Mary Frith, Moll Cutpurse, and the Development of an Early Modern Criminal Celebrity
- Mary Frith,
- Moll Cutpurse
Copyright (c) 2021 Lauren Liebe
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Mary Frith (1584?-1659) is one of the most intriguing and well-documented female criminals of early modern London, both in court records and in literature. Popular perceptions of her criminality were shaped not by her crimes themselves, but by Frith’s cultivation of her own version of female celebrity, which drew upon and reframed her criminal actions. Frith constructed the persona of Moll Cutpurse as part of her development as a musical performer in London’s Bankside theatre district. She built upon her own criminal history to create a female character whose transgressiveness—both as a petty thief and as a cross-dressing performer—made her an intriguing and distinctive figure who quickly proved a fascinating topic for a variety of popular literature. Ballads, plays, and tales reshaped her criminal activities as heroic by exploiting her criminal celebrity persona. The popularity of Moll’s subsequent depictions in fiction has overshadowed Frith’s own achievements as a savvy performer and businesswoman, albeit one operating at the edges of the law. Only by examining Frith’s historical record alongside but distinct from the fictional portrayals of Moll can we determine the ways in which Frith’s female criminal celebrity shaped and was in turn shaped by her literary legacy.