moll learned the art of pick-pocketing so well that she soon became one of the most successful thieves in London. Those purses too difficult to pluck from a pocket, Moll learned, had to be cut away, and often as not this meant cutting away an entire pocket in the coat of a victim without being detected. Pickpockets who could successfully perform this delicate act were known as "cutpurses." Such techniques required special dexterity and skill, which Moll expertly demonstrated time and again. So adept did she become at this method of pick-pocketing that she quickly earned the esteemed underworld sobriquet of Moll Cutpurse.

She reveled in her legendary exploits, such as cutting away the purses of more than fifty victims in a single day, and, through her thievery, she became rich. Even law-abiding citizens looked upon Moll as a sort of cult heroine. She played the part, dressing in elegant men's apparel, wearing brocaded breeches, doublet, plumed hat, and smoking a pipe, a habit to which she was addicted until her death at age seventy-five.

So rich did Moll Cutpurse become that she bought stores and property, but she never deserted her underworld friends, fencing their stolen wares for a handsome profit. Not until she decided to blatantly publicize her wicked image did she run afoul of the law.

In 1605, she leaped upon the stage of London's Fortune Theatre, dressed, of course, as a man, and puffing heavily on a pipe. She loudly sang bawdy songs while strumming a lute. She regaled the raucous crowd with lascivious stories until watchmen arrived to place her under arrest. The charge was a minor one, that of a female wearing the garb of a man. She was fined and released.

More serious punishment came with her being branded four times on the hands after she was somehow caught with her fingers working loose the pocketbooks of unsuspecting victims. These rare arrests and subsequent brandings were badges of honor to Moll, but, as she grew older, and her fingers were less adept in picking purses, she abandoned the practice.

Moll organized a band of roughnecks and embarked on the career of highway robbery. She would ride wildly down a road in pursuit of a coach and order the driver to halt while training a brace of pistols on him. Her confederates would then order the passengers to step out and they would be robbed of their jewelry and purses. She was even bold enough to stop the coach of General Fairfax, wounding Fairfax in a struggle. She fled, but was captured.

Taken to Newgate Prison, Moll was tried and sentenced to be hanged. She asked to see General Fairfax, who was astounded to discover that a woman had robbed and shot him. When meeting Fairfax, Moll proposed a deal. She would pay him £2,000 if he would drop the charges against her and arrange for her release. Fairfax, at the time, was in need of funds, Moll knew, because he was helping to finance Cromwell and his roundheads, who were in revolt against King Charles I.

An early-day print of Moll Cutpurse, notorious pick-pocket, robber and
An early-day print of Moll Cutpurse, notorious pick-pocket, robber and fence of stolen goods. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

The general accepted the deal, and after the money was paid, released Moll. The experience so frightened Moll that she gave up highway robbery. With her considerable fortune, she retired to her lavish Fleet Street residence, but nevertheless kept active by opening the Globe Tavern, which became the center of all criminal activities in London, the meeting place for every pickpocket, highwayman, and cutthroat in the city.

At the Globe, Moll gave advice on planned robberies and burglaries and also established herself as the most important fence in the city, buying stolen silver and gold and other valuables and then reselling them at a considerable profit, often to the original owners. She was referred to at this time in her life by the aristocrats of London as "The Queen of Misrule."

As the decades rolled by, Moll grew more hideous with each passing year, and by her late sixties, gluttony had made her obese. She never bathed and the stench of her body became so overpowering that even her closest associates crossed the street when they saw her approaching. In the next few years, Moll's once keen mind became muddled. She lost track of her affairs and her associates bled her accounts, stole her valuables, and looted her houses.

At the age of seventy-five, afflicted by severe dropsy, Moll Cutpurse had but a few hundred pounds to her name, which she reserved for her funeral. Her last wish was that she be buried face down in her coffin "as because I am unworthy to look upwards, and that, as I have in my life been preposterous, so I may be in my death." She died on July 26, 1659, and was buried in St. Bride's Churchyard, face down, according to her request, so that God would not have to look upon her withering ugliness at Judgment Day.