She was born in the Barbican at the heyday of England's greatness, four years after the glorious defeat of the Armada, and had to her father an honest shoemaker. She came into the world (saith rumour) with her fist doubled, and even in the cradle gave proof of a boyish, boisterous disposition. Her girlhood, if the word be not an affront to her mannish character, was as tempestuous as a wind-blown petticoat. A very `tomrig and rump-scuttle,' she knew only the sports of boys: her war-like spirit counted no excuse too slight for a battle; and so valiant a lad was she of her hands, so well skilled in cudgel-play, that none ever wrested a victory from fighting Moll. While other girls were content to hem a kerchief or mark a sampler, Moll would escape to the Bear Garden, and there enjoy the sport of baiting, whose loyal patron she remained unto the end. That which most bitterly affronted her was the magpie talk of the wenches. `Why,' she would ask in a fury of indignation, `why crouch over the fire with a pack of gossips, when the highway invites you to romance? Why finger a distaff, when a quarterstaff comes more aptly to your hand?'
And thus she grew in age and stature, a stranger to the soft delights of her sex, her heart still deaf to the trivial voice of love. Had not a wayward accident cumbered her with a kirtle, she would have sought death or glory in the wars; she would have gone with Colonel Downe's men upon the road; she would have sailed to the Spanish Main for pieces of eight. But the tyranny of womanhood was as yet supreme, and the honest shoemaker, ignorant of his daughter's talent, bade her take service at a respectable saddler's, and thus suppress the frowardness of her passion. Her rebellion was instant. Never would she abandon the sword and the wrestling-booth for the harmless bodkin and the hearthstone of domesticity. Being absolute in refusal, she was kidnapped by her friends and sent on board a ship, bound for Virginia and slavery. There, in the dearth of womankind, even so sturdy a wench as Moll might have found a husband; but the enterprise was little to her taste, and, always resourceful, she escaped from shipboard before the captain had weighed his anchor.
Henceforth she resolved her life should be free and chainless as the winds. Never more should needle and thread tempt her to a womanish inactivity. As Hercules, whose counterpart she was, changed his club for the distaff of Omphale, so would she put off the wimple and bodice of her sex for jerkin and galligaskins. If she could not allure manhood, then would she brave it. And though she might not cross swords with her country's foes, at least she might levy tribute upon the unjustly rich, and confront an enemy wherever there was a full pocket.
Her entrance into a gang of thieves was beset by no difficulty. The Bear Garden, always her favourite resort, had made her acquainted with all the divers and rumpads of the town. The time, moreover, was favourable to enterprise, and once again was genius born into a golden age. The cutting of purses was an art brought to perfection, and already the more elegant practice of picking pockets was understood. The transition gave scope for endless ingenuity, and Moll was not slow in mastering the theory of either craft. It was a changing fashion of dress, as I have said, which forced a new tactic upon the thief; the pocket was invented because the hanging purse was too easy a prey for the thievish scissors. And no sooner did the world conceal its wealth in pockets than the cly-filer was born to extract the booty with his long, nimble fingers. The trick was managed with an admirable forethought, which has been a constant example to after ages. The file was always accompanied by a bull:, whose duty it was to jostle and distract the victim while his pockets were rifled. The bung, or what not, was rapidly passed on to the attendant rub, who scurried off before the cry of STOP THIEF! could be raised.
Thus was the craft of thieving practised when Moll was enrolled a humble member of the gang. Yet nature had not endowed her with the qualities which ensure an active triumph. `The best signs and marks of a happy, industrious hand,' wrote the hoyden, `is a long middle finger, equally suited with that they call the fool's or first finger.' Now, though she was never a clumsy jade, the practice of sword-play and quarterstaff had not refined the industry of her hands, which were the rather framed for strength than for delicacy. So that though she served a willing apprenticeship, and eagerly shared the risks of her chosen trade, the fear of Newgate and Tyburn weighed heavily upon her spirit, and she cast about her for a method of escape. Avoiding the danger of discovery, she was loth to forego her just profit, and hoped that intelligence might atone for her sturdy, inactive fingers. Already she had endeared herself to the gang by unnumbered acts of kindness and generosity; already her inflexible justice had made her umpire in many a difficult dispute. If a rascal could be bought off at the gallows' foot, there was Moll with an open purse; and so speedily did she penetrate all the secrets of thievish policy, that her counsel and comfort were soon indispensable.
Here, then, was her opportunity. Always a diplomatist rather than a general, she gave up the battlefield for the council chamber. She planned the robberies which defter hands achieved; and, turning herself from cly-filer to fence, she received and changed to money all the watches and trinkets stolen by the gang.
Were a citizen robbed upon the highway, he straightway betook himself to Moll, and his property was presently returned him at a handsome price. Her house, in short, became a brokery. Hither the blades and divers brought their purchases, and sought the ransom; hither came the outraged victims to buy again the jewels and rings which thievish fingers had pinched. With prosperity her method improved, until at last her statesmanship controlled the remotest details of the craft. Did one of her gang get to work overnight and carry off a wealthy swag, she had due intelligence of the affair betimes next morning, so that, furnished with an inventory of the booty, she might make a just division, or be prepared for the advent of the rightful owner.
So she gained a complete ascendency over her fellows. And when once her position was assured, she came forth a pitiless autocrat. Henceforth the gang existed for her pleasure, not she for the gang's; and she was as urgent to punish insubordination as is an empress to avenge the heinous sin of treason. The pickpocket who had claimed her protection knew no more the delight of freedom. If he dared conceal the booty that was his, he had an enemy more powerful than the law, and many a time did contumacy pay the last penalty at the gallows. But the faithful also had their reward, for Moll never deserted a comrade, and while she lived in perfect safety herself she knew well how to contrive the safety of others. Nor was she content merely to discharge those duties of the fence for which an instinct of statecraft designed her. Her restless brain seethed with plans of plunder, and if her hands were idle it was her direction that emptied half the pockets in London. Having drilled her army of divers to an unparalleled activity, she cast about for some fresh method of warfare, and so enrolled a regiment of heavers, who would lurk at the mercers' doors for an opportunity to carry off ledgers and account-books. The price of redemption was fixed by Moll herself, and until the mercers were aroused by frequent losses to a quicker vigilance, the trade was profitably secure.