A Woman to Know: Mary Frith

She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing and stitching. — Thomas Dekker

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

"A trousered whore." "The roaring girl." "The most notorious female member of 17th century England's underworld." "The proto-superhero." (What?!!)

Yes, in addition to being a famous pickpocket (hence her nickname, "Cutpurse") and blatant crossdresser ("indecent dress," as one court document put it), people regarded Mary as somewhat of a Robin Hood, "proto-superhero" figure. When people today point to Mary as the inspiration for vigilante heroes like Batman, they're drawing lines from superheroes' famously broody "I'm above the law" attitudes to Moll Cutpurse's "costume" (always-lit cigar, men's clothing) and blatant disrespect for authority. Playwrights Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton immortalized her in "The Roaring Girl," a play about Moll Cutpurse's exploits on the streets of London. At the audience's request, Dekker and Middleton would invite Mary on stage during high-profile performances.

Mary didn't have an invisible plane or a bat cave, but she did have a store on Fleet Street, where she welcomed thieves and burglars. For years before her death in 1659, Moll Cutpurse hosted her underworld friends in the store, laughing as they sold stolen jewels and other valuables back to the bourgeoisie they had robbed.

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