Highway robbery is predominantly thought of as a male-gendered crime, and it is true that the vast majority of those found in the dock at the Old Bailey in eighteenth-century England were men. But were there any women who got in on the act too? After all, why should men have all the fun?
From a researcher’s point of view, however, it is notoriously difficult to find out if any women became highway robbers, in the sense that we might think of today, riding a horse and shouting “Stand and Deliver!” Firstly, whilst some people were charged specifically with highway robbery, many people who robbed upon the highway were also charged with robbery with violence. Then there were footpads, who often were charged with highway robbery or robbery with violence, but often carried on their misdemeanours in urban areas and, as their nickname implies, did not rob people on horseback but upon foot. Thus it would be difficult to search the archives through gender and offence alone.
Perhaps the most notable case is that of Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660). According to legend, after the Cromwellian government deprived her of the income from her estates, she turned to highway robbery to increase her dwindling income. If the legend is true, she would have been among the ranks of many Royalist supporters who turned to highway robbery during this time, such as James Hind (1616-1652), who, according to Capt. Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), allegedly once robbed ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as he was travelling from Huntingdon to London’. The details of Ferrers’ death are unknown, however, though it is speculated that she died of a gunshot wound during a robbery-gone-bad. As with most legends, however, one has to take the account of Lady Ferrers with a pinch of salt.
The exploits of female highwaymen were also celebrated in fiction such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665). In the story, Latroon, a highway robber and all-round rogue, is held up by a handsomely-dressed ‘gentleman robber’. Meriton and the robber fight, and the robber is overpowered. When Latroon frisks the robber, intending to rob him, he discovers that the robber is woman. The woman tells Latroon all about her life, and then she is soon joined by two other female robbers, and, it is hinted, Latroon and the three women then have a sex-fuelled night. It is difficult to know if Head was recounting a true story; it is certain that he plagiarised material from many sources, such as criminal biographies, and whilst many criminal biographies survive, many have also been lost.
Another highly sensationalised source is the broadside ballad The Female Frollick: or, An Account of a young Gentlewoman, who went upon the Road to rob in Man’s Cloaths, well mounted on a Mare, etc. To an excellent new Tune called The Rant (c.1690). Most of her victims are members of unpopular social groups such as a Quaker, a miller, and an excise man, and according to Gillian Spraggs, the ballad is actually satirising these types of people; they are men who have been robbed by a woman. They are, effectively, impotent against this woman, and in the seventeenth century, if you allowed yourself to become a slave (in any way, shape, or form) to a woman, you were seen as unmanly. Still, the female hero is not allowed to have too much freedom, for when the sheattempts to rob a highwayman, unfortunately for her, when her sex is discovered, the highwayman rapes her, and the ballad makes a light-hearted joke about this:
The High-way-man stood all amazed;
But she had no cause to complain.
Tho’ with her he did what he pleased,
He gave her the Money again.
The ballad itself is probably a somewhat loose adaptation of Head’s earlier account of a meeting between a highwayman and a woman and their ensuing sexual intercourse, though the ballad makes for unpleasant reading due to the fact that, instead of consensual sex, she is raped.
In the second volume of Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), he gives the reader the story of Mary Frith alias Moll Cutpurse, born in the year 1589. From the beginning of the narrative, Smith effectively robs her of any feminine qualities, and, she is a man in all but name, only fitted to ‘manly’ employments:
She would fight with boys and courageously beat them; run, jump, leap, or hop, with any of the contrary sex […] she lived too much in common to be inclos’d in the limits of a private, domestic life; a quarter-staff was fitter for her than a distaff; stave and tail instead of spinning and reeling.
Perhaps worst of all, she is shown to be entirely devoid of maternal feeling:
She had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.
Her wicked inclinations eventually lead her to begin a short career of highway robbery, but after a near-miss at being apprehended by General Fairfax, she decides to become a receiver of stolen goods. Throughout the narrative Smith strongly disapproves of Moll’s course of life; the smallest vices she has are made to appear as signs of her inner depravity. Smith even blames her for enticing the entire female sex into the harmful habit of smoking:
In her time tobacco being grown a great mode, she was mightily taken with the pastime of smoking, because of its singularity and that no woman ever smoked before her, though a great many of the sex have since followed her example.
