The true story of Mary East is a unusual one in many ways often told in various magazines from the mid 18th century. Here the creator of ‘Dracula’ recounts the story in a theatrical manner for his book Famous Imposters published in 1910.
“A young fellow courted one Mary East, and for him she conceived the greatest liking; but he going upon the highway, was tried for a robbery and cast, but was afterwards transported.”
In 1736, when Mary East was sixteen, life was especially hard on women. Few honest occupations were open to them, and they were subject to all the hardships consequent on a system in which physical weakness was handicapped to a frightful extent. When this poor girl was bereft of her natural hope of a settlement in life she determined, as the least unattractive form of living open to her, to remain single. About the same time a friend of hers arrived at the same resolution but by a different road, her course being guided thereto by having “met with many crosses in love.” The two girls determined to join forces; and on consulting as to ways and means decided that the likeliest way to avoid suspicion was to live together under the guise of man and wife. The toss of a coin decided their respective roles, the “breeches part” as it is called in the argot of the theatre, falling to East.
The combined resources of the girls totalled some thirty pounds sterling, so after buying masculine garb for Mary they set out to find a place where they were unknown and so might settle down in peace. They found the sort of place they sought in the neighbourhood of Epping Forest where, there being a little public-house vacant, Mary now under the name of James How — became the tenant. For some time they lived in peace at Epping, with the exception of a quarrel forced by a young gentleman on the alleged James How in which the latter was wounded in the hand. It must have been a very one-sided affair, for when the injured “man” took action he was awarded £500 damages — a large sum in those days and for such a cause. With this increase to their capital the two women moved to Limehouse on the east side of London where they took at Limehouse-hole a more important public-house. This they managed in so excellent a manner that they won the respect of their neighbours and throve exceedingly.
After a time they moved from Limehouse to Poplar where they bought another house and added to their little estate by the purchase of other houses. Peace, hard work, and prosperity marked their life thence-forward, till fourteen years had passed since the beginning of their joint venture.
Peace and prosperity are, however, but feeble guardians to weakness. Nay, rather are they incentive to evil doing. For all these years the two young women had conducted themselves with such rectitude, and observed so much discretion, that even envy could not assail them through the web of good repute which they had woven round their masquerade. Alone they lived, keeping neither female servant nor male assistant. They were scrupulously honest in their many commercial dealings and, absolutely punctual in their agreements and obligations. James How took a part in the public life of his locality, filling in turn every parish office except those of Constable and Churchwarden.
From the former he was excused on account of the injury to his hand from which he had never completely recovered. Regarding the other his time had not yet come, but he was named for Churchwarden in the year following to that in which a bolt fell from the blue, 1730. It came in this wise : A woman whose name of coverture was Bently,and who was now resident in Poplar, had known the alleged James How in the days when they were both young. Her own present circumstances were poor and she looked on the prosperity of her old acquaintance as a means to her own betterment. It was but another instance of the old crime of “blackmail.” She sent to the former Mary East for a loan of £10, intimating that if the latter did not send it she would make known the secret of her sex. The poor panic-stricken woman foolishly complied with the demand, thus forcing herself deeper into the mire of the other woman’s unscrupulousness. The forced loan, together with Bently’s fears for her own misdeed procured immunity for some fifteen years from further aggression. At the end of that time, however, under the renewed pressure of need Bently repeated her demand. “James How” had not the sum by her, but she sent £5— another link in the chain of her thraldom.
From that time on there was no more peace for poor Mary East. Her companion of nearly thirty- five years died and she, having a secret to guard and no assistance being possible, was more helpless than ever and more than ever under the merciless yoke of the blackmailer. Mrs. Bently had a fair idea of how to play her own despicable game. As her victim’s fear was her own stock-in-trade she supplemented the sense of fear which she knew to exist by a conspiracy strengthened by all sorts of
schemes to support its seeming bona fides. She took in two male accomplices and, thus enforced, began operations. Her confederates called on James How, one armed with a constable’s staff, the other appearing as one of the “thief -takers” of the gang of the notorious magistrate, Fielding — an evil product of an evil time. Having confronted How they told him that they had come by order of Mr. Justice Fielding to arrest him for the commission of a robbery over forty years before, alleging that they were aware of his being a woman.
Mary East, though quite innocent of any such offence but acutely conscious of her imposture of manhood, in her dismay sought the aid of a friend called Williams who understood and helped her. He went to the magistrates of the district and then to Sir John Fielding to make inquiries and claim
protection. During his absence the two villains took Mary East from her house and by threats secured from her a draft on Williams for £100. With this in hand they released their victim who was even more anxious than themselves not to let the matter have greater publicity than it had already obtained. However, Justice demanded a further investigation, and one of the men being captured — the other had escaped — was tried, and being found guilty, was sentenced to imprisonment for four years together with four appearances in the pillory.
Altogether Mary East and her companion had lived together as husband and wife for nearly thirty-five years, during which time they had honestly earned, and by self-denial saved, over four thousand pounds sterling and won the good opinion of all with whom they had come in contact. They were never known to cook a joint of meat for their own use, to employ any help, or to entertain private” friends in their house. They were cautious, careful, and discreet in every way and seemed to live
their lives in exceeding blamelessness.
The pub that Mary East ran in Poplar was the White Horse. An archaeological dig in 2004 found documentary evidence for a tavern on the site dating from 1690, and connections to brewing dating back to the 14th century.
White Horse pub – picture taken by William Whiffen (Poplar Photographer)
The pub was rebuilt in 1870 and in 1928. It closed and was demolished in 2003. All that remains of the historic tavern is a pub sign of a white horse on a pole.