Moll Cutpurse: A Famous Master-Thief and an Ugly

Newgate Prison: Open from 1188-1902 AD

Newgate Prison: Open from 1188-1902 AD

First, apologies. Although this post was meant to be filed under Final Meals, there will be no sumptuous tidbit of final choices to consume and ponder. Rather, this post is a nod to my failing as a writer: I’m easily distracted. The upside? I think you’ll be interested in this distraction.

Originally designed in the 18th century to keep the general population apprised of notorious criminals, the Newgate Calendar (subtitled: The Malefactors’ Bloody Register) was a collection of broadsheets detailing the crimes, trials and punishments of nefarious individuals. Peddlers would then hawk these juicy bits of scandal at fairs and executions.

The publication got its name from the prison that provided its material: Newgate Prison. And initially at least, the entries into the Newgate Calendar were penned by the keeper of the prisoner, perhaps the equivalent of today’s warden?

At any rate, it’s believed that the Newgate Calendar was a well-read bit of writing, likely to be found in the average home alongside the Bible, where good Christian folk could indulge in scandals including murder, cannibalism, drunkenness and women of abandoned character.

One such woman of abandoned character was Mary Frith (also known as Moll Cutpurse) whose crimes included “Master-Thief and an Ugly, who dressed like a Man”. Mary’s unusual aka comes from her profession of cutting purses (pickpocket), of which she was well-known and respected for, at least in the questionable circles she thrived in.

An only child, Mary was doted on, particularly by her mother, but to her parents’ distress, Mary’s boisterous and masculine spirit could not be contained. According to the records on young Mary, she didn’t give a rat’s ass – paraphrasing here – for feminine pursuits. And like Arya Stark, “she could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching … and on her needle, bodkin and thimble, she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into a sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels”.

Moll chose to dress as a man, but as noted by her broadsheet in the Newgate Calendar: “Though she was so ugly in any dress as never to be wooed nor solicited by any man … she was able to beat a fellow to compliance, without the unnecessary trouble of entreaties”.


Image from the title page of the play Roaring Girl, written in 1607-1610, about Mary Frith

Early on, Moll fell into a group of fortune tellers and for some time made a good living as a cutpurse, until a nasty incident (she shot a man and killed two of his horses) caused her to look for safer work. She became a broker – a buyer and seller of stolen goods – and a bawdy house operator.

The Newgate Calendar speculates that Moll was the first woman to be “mightily taken with the pastime of smoking … and that no woman ever smoked before her, though a great many of her sex since have followed her example”.

Shortly before her death Mary expressed her desire to buried “with her breeches upwards, that she might as preposterous in death as she had been all along in her infamous life”.

Her epitaph read:

“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 mix’d 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.”