(1) The Female DialectThe molly subculture as a unified subculture, rather than simply a disparate collection of people and their behaviour, was reinforced by the communal use of a specialised dialect, a private lexicon whose terms were relatively unknown to the culture-at-large, just as in the twentieth century heterosexuals have been generally unfamiliar with the meaning of the terms that gays often use to make themselves known only to one another, or which they habitually acquire through constant use in the gay subculture. Modern gay slang is abundant — there are more than 20,000 such terms, a number which we cannot hope to match in the early stages of the gay subculture in the eighteenth century.
Gay men within the molly subculture developed their own molly slang, called the Female Dialect, consisting largely of Maiden Names with which they affectionately christened one another. Such sobriquets were usually preceded by a form of Madam or Miss: for example, there were Madam Blackwell, Miss Kitten, alias Mr Oviat, Miss Fanny Knight, Miss Irons, Mrs (i.e. Mistress) Anne Page, the clerk at Sukey Bevell's, and Mrs Girl of Redriff. Molly, Mary, and Margaret, etymologically related, provide the most frequent Maiden Names: Moll Irons, Flying Horse Moll, Pomegranate Molly, Black Moll, perhaps Moll King (a street robber convicted and transported sometime before 1721), China Mary, Primrose Mary (a butcher in Butcher Row), Orange Mary (an orange merchant), Garter Mary, Pippin Mary (alias Queen Irons), Dip-Candle Mary (a tallow chandler), Small Coal Mary. There are occasional aunties: Aunt Greer, Aunt May (an upholsterer), and Aunt England (a soap-boiler). Perhaps the auntie role the older, more experienced homosexual to whom younger entrants into the subculture look for commiseration and advice on how to survive in a hostile society and how to behave within the subculture was already beginning to develop. There were some prestigious names (which the modern gay subculture would call piss-elegant): Princess Seraphina the butcher, Queen Irons, probably a blacksmith, the Countess of Camomile, Lady Godiva, a waiter, and the Duchess of Gloucester, a butcher.
The Maiden Names were suggested by a wide range of physiognomic characteristics, occupational status, geographical origins, and personality traits. Flying Horse Moll must have been a serving man at a tavern named The Flying Horse; Orange Deb, alias Martin Macintosh, was an orange seller; Mr Powell was called St Dunstan's Kate because he lived near St Dunstan's Church or even worked within the church, Kate Hutton was "an old Man that never wears a Shirt", Hanover Kate probably was from Germany, Nurse Mitchell was a barber, Tub Nan and Hardware Nan possibly sold such utensils, Old Fish Hannah and Young Fish Hannah were probably fish mongers, Susan Guzzle was a gentleman's manservant who presumably was a hearty drinker, Johannah the Ox-Cheek Woman presumably had either big jowls or a big bottom, and Thumbs and Waist Jenny must have been sylph-like. Sukey, though a genuine name, was frequent: Sukey Pisquill, Sukey Hawes, Sukey Bevell, which support Dunton's 1707 claim that pick-ups were addressed as Sukey. Other more obviously feminine names were Elinor Roden and Rose Gudger. (Nurse Mitchell the barber, incidentally, may have been John Mitchell, who was scheduled to appear on behalf of James Dalton at the latter's trial for assault and robbery in 1730, but it was noted that Mitchell had once stood in the pillory for falsely charging a man with sodomy, so he was not admitted for evidence.)
The Maiden Names which the mollies assumed bore no relation to any specific male-female role-playing in terms of sexual behaviour. For example, Fanny Murray was "an athletic Bargeman", Lucy Cooper was "an Herculean Coal-heaver", and Kitty Fisher was "a deaf tyre Smith". Nor was there always a direct correspondence between their feigned names and their calling in life: "Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina, a Runner at a Police office; Black-eyed Leonora, a Drummer [of the Guards]; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; . . . and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer".
