I’m an avid collector of old – and I mean very old – newspapers. From the year 1766, I own a copy of The London Chronicle with the most extraordinary front page article. It recounts the story of a “female husband” – a woman who donned male apparel and lived openly as the ‘husband’ of another woman. Her name was Mary East and she changed her name for decades to James How. Along with her ‘wife’, she ran several taverns and was a well known transgender figure in 18th century London.
What really surprises me about the article is that it’s really rather supportive. Looking back at their lives, the Chronicle noted that “during the whole course of their cohabiting together as man and wife, which is 34 years, they lived in good credit and esteem”. In fact, they banked several thousand pounds, which was an enormous sum of money in those days. By today’s value, adjusted for inflation, they were millionaires.
Two 18th century women decide to live as man and wife
Their married life began in the early 1730s when both were in their teens. A young man had been courting Mary East until he was accused of robbery and transported. That meant being put on a ship in chains bound for a grim life in the colonies. At that time, it was most likely a plantation in the Caribbean or in America toiling alongside African slaves.
Mary, who was 16 years old, resolved never to go with another man. She began an “intimate” correspondence with a local 17-year-old girl who had gone through a similar experience. The two then resolved to live as husband and wife. The only question was who was going to adopt which role. This was resolved by tossing a penny and it was Mary who put on a man’s breeches and coat for the rest of her life.
The two decided to become pub landlords and took over a tavern in Epping, near where I grew up on what is now the Essex/London borders. But then was in the countryside. However, it would have been lucrative situated on a road heading into the capital.
Things went badly wrong despite their growing wealth. Mary – now living as James How – was attacked by a young man. She took legal action and won the eye watering sum of £500. With that, Mr and Mrs How shut up shop in Epping and took on a more lucrative tavern in Limehouse by the docks.
Then, as the money poured in, they took over the White Horse pub at Poplar and several other drinking holes. Life was good for this 18th century transgender couple. To the outside world, they were Mr and Mrs How but behind closed doors, Mr How became Mary East.
The article never states whether their relationship was sexual but you have to understand that same sex relations could carry the death penalty, imprisonment, transportation, or a heavy fine as well as social disgrace and financial ruin. In addition, many God fearing people simply couldn’t acknowledge that such relationships existed.
A blackmailer threatens to expose Mr How
Everything was going swimmingly for this enterprising couple until they ran into a certain Mrs B. who had known Mary/James in her/his younger days. Mrs B. knew full well that James How started out as Mary East and decided to blackmail the couple. But being a complete low life, Mrs B. didn’t ask for very much more than £10 or £5 a time in return for which she promised not to expose James as being Mary.
Meanwhile, Mr James How had become something of a pillar of the community. The only local offices Mr How didn’t hold was constable because his/her hand had been injured during the altercation in Epping and church warden which would have been offered to Mr How if Mrs B. hadn’t escalated her criminal enterprise.
Because of course, blackmailers get greedy.
Things turned nasty in 1766 when Mrs How died. We don’t know Mrs How’s birth name as it’s never mentioned in the Chronicle. Mr How was distraught but Mrs B. now saw a chance to bully even more money out of the widower. She sent two men, one described in derogatory terms as a “mulatto”, to Mr How pretending to be Bow Street Runners. These were a small group of men working for the famous blind magistrate, John Fielding, known as the ‘Blind Beak’.
They told a terrified Mr How that he/she was to be taken before Fielding on charges of robbery and impersonating a man – which was a criminal offence. Then an extraordinary thing happened. A pawnbroker called Mr Williams passed by outside the tavern and Mr How called to him. In an instant, James How told Williams everything. That for years, he/she had lived as a man but had been born Mary East. And now, James How continued, take me before a judge and I’ll repeat everything.
Williams agreed to escort Mr How to court but felt he had to go and change his shirt first. While he was gone, Mrs B.’s hired thugs turned very nasty. They told their victim that if they got one hundred pounds right there and then, the whole thing could be forgotten. But if not, Mr How would hang in a fortnight and they would receive £40 each for turning Mr How over to Fielding.
By now, it seems to me that James How had figured out this was all the work of Mrs B. And refused to hand over a penny. At which point, Mr How was dragged to some nearby fields and roughed up and then taken to Mrs B.’s house in Garlick Hill, in the City of London. The blackmailer, with her two hired thugs, forced James How to sign a cheque for £100. She then took this to the aforementioned Williams the pawnbroker to cash in.
Banking was not very sophisticated in the 1760s!
Williams went to the authorities and arranged for a trap to be sprung. When Mrs B. turned up with her two thugs to cash her cheque, they were all arrested. The case then went before the Bench of Justices where James How now appeared in female dress as Mary East for the first time in over thirty years. And far from passing judgement on the transgender widow, the court found against Mrs B. and her two accomplices sentencing them to jail at the Clerkenwell Bridewell prison.
FIND OUT MORE: The story of an 18th century transgender French diplomat
Dracula author Bram Stoker pretends to be shocked
The author, journalist, and theatre manager Bram Stoker is best known for his novel Dracula but he was a prolific writer in the late 19th century and early 20th century – 150 years after the death of Mr and Mrs How. In his 1910 book, Famous Imposters, Stoker is very sympathetic to the couple comparing their moral rectitude to the criminal behaviour of those around them. Even though he refers to them as “imposters”, which is unfortunate.
Stoker wrote that Mary East assumed the “breeches part” – a term used in the theatre for women who dress as men on stage.
Another observation he makes, which I noted as well, is that the payment to James How for the assault in Epping was huge: £500. I put the figure through an inflation calculator and it comes to just under £100k today. As Stoker says, it must have been a brutal attack and “a very one-sided affair”. One has to wonder whether the vicious thug knew that James How had been born a woman.
Mrs B. is unmasked by Stoker as a certain Mrs Bently. He has nothing good to say about her. With regards to the two men she hired to intimidate Mr. How, Stoker adds the detail that one of them got a four year jail sentence and was forced to appear four times in the public pillory. This was a restraining device where a criminal was placed to be pelted with rotten vegetables by the crowd.
As Stoker concludes, the How couple conducted their “lives in exceeding blamelessness”.