The Roaring Girl, written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, is a fictional dramatization of the life of Mary Frith, a 17th-century virago who earned a living as a pickpocket and dressed in men's clothing. First published in 1611, The Roaring Girl presents the character of Moll, a reformed thief, labelled a whore by society for her behaviour which challenged and transgressed gender roles prescribed by society.
Facts about Moll:
1. Dubbed the 'Governess of London's underworld', Mary Frith was also known as Moll Cutpurse. Moll was a common name for a young woman of disreputable character. Cutpurse referred to Mary's reputation as a thief who would cut purses to steal their contents.
2. Working as a fence and a pimp, Moll Cutpurse wore men's clothing and frequented taverns and tobacco shops. Said to be the first woman in England to smoke tobacco, Moll wore a doublet and loose breeches in public, and smoked a pipe. At the time, women who dressed as men were considered to be 'sexually riotous and uncontrolled'.
3. She performed regularly at the Fortune Playhouse, during a time when women performing in public defied convention. On stage, she bantered with the audience, played the lute and sang obscene songs.
4. In 1600, Moll first got in to trouble with the law when she was arrested for stealing purses. According to records, Moll was burned on her hand four times, which was a common punishment for thieves.
5. Mary was arrested on 25 December 1611 for being dressed 'indecently' and was accused of prostitution. She was charged with immodest behaviour, and required to do a penance for her 'evil living'.
6. Moll also served as an arbitrator in disputes between thieves.
7. In her capacity as a pimp, not only did she procure young women for men, she also provided male prostitutes to female clients. In one instance, she enlisted the 'bored wife' of an 'ordinary citizen' to be the mistress of a string of noblemen. On her death bed, the wife revealed to her husband and 12 children the identities of their respective fathers. The disgruntled husband complained to Moll, who bribed the fathers to support their children.
8. Moll lived in a house full of mirrors on Fleet Street with three maids. Upon her death, Moll left significant amounts of money to her three female servants.
9. She kept parrots, bred mastiffs and rode a dancing horse.
10. Moll was declared 'cured of insanity' by Bethlem Hospital in London in 1644, most likely after receiving a brutal and painful procedure. These so-called 'cures' often consisted of forms of mutilation to the skull, which usually caused brain damage.
11. A staunch supporter of King Charles I, Moll plotted to embezzle money from Oliver Cromwell's government.
12. In her later life, Moll contracted dropsy, which began with the swelling of her stomach. Moll considered this a punishment for her rejection of the conventional maternal role. She died in 1659, aged 74.
Image 1: Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse
Image 2: The Roaring Girl front cover, first published in 1611