Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frith, Mary

FRITH, MARY (1584?–1659), commonly known as Moll Cutpurse, was the daughter of a shoemaker in the Barbican. The anonymous author of ‘The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith’ (1662) states that she was born in 1589, and that she died in her ‘threescore and fourteenth year.’ If she was born in 1589, she could not have been in her seventy-fourth year when she died. Malone gives 1584 as the date of her birth. It is stated in a note in Dodsley's ‘Old Plays,’ 1780, xii. 389, on the authority of a manuscript letter in the British Museum, that she died at her house in Fleet Street 26 July 1659, and was buried in the church of St. Bridget's; this date of death is also given in ‘Smyth's Obituary’ (Camd. Soc.) p. 51. Cunningham says that she was buried 10 Aug. 1659. Particular care was bestowed on her education, but she would not submit to discipline. ‘A very tomrig or rumpscuttle she was.’ says her anonymous biographer, ‘and delighted and sported only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls.’ When she had grown to be a ‘lusty and sturdy wench’ she was put out to service; but she disliked household work of any kind, and ‘had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children.’ Abandoning domestic service she donned man's attire, and gained great notoriety as a bully, pickpurse, fortune-teller, receiver, and forger. Chamberlain, in one of his letters to Carleton (dated 11 Feb. 1611–1612), tells how she did penance at Paul's Cross. She made a show of penitence on that occasion, but it was afterwards discovered that she had consumed three quarts of sack (and was maudlin-drunk) before she went to her penance. The highwaymen, Captain Hind and Richard Hannam, were among her familiar friends. In Smith's ‘Lives of Highwaymen’ it is related that she once robbed General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath, shot him through the arm, and killed two horses on which his servants were riding; for which offence she was sent to Newgate, but procured her release by paying Fairfax two thousand pounds. On her expeditions she was usually accompanied by a dog, which had been carefully trained for the purpose. She is also said to have kept a gang of thieves in her service. Her constant practice of smoking is supposed to have lengthened her life, for she suffered from a dropsy, to which she ultimately succumbed.

There are numerous references to Moll Cutpurse in the writings of her contemporaries; but it is very doubtful whether Sir Toby Belch refers to her when he speaks of ‘Mistress Moll's picture’ (Twelfth Night, i. 3), for she was too young to have come into notoriety when Shakespeare's play was written. In August 1610 there was entered in the Stationers' Register: ‘A Booke called the Madde Prancks of Merry Moll of the Bankside, with her walks in Man's Apparel and to what Purpose. Written by John Day;’ but it is not known to have been printed. She is the heroine of an excellent comedy, ‘The Roaring Girle,’ 1611, by Middleton and Dekker, who have presented her in a very attractive light. Field introduces her in ‘Amends for Ladies,’ 1618.

[The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, 1662; Dyce's Middleton, ii. 427, &c.; Dyce's Shakespeare Glossary; Dodsley's Old Plays, ed. Hazlitt, xi. 90–1; Bullen's Middleton, iv. 3–5.]

A. H. B.