Mary East and her wife (whose name is lost to history) met when they were teenagers. They lived as Mr. James How and Mrs. How for thirty-nine years. They ran a small public house at Epping and the White Horse public house at Poplar. They were quite successful. James How had been a foreman on juries and also served a number of parish offices, including headborough and overseer of the poor; at the time of his court appearance, he was under consideration for churchwarden. They were a very private couple but they had a good reputation with their neighbors and were well respected in their community.
Around 1750 someone who had known Mary East in her youth blackmailed them. Knowing that Mr. & Mrs. How were financially comfortable, they wanted cash in exchange for keeping their secret. After threats of violence the extortion became too intense. By 1766, unable to comply with the demands of the blackmailer any further, James How, dressed (awkwardly) as Mary East, brought the matter to the court. They were able to prove their extortion of “considerable sums of money” as well as assault and won the case. The blackmailer was convicted and sentenced to stand three times in the pillory and four years imprisonment. The public exposure, however, made it necessary for Mr. & Mrs. How to give up the White Horse and for James to resign all offices.
Their story, as told in the London Chronicle, August 7-9, 1766, would have us believe that they were both spurned by their male lovers and vowed never to take husbands, deciding instead (by the flip of a halfpenny) that Mary East should become James How and that they should live as man and wife. Rictor Norton speculates in Lesbian Marriages in 18th century England, that this story was probably fiction. In actuality, this was likely a story created to provide an easy explanation for the heterosexual, cisgender public, who would have found their life hard to understand.
Norton, Rictor. ed. “Mary East, the Female Husband”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 6 Dec. 2003.
Norton, Rictor. “Lesbian Marriages in 18th century England”, Lesbian History, 18 August 2009, updated 11 February 2010.
“Stepney.” British History Online. Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 2002. Web. 2011.