Philobiblon: The women burglars of the Old Bailey Online

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The women burglars of the Old Bailey Online

This post (which is very long - sorry - on Blogger you can't put things under the fold, at least as far as I know) is part of the Old Bailey Session Paper Symposium, which has been organised by Jonathan of The Head Heeb.

On August 23, 1676, what was reputed to a long criminal career of a "young" woman, Martha Harman, was cut short. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey online record that she had "broke open a house at Islington; a Crime rarely attempted by that Sex". (u16760823-1) An alternative account (t16760823-1) says that she had gone to Islington with two "Gronies", and at midnight they tried to use to use a picklock to break into a dwelling within a house in which the mother of one lived. (The record is not entirely clear, but it seems likely the ringleader, whose mother's house it was, was Martha. The names of the other two are not recorded.)

This failed, so they went to the mother and got from her a key, which they used to lever open a casement. Then,

Whilst one stood ready at the Window to receive the Booty, and the other was very advantageously posted in the Street, to give notice to the Attacquers, if any Alarm hapned. They stole a considerable quantity of Linnen and Cloaths, and had done more mischief, had they not been frighted with a noise, as if somebody were stirring in the Chamber; however they got away safe, but with such unlucky haste, that they left the Key in the Room, which the Woman of the house next Morning finding, and knowing it to be her Neighbours, whose Daughter was noted to be of an ill repute, she seized them upon suspicion; and they in effect confessed the Fact before the Justice: but the Jury found only two Guilty, so that their Scout was acquitted.

Despite the suggestion of Martha being a hardened criminal, she hardly fits our profile of such. And the comment of the Old Bailey recorder of burglary being a rare crime for women seems to fit with modern statistics.

But I was interested in early modern women burglars, after learning about possibly the most famous of them - Mary Frith, as she styled herself, although she's better known as "Moll Cutpurse". She first makes an appearance on the criminal record living up to that traditional tag: On August 26, 1600, she and two other women were indicted for snatching "a purse kept in a breast pocket and containing 2 shillings and 11 pence from an unknown man at Clerkenwell". The court records that she confessed, but the 15-year-old Mary and her companions were found not guilty. Two years later she was again in trouble, suspected of taking of purse containing 25 shillings.

But then her criminal career seems to have turned more serious. (Or she finally got caught.) The Surrey Assizes recorded a charge that on September 8, 1609, "Frythe, Mary of St Olave, Southwark … burgled the house of Alice Bayly at St Olave and stole £7 7s in money, two gold angels, a gold 20-shilling piece, 2 gold half-crowns, a gold ring (6s) and 2 crystal stones set in silver (20d)". Quite a haul. Moll, however, escped with a not guilty verdict (not as surprising as it sounds, for juries were reluctant to convict women for capital offences). She went on to a lively career and died in a comfortable bed in her old house in old age.

But in her memoir*** (The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith), Mary makes no mention of this. She proud explains her link with the "cutpurses", although claims to have always been a fence rather than a practitioner; she admits to being a bawd (for men and women she says), but on burglary, nothing. That set me wondering: why would she leave this out of the highlights of her life? Then, further, was she exceptional in being a female burglar? (I hadn't read of any others.)

The perfect tool for answering at least the second question was readily at hand, in the form of the Old Bailey online (about which I wrote for The Times a few years ago, while seeking my criminal "relatives"). So I set to work on the nicely intuitive search engine. (It has definitely improved since the last time I used it.)

The search was for the crime of burglary, between the start of the records in 1674 and December 1693 (to stay broadly within Mary Frith's period), and for female defendants. That produced 128 results. (A comparable search for males produced 457 - not so great a difference as I had expected.)

Not all of these, however, are accused of being what you might describe as the traditional "burglar" - the person breaking into a house and taking what they find. A number of cases are more complicated, such as that of Margaret Slath (t16840515-19), whose employer, the distinctly uncharitable Minister of Elin, claimed "when four Men, in the Dead of the Night, broke in and Rifled his House, that he had found her to be so ill a Woman, he greatly Suspected she let in the said Thieves, or left the Door open for them". Happily Margaret was acquitted, and one assumes she found a new job. The accusation against her seems, however, to have been a common one. (Another example is Martha Tanner t16870406-32.)