Princess Seraphina, briefly mentioned in Dalton's narrative of 1728, made a quite unexpected appearance in court in 1732. John Cooper, a butcher, prosecuted Thomas Gordon, an unemployed servant, for assaulting him in Chelsea Fields and stealing his clothes and money on 30 May 1732. This was the night of the Whit Monday holiday, when many people were out drinking and making merry. Cooper claimed that they met at a night cellar and drank three hot pints of beer together, then went for a morning walk as the weather was nice, and when they reached a secluded stand of trees Gordon took out a knife and forced Cooper to strip off his clothes, and exchange them with Gordon's clothes. Gordon said that if Cooper charged him with robbery, he would swear Cooper was a sodomite and had given him the clothes to let him bugger Gordon. Cooper was furious at losing his fine clothes, and obtained a warrant for Gordon's arrest at a brandy shop in Drury Lane. He brought the prosecution against him, which was a mistake, for not only did Gordon make the counter-charge that he had threatened to make, but a host of witnesses came forward to reveal that Cooper was what we now call a "drag queen".
Mrs Holder the landlady of the night cellar where they had drank their Huckle and Buff (that's gin and ale made hot), said that Cooper frequently came to her cellar with Christopher (Kitt) Sandford, a tailor, and other mollies, and was a runner who carried messages between such gentlemen: "he's one of them as you call Molly Culls, he gets his Bread that way; to my certain Knowledge he has got many a Crown under some Gentlemen, for going of sodomiting Errands".
Jane Jones a washerwoman revealed that she had overheard Cooper and Gordon arguing in a pub, Cooper demanding his clothes back and threatening to accuse Gordon of robbery, Gordon saying he was entitled to the clothes and threatening to accuse Cooper of sodomy. She ended her testimony with the startling revelation that John Cooper was commonly known in the district as the Princess Seraphina. The judge was so taken aback that she had to repeat what she had just said, and one can imagine the jury suddenly becoming very attentive at this interesting turn of events. Her story was confirmed by Mary Poplet, the keeper of the Two Sugar Loaves public house in Drury Lane, who astonished the court with her testimony:
I have known her Highness a pretty while, she us'd to come to my House from Mr. Tull, to enquire after some Gentlemen of no very good Character; I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfaction of dancing with fine Gentlemen. . . . I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.
Mary Ryley, one of the serving girls at the pub, said she knew the Princess very well, that he sometimes worked as a nurse, and that he dressed as a woman at the last masquerade, the Ridotto al Fresco at Vauxhall. Mary Robinson, a respectable lady, said that she and Cooper shared the same Mantua-makers in the Strand. He once asked to borrow her suit of red damask because it "looked mighty pretty"; he wanted it to go to Mrs Green's in Nottingham Court by the Seven Dials where he was to meet some fine gentlemen. Mrs Green occasionally lent him a velvet scarf and gold watch. He wanted to borrow her laced pinners for the Vauxhall Ridotto, but settled for Madam Nuttal's mob cap and one of her smocks.
After the masquerade Mrs Robinson said "And did you make a good Hand of it, Princess?" "No, Madam", said Cooper, "I pick'd up two Men, who had no Money, but however they proved to be my old Acquaintance, and very good Gentlewomen they were." One of these gentlemen "went to the Masquerade in a Velvet Domine, and pick'd up an old Gentlemen, and went to Bed with him, but as soon as the old Fellow found that he had got a Man by his Side, he cry'd out, Murder". The other gentleman, alas, had since been transported for counterfeiting masquerade tickets.
Cooper lived at No 11, Eagle Court, in the Strand, with Mr and Mrs Tull, whom he nursed through a salivation. He was their friend rather than a domestic servant; other lodgers were Mr Levit and Mr Sydney. The Princess was liked by all the women of her neighbourhood, and we can easily imagine her sitting down with them for a quiet cup of tea and a good gossip. The only person who disliked her was her cousin, a distiller in Warder Street (modern Wardour Street), who once gave her a shilling and told her to go about her business and not to scandalise the neighbours. Cooper's prosecution of Gordon was really no more than a quarrel that had gotten out of control and could not be stopped once the wheels had been set in motion. He was egged on by two men who expected a reward for capturing the supposed thief. But it had no disastrous consequences for either defendant or plaintiff; Gordon was acquitted as an honest working man, and no charges were brought against the Princess.
