Friday, August 31, 2012

What's an 18th Century Lesbian to do?

Mary East, a Breeches-clad Brawd

 In 1731 Mary East donned masculine clothing, assumed the name of James How, and took a small public house at Epping for "himself" and "his" consort, another woman. Here, and subsequently at the White Horse public house at Poplar, the two women lived together as man and wife for eighteen years – "and raised a considerable sum of money". Though relatively wealthy, with £3,000 to £4,000, they kept no servants, and entertained no friends at home, presumably to keep the husband's real sex a secret. As "James How", Mary served on all the parish offices, and was occasionally a foreman on juries, establishing a very good reputation with "his" neighbors. 

"The Tavern Scene" by William Hogarth 1732

 But the secret of Mary East's real gender was discovered by a woman who had known her in her youth, and the couple became the victims of an escalating extortion. Ultimately the price for silence became too much to bear, and in 1766 East, now dressed as a woman, brought the matter to court. She boldly prosecuted her blackmailer, William Barwick, for extorting considerable sums of money from her for concealing her sex; he was convicted and sentenced to stand four times in the pillory and four years' imprisonment. 

 This public disclosure, however, made it necessary for the two women to abandon the White Horse, and the couple went into retirement. Mary boldly returned to the parish to settle her affairs and collect her property. "She was dressed in a riding habit, with a black hat and feather: so that her acquaintance could hardly believe her to be the same person, she having generally appeared in an old man's coat, woolen cap, blue apron, etc."

"Mrs. How" died after a total of 39 years of "matrimony"; Mary East survived her partner for a long time, but never took another "wife". Our historian claims that both women adopted this arrangement as a result of both their husbands-to-be having been hanged for highway robbery. They probably fabricated this explanation in an effort to account for what would otherwise be inexplicable for the conventionally-minded; surely they were lesbians.

From Homosexuality in Eighteenth Century England, a sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton.

1 comment:

  1. I've liked your post! Can you please tell me who draw/painted the first image of the article? Thank you