Queering History: Happily ever after under cover

Bec Eames attempts to uncover the “cover marriages” of 18th Centrury Britain, and finds a dildo along the way.

Stories about “female husbands”, “counterfeit bridegrooms”, and “cover marriages” began to emerge in Britain as early as 1680. Such unions involved people assigned female at birth (AFAB) living and dressing as men in order to marry women, sometimes for love and sometimes, allegedly, for money. Although “lesbian”, “transgender” and “transvestite” were not established identities in the eighteenth century, it is clear that these people represented some kind of queer antecedence. There are no surviving sources written by the people involved, so it is impossible to know how they identified. They may have been transgender men, or they may have been cisgender women disguising themselves as men in order to access male privilege. For this reason, this article will use gender-neutral pronouns to describe such individuals.

The counterfeit bridegrooms that we know about are the ones who were discovered. Their existence was recorded in sensationalised newspaper articles, legal records, and independently published pamphlets and broadsheets. Many counterfeit husbands were only discovered after their deaths, as in the cases of John (a.k.a. Margery) Young and James Allen. Young was reported in the Tatler as a “Woman that practis’d Physick in Man’s Clothes; and after having had Two Wives, and several Children, died about a Month since” in 1710. The Times wrote about the “extraordinary circumstances” of “the body of an individual, called James Allen, whose sex remained undiscovered for many years, although married to a woman upwards of 21 years ago, during which period the deceased assumed the garb of man”.

Some records in marriage registries have survived; an edited marriage entry from 1757 states: “N.B. The above Person who called himself John Brown was afterwards proved a Woman dressed in Man’s apparel, and of Course separated from Ann Steel”. In 1739 an apprentice in London who “always appear’d in Man’s Apparel” fell pregnant and was discovered, thus ending their engagement to a young woman in Leadenhall Street.

In the case of James How, a.k.a Mary East, an old acquaintance blackmailed the married couple by threatening to reveal the “truth” of How’s sex, and the story came out in the courts after How’s wife died. Surprisingly in this case it was not How that was prosecuted for fraud; rather it was the blackmailer that was punished. A newspaper article in 1766 describing the case was largely sympathetic towards How, perhaps because they were eventually forced by circumstance into feminine clothing again. The article described How as “our heroine”, although it conceded that they were “peculiar”, and it commented on the “unblemished Character” of James How after they returned to feminine dress. Unfortunately not every counterfeit husband escaped censure so easily.

Female-female eroticism occupied a strange space in British law. Although on the Continent lesbianism was often considered as reprehensible as sodomy (and was therefore equally punishable, sometimes by death), the law condemning buggery in Britain did not include relations between women. This did not mean that everyone other than cis men were free to do as they pleased. Counterfeit husbands were usually prosecuted for fraud, sometimes quite harshly. In the case of George (a.k.a. Mary) Hamilton, brought to court for having married Mary Price, prosecutors struggled with finding a law to condemn them, and eventually tried Hamilton under a clause in the Vagrant Act. This case became the basis for a fictionalised and heavily moralising pamphlet published by Henry Fielding in 1746. The pamphlet describes how Hamilton “was by the court sentenced to be publickly and severely whipt four several times, in four market towns within the county of Somerset, to wit, once in each market town, and to be imprisoned, &c”. In July 1777 Ann Marrow was convicted “for going in a man’s cloaths, and being married to three different women by a fictitious name, and for defrauding them of money and effects”. Marrow’s sentence was harsher than some, though it is not clear what distinguished their case from others; they were sentenced to the pillory, and attacked so viciously by the attending crowd that they were blinded.

Contemporary sources usually painted counterfeit husbands as acting out of purely selfish motives. A broadsheet dating from 1701 describes a mother who is so desperate to have her daughter married that she offers 200 pounds to the potential spouse, at which point the daughter “by a strange mistake, married a young Woman in Man’s Apparel, who having got her Portion of 200 pounds left her in the lurch”. The story is treated as a comedic curiosity, eagerly describing the naïveté of the bride and the conniving nature of her suitor, called a “Devil in Britches”. If love was ever considered as a motive, it was usually treated with disdain or amazement. In the case of the deceived wife of Samuel Bundy, a.k.a. Sarah Paul, a London Chronicle article reluctantly admitted that “there seems a strong love, or friendship, on the other side, as she keeps the prisoner company in her confinement”. Indeed since Bundy’s wife refused to appear in court, Bundy could not be prosecuted, and all the judge could do was warn them to “never more to appear in that character”. It would appear that, at least in some cases, love was the primary motive for cover marriages, though the contemporary public of England was unwilling to acknowledge it.

Relationships between women (or AFAB people) were not seen as threatening until they involved marriage or sex. The source of these anxieties seems to be a fear of women disrupting or stealing male bodies, roles, and identities. The use of dildos as a form of disguise was a particular source of fascination and euphemism. Fielding describes “something of too vile, wicked and scandalous a nature, which was found in the Doctor’s trunk, having been produced in evidence against her.” Such accounts seem to be almost pornographic in intent, though Fielding insists that he only writes in order to warn impressionable young women away from similar pursuits. Although the crime itself was apparently fraud, Fielding constantly describes it in sexual terms. Intense love and respect between women could be tolerated, it seems, but only up until it began to infringe on male power structures.

The contemporary British public often did not know what to make of cover marriages. They were generally represented as freakish and somehow lesser to normative heterosexual relationships. They were dismissed as a form of fraud or theft. This conception discounts the feelings and perceptions of the people involved, in favour of supporting an unstable “truth” about sex and about gender relations.


Latest posts by publications (see all)