Masquerades flourished in London from the 1720s onward, and took place in assembly rooms, theatres, brothels, public gardens, and molly houses. The commercial masquerades were quasi-carnivals first organised by the impresario John James Heidegger at the Haymarket Theatre from 1717 onwards. His "Midnight Masquerades" were tremendously successful, and drew 800 people a week. They provided many people with the opportunity to explore fetishism and transvestism. Men disguised themselves as witches, bawds, nursing maids and shepherdesses, while women dressed as hussars, sailors, cardinals and Mozartian boys. In the early days of the fashion, Richard Steele went to one where a parson called him a pretty fellow and tried to pick him up, and Horace Walpole passed for an old woman at a masquerade in 1742. The opportunities for illicit assignations provoked a host of anti-masquerade satires, and many tracts were mainly devoted to attacking the mollies who attended them, supposedly imitaging infamous homosexual cross-dressers such as Sporus, Caligula, and Heliogabalus.
The molly houses emerged at the same time as London's coffee houses and the first music halls, and bear some resemblance to the latter. Sadler's Wells in Islington, London's first music hall, built by Thomas Sadler in 1683, began as little more than a room or two where apprentices and maids drank ale and ate cheesecake while fiddlers were scraping and humming; Ned Ward's descriptions of such places does not much differ from his descriptions of the molly houses, and a quick glance inside one of the latter might have seemed to reveal only apprentices and maids, for on special occasions some of the men dressed as women. This has led some modern historians to claim that the molly clubs were frequented predominantly by transvestites, but this is to seriously overstate the case. Only a few documents mention transvestism, and in nearly every instance it is clear that female garb was reserved for the occasional masquerade ball or a very special ceremony known as "lying-in". On 28 December 1725 a group of 25 men were apprehended in a molly house in Hart Street near Covent Garden and were arrested for dancing and misbehaving themselves, "and obstructing and opposing the Peace-Officers in the Execution of their Duty". They were dressed in "Masquerade Habits" and were suspected of being sodomites because several of them had previously stood in the pillory on that account; but they were dressed in a range of costumes, not all of which were female, and the date suggests a special holiday event rather than a familiar practice. It is interesting to note that they did not submit sheepishly to their arrest, but put up a show of resistance. Twenty of them were secured in various prisons, and granted their own recognizances to the spring sessions, but no true bills of indictment were found, perhaps because they all absconded.
Accounts of habitual male transvestism are extremely rare, and of doubtful authenticity. A case in point is an episode recounted by the anonymous author of Hell upon Earth in 1729. He claims to have been in the company of a grave merchant, an ancient gentlewoman, a young Irishman, and two young ladies on a stage-coach journey from Bristol. In the morning the Irishman bragged to him how he had enjoyed the embraces of both young women during the night. "But how was he struck with Shame and Confusion, when he found the two young Ladies metamorphos'd into two young Gentlemen, that for their diversion, and to pass the Time away, had purposely put on the Disguise to conceal their Sex, and had assum'd an Air suitable to their Appearance, to mortify some fond, conceited, passionate and whining Enamorado". This is patently a fabricated joke of the "stupid Irishman" variety, and even then there is no suggestion that the young gentlemen's behaviour was habitual or that they were homosexual.
For slightly more trustworthy evidence we must turn to Ned Ward's pamphlet of 1709, in which he says that the mollies "are so far degenerated from all Masculine Deportment that they rather fancy themselves Women, imitating all the little Vanities that Custom has reconcil'd to the Female Sex, affecting to speak, walk, talk, curtsy, cry, scold, & mimic all manner of Effeminacy". And in one of the 1727 trials we learn that "they would . . . Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the Voices of Women".
