On February 13 1911, the Evening Sun reviewed Bram Stoker’s latest book, Famous Imposters. Although not the author’s finest work, it did reacquaint readers with the fabulous female husband, Mary East.
Famous Imposters failed to impress the Evening Sun. The paper described the book, not inaccurately, as ‘good material spoiled in the handling’. It reserved particular contempt for a chapter titled The Bisley Boy. Stoker rehashed an old urban myth that Queen Elizabeth I was a man. According to legend, following the sudden death of the young Princess Elizabeth, her guardians, fearful of the wrath of Henry VIII, substituted a boy. The child then grew up to rule England, his gender disguised by wigs and layers of heavy make-up.
The story is easily disproved and as the newspaper noted, “must seem ridiculous to anyone who gives the subject five minutes consideration.”
Bram really should have stuck with his Transylvanian bloodsucker. But the book reawakened interest in the story of Mary East, the once-famous female husband.
“The story of Mary East is a pitiful one,” writes Stoker, “and gives a picture of the civil life of the eighteenth century which cannot be lightly forgotten.”
This writer disagrees. Mary did suffer somewhat at the hands of criminals. But her life story is one of a great love affair, a successful business career, civic-mindedness and community respect. But let’s start the story with Mr and Mrs James How.
Mr and Mrs James How and The White Horse
Poplar, now a district of London, was once a hamlet outside the capital. James How and his wife ran the White Horse Tavern in the local high street. He and his wife were popular with their neighbours and James served in several parish offices and even as a jury foreman.
The pair lived alone and stuck to themselves. Unlike most people of similar means, they never hired a housemaid, gardener or staff to help at the pub, nor invited guests to dinner. They never had children and James did all the manual work involved in running the tavern himself.
After over 30 years together, Mrs How became seriously ill in 1776 and James took her to stay with relatives in the country. Sadly, she died.
Soon after, two men impersonating constables accosted James at the pub. They demanded £100 in return for not arresting him for a fictitious crime.
When his friend and neighbour, the pawnbroker Mr Williams passed by, James called for help.
“I am really a woman.”
After Mr Williams left to find help, the two thugs dragged James How off to the house of a Mrs Bentley who had blackmailed him and Mrs How for years. Under duress, James wrote out a bank draft for £100. However, when the extortionists went to cash it, they found a constable waiting to arrest them.
When they appeared before a court, they saw a familiar but unfamiliar figure, James How dressed as a woman, and now going by her birth name, Mary East.
They would live as man and wife…
The newspapers feverishly reported the story of Mary East, the female husband, as told by Mary herself.
As a 16-year-old girl, according to Mary, she and a 17-year-old friend both fell in love with men who were subsequently sentenced to transportation for highway robbery. The pair decided their only hope of future happiness lay with each other, as explained in the London Chronicle.
“Being intimate, they communicated their minds to each other and determined to live together ever after. After consulting on the best method of proceeding, they agreed that one should put on man’s apparel and that they would live as man and wife in some part where they were not known.
“The difficulty now was who was to be the man, which was soon decided by the toss-up of a halfpenny, and the lot fell on Mary East…
“Mary, after purchasing a man’s habit, assumed the name of James How.”
Mr and Mrs How lived together happily for over 30 years, ran a series of pubs, and became relatively wealthy.
However, Mrs Bentley apparently recognised James How one day and blackmailed the couple over the next 16 years. Following the death of Mrs How, Mrs Bentley became greedier and greedier and James obviously decided he’d had enough.
During the legal proceedings, one of Mrs Bentley’s accomplices absconded. However, she and the other, William Barwick, copped four-year prison sentences. Barwick also had to stand four times in the pillory.
An unblemished character
Mary sold the pub and retired a wealthy woman. Despite her riches, she did not move to parts unknown and resume dressing as a man. She lived the rest of her life as a woman, suggesting to this writer that Mary East did not identify as a man. Wearing men’s clothing was merely the subterfuge necessary to allow Mary and her wife to spend their lives together, unbothered by the legally imposed heterosexual norm.
Following her wife’s death and the very public trial, Mary East stayed in Poplar. She remained a popular local figure. As the Chronicle noted, Mary and her wife previously co-habited together for many years ‘in good credit and esteem’.
The paper concluded that in her retirement, Mary would enjoy “with quiet and pleasure, that fortune she acquired by fair and honest means, and with an unblemished character.”
On her death in 1780, Mary East bequeathed her considerable estate to relatives, friends and the poor of Poplar.