Moll King was an autem diver, or if you don’t happen to speak flash, a pickpocket who danced her fingers into the purses of the faithful. By the look of her, she would have appeared interchangeable with the leagues of ordinary misses and their meager origins except she was anything but a copy. A legend in her day, Moll King was more than an extraordinary pickpocket; she was a wife and an entrepreneur, a whore and a thief. But what was the true character of this woman of many names and just as many faces?
Robin Wright in Defoe’s Moll Flanders
In the 18th century we hear the same woebegone story over and over–a series of event so common as to seldom warrant a second glance when one happened upon them. Moll began in such a way. A short stint selling fruit, a vulgar overture or two later, and her initiation into the blossoming sex trade that had spread its vines throughout the city was complete.
The debauchery must have felt tangential to Moll, for it didn’t take long for her to realize the beast with two backs suffered little attention toward its possessions. Sobriety was her advantage, as was patience and a persuasive demeanor that would carry her for the rest of her life. Ascended from market girl to buttock and file—pickpocket and whore—Moll set her heights even higher, fondling gentlemen’s fobs and snuffboxes and eventually ignoring their pegos altogether.
From The Rake’s Progress – The Rose Tavern by William Hogarth
Moll first appeared in official records in 1687 when she was whipped for stealing clothes. During her criminal career, she had at least 12 known aliases, switching out her surnames as it suited. Between 1697 and 1713 alone, “Mary King” was indicted on 11 separate charges, but this by no means represents the whole of her offenses. The gall that made her a cunning pickpocket also enabled her to stupefy the court by facing a slew of charges in the same sessions under different guises. Making matters more confusing, Mary “Moll” King, was a common name during the 17th and 18th centuries, and she no doubt used this mass anonymity to fool the authorities.
It wasn’t until 1723, when Thomas Purney published The Life of Mr. John Stanley, that she made her debut in the public scandal sheets. If we are to trust the salacious publication, Moll and John Stanley, the profligate son of an army officer, were short-term lovers and criminals in arms.
When their devious methods collided at St. Anne’s Church, Soho, in 1718, she was already married to Tom King, and he was a handsome young rake with a penchant for preying on wanton lambs of God. According to The Life, Moll stole his gold watch—a mainstay of her employment—and the pair quickly learned of their common calling.
John Stanley met his unfortunate end after thrusting a knife in his mistress Mrs. Maycock and was hanged at Tyburn on December 23, 1723. Moll had a much longer flirtation with disaster. In 1718, she received a death sentence for filching watches at St. Anne’s, but she possessed the means to commute her sentence to transportation. As shown earlier in 1687 in the Old Bailey Proceedings, the cry of the unborn child was a choice influencer of the age: “The Women that received Sentence of Death pleaded their Bellys, but upon the Enquiry of a Jury of Women Impannel’d for that purpose only Mary King was found quick with Child.” (1)
Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation by William Hogarth (1726)
Newgate wags offered to swell bellies for a price and were in demand among female prisoners facing capital sentences. Whether the child of 1718 was a lover’s token or part of a purchased agreement, Moll remained in Newgate until 1720 when she was transported to Annapolis.
The conditions of her transportation stipulated she remain in the colonies lest she commit an additional capital felony by return, but the London life was the life for Moll. She sailed back to England as fast as the seas would take her and was back to her old tricks, appearing in a widely circulated publication in July of 1720.
Jonathan Wilds, who likely had an acquaintance with Moll prior to her transportation, seized upon a golden opportunity in forcing her hands to perform for him and only him. Under threat of exposure, she began thieving for the notorious thief-taker the same year as her return. Their game was to recover stolen goods that Wilds’ gang had previously lifted, whereupon he would gain a generous finder’s fee and Moll would receive a small trickle down for her efforts.
The Four Stages of Cruelty – Cruelty in Perfection by William Hogarth
As Gerald Howson points out in Thief-Taker General, “London was an inferno and Jonathan its Prince of Darkness, who had ruthlessly sacrificed hundreds of lives, many of them innocent and brought up to crime from childhood, for mere worldly ambition.” (5) Wilds was not to be trifled with and Moll, despite her ingenuity, was in an untenable situation.
There were benefits, though, to serving Wilds. He had connections that ran through every vein in London’s underbelly. Once under his protection, he could influence the fate of his gang, from capture to prison transfers to the severity of sentencing. He also had a knack for getting his thieves acquitted. He hired false witnesses and bribed authorities, rearranged trial schedules, and made so many underhanded deals it’s curious he could keep them straight.
When Moll was caught red-handed in 1721, he went to considerable lengths to prevent another transportation, but his assistance was the devil’s bidding. His particular talent seemed to lie in intimidation. When the occasion suited, he would force his thieves to impeach those who got twitchy. This kept business neatly in order, at least until 1724 when his crimes were exposed and he hanged for a multitude of charges in 1725.
Moll must have breathed a sigh of relief. After an additional transportation in 1723, she disappeared from criminal life for a time. When she reemerged by opening a coffee house in 1732 with her husband Tom King, she had reformed, at least on the surface. They had previously shared a successful nut stall in Covent Garden and raised enough funds for their next venture, but Moll dealings were never wholly legitimate.
The Life and Character of Moll King (1747) claims she loaned money at exorbitant interest rates to her most fashionable customers. To her lower class laborers and fellow proprietresses, she helped where she might, and as a result of her good spirits, her coffee house grew in reputation. It was adored by the demimonde and working classes, opening in the earliest morning hours to serve both late night revelers and market workers.
Although the raucous scene drew attention from Sir John Gonson and the Society for the Reformation of Manners, the coffee house was a smashing success. Business was not without its hardships, however. Moll was charged in 1739 with keeping a disorderly house where she was fined £200 and three months in prison–the maximum sentence for the charge. (6)
Before his death in 1739, Tom King retired to a country house near Hampstead Heath. Moll kept up the business and even extended their ventures to speculation, purchasing a parcel of land in Haverstock and building a few terrace houses, one of which she occupied around 1745. Two years later, Moll retired from earth, and was mentioned in the 1779 publication of Nocturnal Revels, The history of King’s-place, and other modern nunneries: Containing their mysteries, devotions, and sacrifices. Comprising also, the ancient and present state of promiscuous gallantry: with the portraits of the most celebrated demireps and courtezans of this period: as well as sketches of their professional and occasional admirers.
The exceedingly long title begs the question: was Moll a bawd as well as a pickpocket, whore, market seller and proprietress? Probably.
Tom King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden – Four Times a Day series by William Hogarth (1738)
If ever a woman wore many hats, it was she. Whether or not the once obscure daughter of a shoemaker was the eventual blueprint for Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders as Howson and others have suggested, we do know she led a life worthy of a good retelling.
1. Copyright: Old Bailey Proceedings: Accounts of Criminal Trials, 31st August, 1687, London Lives, 1690-1800, s16870831-1(www.londonlives.org, 29 March 2012), Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.
3. Women in Business, 1700-1850 by Nicola Jane Phillips
5. Thief-Taker General: Jonathan Wild and the Emergence of Crime and Corruption in Eighteenth Century England by Gerlad Howson
6. Covent Garden: Its Romance and Its History by Reginald Jacobs
Moll King nearing the end of her life (1730-1747)
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