The student of human behaviour is justifiably curious about precisely what went on in a molly house, and it seems unkind to leave such things to the imagination, even though the anonymous writer of Sodom and Onan in 1776 felt that the mollies'
When these "foul Distortions" are fully revealed, we discover that, though licentious and genial, they were not nearly so "foul" as our author would have us believe, nor even so lost in hedonistic squalor as that pictured in William Hogarth's illustration The Orgy. On the contrary, their entertainments were conducted with no little decorum, and were contained within a well structured organisation such as that at Sukey Bevell's molly house in the Mint: "The Stewards are Miss Fanny Knight, and Aunt England; and pretty Mrs. Anne Page officiates as Clark. One of the Beauties of this Place is Mrs. Girl of Redriff, and with her, (or rather him) dip Candle-Mary a Tallow Chandler in the Burrough, and Aunt May an Upholsterer in the same place, are deeply in Love: Nurse Mitchell is a Barber of this Society; but those which are call'd the topping Beauties of this Place, have no Occasion for Men of his Occupation". (This probably means that some of them wore their hair long so they could pile it up upon their heads on gala occasions.). . . Little Sports,
The most spectacular evidence for the mollies' occasional female identification was their performance in a highly formalised ritual during their "Festival Nights" known as "mock birth" or "lying-in". According to Ned Ward, "Not long since[,] they cushioned up one of their Brethern, or rather Sisters, according to Female Dialect, disguising him in a Woman's Night-Gown, Sarsanet Hood, & Night-rail[,] who when the Company were men, was to mimick a woman, produce a jointed Baby they had provided, which wooden Offspring was to be afterwards Christened, whilst one in a High Crown'd Hat, I am [t]old old Bedlam's Pinner, representing a Country Midwife, & another dizen'd up in a Huswife's Coif for a Nurse & all the rest of an impertinent Decorum of a Christening". And according to James Dalton in 1728, "they sometimes have a Lying-inn, when one of them is plac'd in a Chair, and the others attending with Napkins, a Bason of Water, &c. Susan Guzzle, a Gentleman's Servant, is the Midwife, and with a great Deal of Ceremony, a jointed Baby is brought from under the Chair he sits on. Mrs May was sometimes since brought to Bed of a Cheshire Cheese, Madam Blackwell and Aunt England, standing Gossips".
This ceremony may seem so grotesque as to impress itself vividly upon our imaginations, and prompt us to look at it more closely. I doubt very much that mock birth is simply an erotic game or merely an imitation or parody of an important event in a woman's life. Whatever meanings or values the ritual may have acquired by the eighteenth century, it almost certainly originated as an act of imitative magic designed to cast off sickness or evil spirits. Thus in a New Guinea tribe we hear of the Labuni, a disease-spirit in short petticoats, who is believed to enter humans by the rectum. Healing women would then perform a ritual by which the Labuni is ejected per rectum. So also among the Mohave Indians, when transvestite men mimic pregnancy and childbirth, and go to the fringes of the camp grounds where they are ceremonially delivered of stones. A host of other examples of the phenomenon — called couvade can be gleaned from anthropological surveys.
A more direct parallel can be found less than a century earlier performed in the royal bedchamber where King James I lay on his deathbed. A grype a young pig was brought into the room dressed up as a baby. This infant even more ludicrous than a pair of bellows was duly delivered of the mother (one of the court ladies) by the Duchess of Buckingham, dressed as the midwife, and held while the baptismal service was read from a prayer-book by a courtier dressed as a bishop. When the christening concluded, the bewildered pig was chased squealing out of the room, much to the merriment of all and sundry. When the Duke of Buckingham who had stood as the "godfather" was subsequently accused of blasphemy for organising this farce, he dismissed the charge by saying that it was merely to make the king laugh. And so it did. But also, suggests Margaret Murray in God of the Witches, "The ceremony was obviously to transfer the pain from which the king was suffering, to an animal, and is the only complete account of the rite". It should be noted that the magical logic of transference would have been apparent had James himself "given birth" to the pig-baby. The incident is not recorded in sufficient detail to indicate whether or not the king participated more directly than as a bemused spectator, or whether or not any of the laughter was stimulated by innuendos about the similarities of sickness and pregnancy, the sick-bed and the lying-in bed. Neither is the molly rite recorded in sufficient detail concerning the "mother's" actions for example, whether or not "a great Deal of Ceremony" included such things as screams to imitate the pain of childbirth, bearing-down, and so forth — or how it was determined which molly would play the mother.
