Mary East lived an unusual life for a woman in 18th Century England. She took the name James How and worked as an innkeeper in London. However, a case of blackmail disrupted the domestic situation and brought Mary/James into the public eye in 1766. Not only was the story reported in newspapers at the time, but also Bram Stoker of Dracula fame included the tale in his 1910 book Famous Imposters.
The story goes that Mary fell in love with a man, but he turned to crime and was transported out of England. Mary (aged 16) made the acquaintance of another young woman (aged 17) who had similarly given up on men, and they decided to live together. They decided that the best plan was to live as husband and wife, and tossed a coin to see who would be the husband. Thus Mary became James How and her companion (whose name was not recorded) became Mrs How. They pooled their resources (they had £30 between them) and leased a pub in Epping, a substantial distance from their homes in Garlick Hill.
Their fortunes changed after James had an altercation with a man and sustained a hand injury. He was awarded £500 in damages. The money allowed Mr and Mrs How to move to Limehouse-Hole in the East End of London and then to Poplar, where they bought the White Horse public house. They were respected as good neighbours, although they kept themselves to themselves and never entertained guests in their home. James was excused from the duty to serve as a constable because of his injured hand, but took on other jobs within the local community including several sessions of jury duty.
By 1750 James How and his wife had been living comfortably together for about 18 years when a former neighbour of theirs discovered where they were living and found out about their improved fortunes. Mrs Bently was not well off, so she asked for £10 in return for not revealing that James How was Mary East. James paid up and Mrs Bently was satisfied until 1765, when she made a further demand. James paid her a second £10, but was unable to pay £10 when she made a third demand two weeks later so gave her only £5.
Around the same time, Mrs How was taken ill, so went to the countryside to stay with friends. She confessed to her friends that her husband was a woman, and died soon afterwards. Her friends then visited James and also asked for money, wanting more than their fair share of Mrs How's estate (by then Mr and Mrs How had saved up more than £4,000 between them).
It is probable that James managed to persuade Mrs How's friends to accept only what they were entitled to, but he then had to contend with Mrs Bently's next scheme. She enlisted two men to help her. One pretended to be a constable, and the other pretended to be an agent for Justice Fielding1, a local judge. They accused James How of committing a robbery 34 years earlier and admitted they knew he was a woman.
A neighbour, Mr Williams, was within earshot, so James asked him for help, confirming his innocence of the crime but admitting he was a woman. Mr Williams agreed to help, but had to go to his home first. While he was away, the men demanded £100 from James or else he would be hanged for the crime. When he didn't pay up, they took him to Mrs Bently's house in Garlick Hill. There James was threatened into writing a 'draft' promising that Mr Williams would pay the £100 in a few days' time. He was released and returned to Poplar, where he told Mr Williams everything that had happened.
On the day Mr Williams was due to pay Mrs Bently, a trap had been laid. A real constable was with Mr Williams and he arrested Mrs Bently and one of her accomplices. They were taken to the Bench of Justices in Whitechapel, and James gave testimony as Mary East:
The alteration of her dress from that of a man to that of a woman appeared so great, that together with her awkward behaviour in her new assumed habit, caused great diversion to all.
- London Chronicle 7-9 August, 1766
Mary East and Mr Williams won the case - Mrs Bently and her accomplice were convicted of extortion and assault. However, Mary had to resign from the roles she had held as James How, and also had to retire from the White Horse. She was able to live on her savings for the rest of her life 'with an unblemished character'.
In the 21st Century, we cannot know how Mary East might have described herself if she had had the vocabulary of modern times. She may have been a transgender man, or she may have been a gay woman, but all we know is what was reported in the newspapers and that when she died in 1780 she was known as Mary East.
In the 18th Century, as life was difficult for women, especially unmarried women, there was a suspicion that women who lived as men were simply impostors, wanting to take advantage of the power that men had. That explains why Mary/James' story was considered by Bram Stoker to fit into his book entitled Famous Imposters, but he was sympathetic towards Mr and Mrs How, as they 'seemed to live their lives in exceeding blamelessness.'
However Mr and Mrs How saw themselves, they have gained a place in history. Notably Mary East was not herself prosecuted for being a 'female husband' but instead was able to get justice for the crimes that were committed against her.