Facts about Moll

The Roaring Girl is a fictional dramatization of the life of Mary Frith, a 17th-century woman, who earned a living as a pickpocket and dressed in men's clothing.

1. Dubbed the 'Governess of London's underworld', Mary Frith was also known as Moll Cutpurse. Moll was a common name for a disreputable young woman. Cutpurse referred to Mary's reputation as a thief who 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, at a time when women performing in public defied convention. On stage, she bantered with the audience, played the lute and sang obscene songs.

4. Moll was arrested for stealing purses in 1600. According to records, Moll was burned on her hand four times - a common punishment for thieves.

5. She was arrested for being dressed 'indecently' and was accused of prostitution. On 25 December 1611, she was charged with immodest behaviour, and required to do a penance for 'evil living'.

6. Moll served as an arbitrator in disputes between thieves.

7. As a pimp, she procured young women for men and provided male prostitutes to female clients. She enlisted one 'bored wife' 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, probably following a brutal procedure. These 'cures' often consisted of forms of mutilation to the skull, usually causing brain damage.

11. A staunch supporter of King Charles I, Moll plotted to embezzle money from Oliver Cromwell's government.

12. Moll contracted dropsy in later life, which began with the swelling of her stomach. She 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

The Roaring Girl

by Dekker & Middleton

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
9 April - 30 Sept 2014

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