Of course the mollies would not have been consciously aware of the more primitive significance of mock birth, but their own rites may well have served the same function. But what was the suffering which the rite was to have mitigated? Geza Roheim suggests that the New Guinea rites "symbolise disease as the consequence of repressed homosexual desire". It might be more accurate to add "and also oppressed homosexual desire". The mollies were under daily pressures from a hostile society not to express their natural emotions, or run the risk of being hanged or publicly shamed in the pillory. Occasional "lyings-in" could serve to relieve their collective anxiety through outrageous fun, and what today is called "camp" behaviour. Theoretically it could also relieve the tension of guilt, but there is no evidence that the mollies felt guilty about their natures; that would come with the advent of psychology in the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, fear of being hanged was the more likely cause of anxiety.
Mock birth is not so much a case of aping heterosexuals or even mimicking women, as a means of blunting the end of heterosexual prejudice. The mollies were the scapegoats of society, and their own sub-society similarly needed a scapegoat, be it a wooden doll or a Cheshire cheese. A more learned molly might have been aware of Plutarch's Life of Theseus, in which we learn that at the annual feast of Gorpiaeus on the island of Cyprus, a boy dresses up as Ariadne, lies upon the altar in the sacred grove of Venus Ariadne, screams and struggles in imitation of childbirth, and ritually gives birth to an image representing the child of Theseus. As with the mock birth cited above, this also is a variation upon the scapegoat motif, wherein one person undergoes pain for the sake of the tribe, and his actions guarantee the renewal of another annual cycle of the seasons. The mother is impersonated by a boy because the world is believed to go topsy-turvy once a year in order to renew itself (just as an hour-glass is turned upside down to begin again each cycle), and hence the "natural" order of procreation is appropriately inverted by a transvestite.
It is possible that "lying-in" served the same mythical and tribal function for the molly clubs as they did in the primordial past. The ritual survived virtually unchanged well into the early nineteenth century. Sometime between 1810—1814 several people in Clements Lane "near the new Church in the Strand were seized in the very act of giving caudle to their lying-in women, and the new-born infants personated by large dolls! and so well did they perform the characters they assumed, that one miscreant escaped the vigilance of the officers and the examining magistrates, and was discharged as a woman!" I can find no references to similar rites in the later nineteenth-century subculture, nor any evidence that it was practised in the twentieth-century gay subculture, nor any suggestion as to why it has gone out of fashion.
(3) Molly MarriagesThe much more commonplace practice among the mollies was that of "Marrying", about which we have few specific details though the act itself is frequently referred to. Quite often the term is merely synonymous with "fucking", and few can gainsay that this euphemism is superior to the other alternative, the lawyers' "sodomitically assaulting". Even if a molly house had its own Marrying Room, the nuptials celebrated therein generally involved only the most temporary bonds of intimacy and seldom lasted longer than the "Wedding Night". The men would "go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry'd, as they call'd it", and "when they came back they would tell what they had been doing, which in their Dialect they call'd Marrying"; this is somewhat analogous to publishing the banns, but unlikely to include any vows of fidelity. Indeed, at George Whittle's "Chapel" at the Royal Oak, Ned Courtney was "helped to two or three Husbands".