So, I went through those 128 cases to identify those that seems to fit a "traditional" burglary charge - the breaking into a house or shop (not a distinction that always means much in this period) and taking away of valuables. I excluded those where so little information is provided that it is hard to get any idea of what happened, or even allegedly happened, (e.g. t16760510-8). Those in which the women seem to have been taken up simply because they were with male sexual partners when they were arrested (often no evidence is provided against them and they are acquitted on that basis) I also excluded. Of course they may well have been as, or more, involved, than their men, but there seems to be no way of recovering that now. To some extent one has to trust the juries to have made reasonable judgements, and in general it seems from the surviving evidence that they did so.

For what I primarily wanted to do was get a sense of how women burglars operated - whether they had "careers", whether they tended to use particular tactics, or target particular sorts of victims, whether they worked alone, or in all-female or mixed gangs. I came up with 33 crimes in which it seemed reasonably clear what had happened. Of those cases, in 14 the women appeared to be working with men (often their sexual partners), in eight cases two or more women were working together, in nine cases they appeared to be acting alone, and in two cases there were accomplices whose sex was unknown.

Given the limitations of the data (and the fact that the vast majority of crimes in London were unsolved, so the criminals who got caught might not be representative), I'm not going to make too much claim for those figures, but nonetheless, they do suggest that women burglars were far from just accomplices of men, but acted independently, alone or with female compatriots.

Some were so inept that it is tempting to think they were simply desperate women who hardly cared if they got caught or not. The case that comes to mind is that of Anne Miller, who on November 2, 1691 broke through a door and snatched some clothing, but was seen by a man sitting by the fire. As defences go her "she was troubled with the Falling Sickness, and so fell into the house, the door being opened", unsurprisingly didn't stand up.

Some seem to have been pure thugs, such as Margery Yoel (t16831212-27), who with another woman ("both disguised in Mens Clothes") broke into the house of Edward Stone "a poor ancient Man that lived alone" and by threats extracted from him everything of value that he owned. Other cases, like that of Martha Harman with which this article began, were perhaps more youthful larks gone wrong, possibly fueled by alcohol.

But there are cases that look calculated, and might well have generated large profits, enough indeed to support a "career" in burglary. Thomazine Tally (t16871012-21), who seems to have worked alone, was convicted for three thefts of items of considerable value - typical targets for burglars from silverware to clothing. Abigail Hansley and Ruth Night (t16900115-22) were well on the way to robbing a rich clothing shop, equipped with picklocks and a "dark Lanthorn" (common equipment for such endeavours) when disturbed, while Ruth Herne (t16920629-8) had developed her own modus operandi, of breaking glass to get at keys kept inside, then using those to gain access to premises.

So broadly it seems that, perhaps more so than today, burglary was a crime that women could turn to in a wide range of circumstances, and for reasons ranging from desperation to taking up a "profession". It was, if not an equal opportunity "career", certainly an option available to female criminals. I concluded that in being a female burglar Mary Frith was unusual, but not so singular as she was in other aspects of her life. That, and the fact that a real contempt for burglars comes through in the text of the Old Bailey records, probably explain why she did not include any reference to this aspect of her life in her memoirs.

* J.S. Cockburn (ed) Calendar of Assize Records Home Circuit Indictments Elizabeth I and James I, HMSO, London, p. 56.
** ibid., p. 113.
*** There are debates about how "authentic" this memoir is. This is not the place to discuss it, but I believe the main section of it to broadly be the product of her dictation.

More about Mary Frith online:
The Case of Moll Frith:
Women's Work and the "All-Male Stage
, Natasha Korda
The Newgate Calendar


Anonymous 17th century said...

Looking at the first couple of pages of Mary Frith's biography in the Newgate calendar, it's interesting to note the way they present her as a kind of man-woman. I've seen that in other old biographies of untraditional women. Any thoughts on that?

2/13/2006 07:28:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

Mary Carleton, aka The German Princess, aka Mary Moders, aka Mary Stedman.

Lots of contemporary pamphlets covered this.

2/14/2006 11:21:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

That text is also printed in the book to which I point through Amazon - and it is good fun. (Sitting on my shelf through the - expensive - joys of academic remainders.)

2/19/2006 11:12:00 am  

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