transgender

Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl

Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword
Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword

Mary Frith was born at Barbican on Aldersgate Street in 1584, and grew up to be one of the most famous women of her age, immortalised in not one but two plays: The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day in 1610, and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611.

A "boisterous and masculine spirit"

Her life and times have been well-documented, not least in her own words in a 1662 autobiography, and in The Newgate Calendar, which describes the "boisterous and masculine spirit" which appeared in her childhood:

She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.

Crime and punishment

As she grew up, Mary got into more and more trouble. At 16 she was charged with stealing two shillings. Her uncle tried to send her to America for a fresh start but she jumped overboard and swam ashore before the ship sailed.

Mary got her name, Moll Cutpurse, by stealing purses in the area around St Paul's cathedral. An accomplice would distract the target while Mary cut the strings of their purse, detaching it from their belt.

She was in and out of prison and was burnt on the hand four times, a common punishment for thieves. She also acted as a fence for stolen goods. One of her other roles was as a pimp and go-between, finding young women to be mistresses for men and men to be lovers for married women.

"Indecent and manly apparel"

Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey
Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey

She became a recognisable figure around town, drinking in taverns with men, smoking a long clay pipe, and wearing men's clothing: breeches and a doublet.

According to The Newgate Calendar: "This she took to from her first entrance into a competency of age, and to her dying day she would not leave it off... She was a great libertine, she lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private domestic life."

She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theatre in 1611, singing songs and playing the lute.

In her autobiography she records a court case in which:

some promoting operator set on by an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel

As punishment she was sentenced to stand at St Paul's Cross wearing a white sheet during the Sunday morning sermon. However Mary gleefully points out that as she was not ashamed or repentant the punishment was pointless:

They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood.

"Thou shame of women"

Mary's friend the showman William Banks once bet her £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. She accepted the bet, and even bought a trumpet and a banner to go along with.

Riding on Banks' famous horse Marocco, Mary proceeded "undiscovered", and amused herself in imagining she was "Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso", until she reached Bishopsgate and faced an unpleasant reminder of the danger she faced:

where passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, 'Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down'.

I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure...

So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.

"She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her"

At some point towards the end of her life Mary was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital, but was released in 1644, apparently cured of insanity. Later still The Newgate Calendar records that at 74 years old:

Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and that the devil had got within her doublet.

She died in 1659 and was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street. John Milton wrote an epitaph which was engraved on a marble headstone, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in which he celebrates her unique and rebellious spirit:

For no communion she had, Nor sorted with the good or bad; That when the world shall be calcin'd, And the mixd' mass of human kind Shall sep'rate by that melting fire, She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her.

Sources

Miss Muff's molly house in Whitechapel

A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.
A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.

One of the challenges of uncovering transgender histories is that even where we find stories which hint at trans identities, we can't go back and ask the individuals in question how they would describe themselves.

Even if we could, concepts of gender identity constantly shift and change throughout history, and the question would probably make very little sense to someone who lived centuries before us.

However, the hints we find show us that in the past, just like today, gender was not a simple binary.

Molly houses

In 18th century London a 'molly house' was a coffeehouse, inn, or tavern at which men could meet in secret to socialise and have sex. 'Molly' or 'moll' was a slang term for a gay man, and for a lower class woman, or a woman selling sex.

Although at this time in England sex between men was punishable by death, molly houses were part of a thriving gay subculture:

The legal records document investigations into about 30 molly houses during the course of the century. Considering that the population of London was only about 600,000 in the 1720s, having even just a dozen molly houses at that time is a bit like having 200 gay clubs in the 1970s. In some respects, the eighteenth-century molly subculture was as extensive as any modern gay subculture.

One of the main molly districts was on the east of the City, around Moorfields in Shoreditch. What is now the south side of Finsbury Square was a cruising area known as 'Sodomites' Walk'.

Cross dressing

Molly houses are a site where gay histories and trans histories intermingle. It was common for men at the molly house to wear women's clothes and to speak and act in typically 'feminine' ways. Most had alternative names such as Plump Nelly, Primrose Mary, Aunt May, Susan Guzzle, Aunt England, and the Duchess of Camomile.

One very famous molly called Princess Seraphina wore her feminine identity beyond these secret meeting places and into her public life. In 1732 she brought a case against a man for stealing her clothes. Her neighbour Mary Poplet described her in her testimony:

I have known her Highness a pretty while... I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation (salivation was a mercurial cure for syphilis); but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull's Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.

Raids on molly houses

Much of what we know about mollies comes from court proceedings following raids on molly houses, the most well known of which was the raid on Mother Clap's molly house in 1726, in Holborn. (Incidentally, Mother Clap was a real woman called Margaret Clap.) After the raid several people were tried and three men were hanged at Tyburn for the crime of 'sodomy'.

One of the best documented examples from east London is a raid on a molly house in Whitechapel.

"Nine male ladies" arrested

The molly house was owned by Miss Muff - also known as Jonathan Muff - and it stood in Black Lion Yard. The yard no longer exists, but Black Lion House now stands on the site at 45 Whitechapel Road.

On 5 October 1728 The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer includes a news item about the raid:

On Sunday Night last a Constable with proper Assistants, searched the House of Jonathan Muff, alias Miss Muff, in Black-Lyon Yard, near Whitechapel Church, where they apprehended nine male Ladies, including the Man of the House. They were secured that Night in New Prison, and Monday Morning they were examined before Justice Jackson, in Ayliff-streeet; John Bleak Cawlend was committed to Newgate, he being charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy.

Of the nine arrested we know that two were whipped, one was fined, two were acquitted, and one - whose name was given as Thomas Mitchell - attempted to end his life in prison:

he attempted, and had near accomplish’d, destroying himself, in cutting the great Artery of his Left Arm almost asunder; but by the immediate Help of some eminent Surgeons he was preserv’d, tho’ at the Point of Death thro’ the great Effusion of Blood.

Glimpsed histories

We can never know at this distance how individuals would define or describe their identities, especially when so much LGBTQ+ history is uncovered through documents produced by a hostile state and media: court records, medical diagnoses, and newspaper reports. What is clear is that both homophobia and transmisogyny have long roots.

It's also clear that throughout history many, many individuals have resisted those forces, sometimes risking everything to be true to themselves. It's up to us to try and tell their story when we find it, even if all we have are hints and glimpses.

Sources