Occasionally, however, Marrying went beyond a single Wedding Night — or even successive Wedding Nights — and was celebrated with at least some of the formality of the heterosexual equivalent. One Sukey Hawes, for example, informed James Dalton of a Wedding that took place around 1728, between Moll Irons, presumably a blacksmith, and another molly who was a butcher. The bridal pair were attended by two "Bridesmaids", Princess Seraphina the butcher of Butcher-Row, and Miss Kitten (alias Mr Oviat, "who sometime since stood in the pillory"). Two other members of the party were Powell, alias St Dunstan's Kate, and Madam Blackwell, men who themselves were "deeply in Love" with one another. (Dalton reveals that John Potter, who was convicted in 1727 or 1728 for stealing rich hangings from the Duke of Montague, was testified against by none other than Madam Blackwell.)
Their functions at the nuptials are not specified, nor is there any mention of persons serving such roles as best man or priest. At Sukey Bevell's molly "Club" in the Mint we have noticed the existence of Stewards, a Clerk and even a Barber; and some ceremonies there may have required a master of ceremonies, perhaps a figure such as Eccleston who guarded the door to the marrying room at Mother Clap's. Such functionaries no doubt served various matrimonial roles in some of the molly houses, though we find not the slightest allusion to a bona fide minister or even mock-minister officiating at such ceremonies until Rev John Church performed those duties for the Vere Street Coterie in the early 1800s). So despite a fair number of references to Chapels, Marrying Rooms, Wedding Nights, Husbands and Spouses, it seems likely that molly marriages seldom acquired the paraphernalia or significance of heterosexual marriages. Mating or pair-bonding is nevertheless documented in several instances, as previously noted: Moll Irons and the butcher were married to one another; St Dunstan's Kate and Madam Blackwell were "deeply in Love", Robert Whale and York Horner who were jointly convicted for keeping a molly house lived together as a couple; Dip-Candle Mary and Aunt May were "deeply in Love".
In all these instances, and others, the terms of endearment were "special Sweetheart", "Husband" and "Spouse"; curiously enough, there is no recorded use of the term "wife". Physically and verbally the molly marriage consisted of two husbands. At the very least this makes etymological sense, for the word "marry" comes from the Latin maritus, meaning "husband" (from mas, maris, "man"): there is no linguistic reason why one husband should not take another husband. Nor is there any reason for us to assume that molly partners would adopt distinctive gender roles in their relationships; they both adopted female roles in so far as they both assumed Maiden Names at their festive gatherings, but sexually there is no indication of a strict dichotomy between inserter and receptor roles. In many molly houses all-round effeminate mimicry was the order of the day during times of merry-make, but we nowhere see the insistence upon butch-femme role-playing which plagued so many relationships in the mid-twentieth-century gay subculture, where partners all too often aped the stereotypes of heterosexual romance.
A number of the mollies were in fact legally married to women. The documents are too incomplete for us to be very certain about the ratio of married men to bachelors, but my general impression is that of those men who were sufficiently accepting of their own homosexuality to become active participants in the molly subculture and thus come to our attention, fewer than one-fifth simultaneously maintained a heterosexual marriage: more than four-fifths were either bachelors, or widowers, or their wives were separated from them. Men who strictly speaking were bisexuals probably would not have become actively involved with the organised molly subculture for fear that their wives and family would hear of it; instead of contributing to the social life of the subculture, they sought same-sex partners in privies and cruising grounds or simply at haphazard. Today most men convicted for "gross indecency" in toilets and saunas are either married or have an occupation especially vulnerable to scandal (teacher, preacher and so forth), and a similar pattern emerges from the early eighteenth-century documents. It is not too surprising, for example, that William Brown, captured in the Moorfields cruising grounds, had been a married man for about thirteen years, while the men convicted as a direct result of the raids upon the molly houses in 1726 were obviously more homosexual than heterosexual. Thomas Wright, George Kedger and Thomas Phillips were unmarried; Gabriel Laurence had been married for eleven years, but his wife had died seven years earlier (he had one child, aged 13); George Whittle had been married, but his wife had been dead for two years (he had two children, one still living), though the court may have acquitted him partly because of his defence that "I was going to marry another Woman, a Widow, just before this Misfortune broke out"; William Griffin was married and had several children, but did not live with his wife; of this group only Martin Mackintosh apparently lived with his wife.