The passage about tobacco is literally inserted into the narrative between the accounts of two robberies she committed, and, as we have seen, are merely a sign of her sinfulness. Of course, we should also take Smith’s Highwaymen with at least a pinch of salt; as a specimen of his commitment to historical authenticity, it should be noted that he includes in his compendia the life of Sir John Falstaff…John Falstaff is a Shakespearean character, appearing in Henry IV: Part One, Henry IV: Part Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Smith and other criminal biographers in the eighteenth century were rarely concerned with reporting facts.
In reality, however, it was rare indeed to come across a female highwayman, according to J. M. Beattie’s study of crime in the eighteenth century. And Beattie actually only cites one case in his study of a female highwayman which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine on 24 November 1735, and here it appears as though she was acting in concert with a man:
A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amazed at her Behaviour told her, he did not know what she meant; when a Gentleman coming up, told him he was a Brute to deny the Lady’s request, and if he did not gratify her Desire immediately, he would Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.
Many women often acted as decoys for their partners who would rob people. The woman would usually entice an unsuspecting male down a dark alleyway with the prospect of sex, and then the man would come up behind the victim, knock him out, and rob him. This type of criminal partnership was known as the ‘buttock-and-file’. It was such a partnership that the notorious ‘Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, engaged in with Mary Milliner, a prostitute, during the early years of his criminal career.
Accounts of female highway robbers, scarce as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, almost disappear by the nineteenth century. In fact, the crime of highway robbery itself disappeared in the 1800s, with the last mounted robbery having taken place in 1831. One of the latest accounts of a female highwayman appeared in the 1890s. Sabine Baring-Gould, an antiquary and Anglican priest, collected a number of folk songs from the common people of West Country and published them in Songs and Ballads of the West, published in four parts between 1889 and 1891. Amongst the songs he transcribed was a ballad entitled The Female Highwayman. It’s a rather more pleasant story than the seventeenth-century ballad The Female Frolick. The woman dresses herself in man’s clothes and goes out and robs someone. She sees a man and robs him of a diamond ring and a watch. The next day, the man sees the woman (this time dressed as a woman) with the watch hanging out of her pocket. He enquires where the woman got the watch and she confesses that it was her who robbed him. He then scolds her for involving herself in a dangerous pastime, but is also a bit smitten with her, and the pair fall in love and are married. It is highly doubtful, again, that this was based upon a real story, and is most likely just an entertaining song.
In conclusion, when highwaywomen are represented in fiction and in folk ballads (written usually by male writers), they are figures which have to be contained; Latroon, although initially overcome by the female robber, he re-establishes his male authority by having sex with three female robbers; in The Female Frolick, the man again establishes control over the highwaywoman in a very unpleasant manner by raping her; In Smith’s Highwayman, Moll Cutpurse is, essentially, stripped of any feminine attributes; in the late nineteenth-century folk ballad The Female Highwayman we again see that, whilst it is a pleasanter story than The Female Frolick, the woman is again ‘contained’ so to speak for she ends up marrying her victim. It is evident then that writers in the past were uncomfortable with the prospect of women taking to the roads and robbing people upon the highway. Women were supposed to be relatively confined to the domestic sphere – that Moll Cutpurse has no liking for home life is another stick with which Smith beats her – and their appropriation of what was essentially a ‘manly’ thing to do would have been seen as subverting gender norms. Hence to male writers the female highway robber was a threatening figure, and one which had to be contained. As it happens, actual female highwaymen were rare, and this probably made any accounts of them all the more sensational (and profitable, if you were a writer or a ballad publisher), and most real-life highwaywomen usually committed their robberies in collaboration with male partners.
Gillian Spraggs, Outlaws and Highwaymen (London: Pimlico, 2001).
Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Harper, 1987).
Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 1987).
Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (eds.) The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs (London: Penguin, 2012).