It is doubtful that the documents have distorted the facts regarding heterosexual status, for a marriage alliance whenever possible would have been brought forward as good character testimony at a trial, and journalists would not have missed the opportunity to exploit such a scandalous version of adultery to liven up their satirical pamphlets. Those pamphleteers who clearly relied upon first-hand observation seldom mention such heterosexual marriages, and it is unwise to put any faith in the more sensational pamphlets which suggest, as does a poem in The Fruit Shop of 1766, that mollies' "Women are kept for nothing but the breed". In Hell upon Earth (1729) we find an anecdote which is very likely an updated version of Boccaccio's famous tale about the tables turned: one Tolson, a "frequent buggerer, . . . once having caught a Foot-Soldier in Bed with his Wife, . . . insisted upon no other Satisfaction than to commit the detestable Sin of Sodomy with him, which the other comply'd with, and so the Affair was made easy". However, towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the molly subculture was being transmuted into the margery subculture, and certainly by the time of the mary-ann subculture of the early nineteenth century, we do find a higher number of marriages amongst the homosexual men, and some evidence that they may have abused their wives.
(4) Rogues' LexiconThe dialect of the molly subculture may have had much in common with the Rogues' Lexicon or Canting Dialect used by thieves, highway robbers, vagabonds and female prostitutes. The mollies were certainly familiar with the Stews, or dens of heterosexual prostitution (derived from the medieval bathing houses used for such purposes), to which they are supposed to have offered innovations. That part of the molly subculture which is definitely known to have overlapped with the criminal underworld would have known such Flash Words as The Rumbo or The Whit for Newgate prison; The Spinning Ken, or Bridewell prison; A Flash Ken, or house frequented by thieves; The Nubbing Cheat, or gallows; To shove the Tumbler, to be whipped at cart's tail; Buttock-and-File, pickpocket whore; Dudds, linen; Mish, shirt; Shap, hat; Stampers, shoes; Poll, wig; Margery-Prater, a hen; Queer Cuffin, Justice of the Peace; Queer-Ken, prison house; Queer Booze, bad drink; To cut queer Whids, to use foul language; and Queer-Bird, man lately released from prison. We have no proof that homosexuals were called queers until some two hundred years later, but a phrase such as Queer Cull, meaning "a Fop, a Fool", might gradually have acquired this meaning.
The mollies adopted some terms current among thieves: they identified themselves as mollies, molly-culls, mollying-culls, and mollying-bitches. A moll (as in the modern phrase gun moll) was a thief's or tramp's harlot; its ultimate derivation from the Latin molles, meaning "soft" (hence our term "mollify") makes it a suitable description for an effeminate man. A cull, which dates from 1660, was a thief's mate or partner, but was generally used in the sense of bloke, fool, or just guy; in the cant used by highway robbers, a cull was the guy jostled by a pickpocket, while one of their most familiar enemies, the prison turn-key, was the quod cull. Culls, however, also meant testicles. It is not too difficult to make the transition from a thief and his mate to a pair of mates in the gay subculture, and on the whole "molly cull" seems rather apt.
Mollies were called sodomites, buggers, pathics, punks, and Jesuits. Amongst themselves, mollies in a moment of anger or playful banter might more likely use the epithets "a Bold Face", "little dear Toad", "you bold Pullet", bitch or queen. This term is derived from the Middle English quean, meaning whore. One of the mollies was named Queen Irons, but the term was far from being as commonplace as it is today, and I have located only a few examples. In the 1699 lottery which mentions Captain Rigby, a molly is caricatured as a ship named the Queen of Sheba. Alexander Pope in his Heroic Epistle Bounce to Fop heaps abuse upon "The Motley Race of Hervey queenies / And Courtly Vices, Beastly Venyes". (His allusion is to the bisexual Lord Hervey.) And in a dialogue between two mollies in 1729 we overhear one enquiring of another, "Where have you been you saucy Queen?"
The use of Maiden Names has given rise to the view that the mollies were almost invariably effeminate. Effeminacy is not a simple phenomenon, and I am not going to attempt to account for its manifestations among the mollies. No one has been able to demonstrate more than an incidental link between homosexual behaviour and effeminate mannerisms, and a historical study such as this can only go a little way towards suggesting some of the social factors that tended to encourage certain kinds of behaviour. First and foremost, effeminacy is a form of self-advertisement. With the aid of exaggerated mannerisms and camp behaviour a man can deliberately call attention to himself and publicise his sexual availability, in exactly the same way that a coquette establishes contact. It is above all a tool of communication, a means of conveying an important message to like-minded men. A sense of identity arises from the reinforcement of that message, self-identification as a molly not as a woman. It is an important difference; as far as we can tell, gay men did not think of themselves as women trapped in men's bodies until the sexologists began popularising this theory in the 1860s.
Within the protective walls of a molly house, many men did adopt feminine mannerisms, names, and even clothing on special festive occasions, partly as a result of internalising society's view of them, but mainly as a way of enjoying oneself and letting off steam. Outside of the clubs, some continued to make use of maiden names as a kind of secret signal to members of a confraternity, and it was common even for non-effeminate men to use maiden names, irrespective of sexual role or mannerisms. But it will be seen that most of the men mentioned throughout this study were neither effeminate nor particularly conspicuous in appearance and manner. In fact we are left with an overriding impression of vigorous and lusty bonhomie, which ought to persuade even the most prejudiced observer that the mollies were more vulgar than aesthetic, and evinced more vitality than effeteness. Those men who took the risk of being visible members of the subculture tended to reinforce amongst themselves the marks of their differentness, of which effeminacy was the leading stigma to be internalised. The satirical and moralistic pamphleteers do of course present the mollies as effeminate "he-whores' without exception, but this is mere invective rather than description, clearly based upon homophobic prejudice rather than honest observation, and in any study of homosexuality we have to exercise great care to distinguish self-image from satire.
(5) Maiden NamesMuch of the molly lexicon, including the Maiden Name tradition, originates in the tendency of an oppressed subculture to adopt the abusive language with which a hostile supra-culture brands it, and then to modify it in such a way as to transform a contemptuous epithet into a humorous tag of affection to take the sting out of the stigma. The early Church Fathers stigmatised homosexuals as molles or sissies, and secular society called effeminate men molly-coddles and homosexuals mollies; having no other self-referring terms except the even less appealing Sodomite or Bugger, gay men transformed Molly into a term of positive self-identification, in exactly the same way that the modern subculture has transformed Gay (which derived originally from "gay girl", meaning a female prostitute) into a term of pride and self-liberation.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Molly subculture had become the Margery subculture, and young male prostitutes were known as Margeries, a term that remained in use through the 1920s. By the early nineteenth century a Margery was a boy who dressed as a woman and hanged around such places as the Strand, picking up men. By the end of the nineteenth century Mary-Ann had become the accepted term for a male homosexual prostitute, derived from underworld slang for a pickpocket who merely pretends to be homosexual in order to pat a man about the hips and lift his wallet.
The Maiden Name tradition is still with us, despite attempts to break away from self-derogatory labelling, and the most favoured name is still Mary, though simple inversions are also common, such as Michelle for Michael. Humorous sobriquets such as Miss Prude or Miss Thing were once very popular, and "the Countess" is still commonplace, or just "Herself". By a curious twist of usage, Molly and Margery have virtually disappeared from the gay male subculture, only to reappear in the lesbian subculture, where a "femme" gay woman is called a "molly dyke" or even named "Marge" to distinguish her from the "butch" gay woman or "bull dyke".
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Maiden Names and Little Sports", The Gay Subculture in Georgian England, 14 August 2009 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/maiden.htm>.