Written by Hannah Kohler


Dispatches from the Past

Hannah Kohler is furtling around in the British Library archives, unearthing some weird and wonderful stuff that sheds light on issues women are still dealing with today. This month, Victorian con women, or why you should never underestimate a lady.

Take with a pinch of smelling salt: ‘Chicago May’ Duignan. Image: Chicago Tribune Archive.

The Victorian era was the domestic age. A woman belonged in the home; her higher purpose was motherhood. The ‘true woman’ was pious, pure, and submissive: the angel at the hearth.

The 19th century may have seen the rise of the ‘true woman’. But it also saw the corresponding rise of a very different kind of woman: the con artist.

In Swindler, Spy, Rebel: The Confidence Woman in Nineteenth-Century America, Kathleen De Grave shows that 19th-century America was the con woman’s heyday.

Why? Cities – with their promise of anonymity and opportunities for commercial transactions – were burgeoning; working- and middle-class women were battling difficult economic realities, and feminism was burning at the fringes of society. Women had the means – and the motivation – to profit by exploiting men.

But most importantly, it was the culture in which women were idealised, marginalised and underestimated that gave con women everything they needed to pull off the most extraordinary scams.

Nineteenth-century con women passed themselves off as everything the Victorian ideal demanded: helpless, naive and innocent. And their marks fell for it.

The small-time con woman was the middle-class shoplifter, who, operating within a culture of conspicuous consumption but often struggling with meagre finances, projected an image of Victorian respectability while slipping stolen goods into her purse. Then there were the pickpockets, the sham spiritualists, the fortune-tellers, the robbery decoys, the defrauders and the blackmailers.

Bertha Heyman photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Then there was the big league.

Bertha Heyman, a “very stout woman, [with a] German face” posed as a wealthy widow unable to access her fortune. ‘Big Bertha’ duped several men into loaning her considerable amounts of money as she attempted to track down her non-existent inheritance.

‘Chicago May’ Duignan’s specialty was performing fainting fits and pilfering the watches and scarf-pins of the gentlemen who rushed to help her.

Sophie Beck sold fake stock in a Philadelphia cotton company, promising an extraordinary return on investment. She fleeced investors of $2m, fled to Europe and was never caught.

Thérèse Humbert invented a millionaire benefactor, Robert Crawford. She said that Crawford had bequeathed her his entire estate after she’d saved his life but that the fortune was locked in a safe that was not to be opened until a later date.

Humbert took out enormous loans against the safe and lavished the money on property, clothes, and parties. Twenty years later, her creditors, tired of waiting, obtained a court order to open the safe. Its sole contents were a brick and a halfpenny.

Your money’s safe with me: Thérèse Humbert’s heavyweight scam. Photo via strangeco.blogspot.co.uk.

Cassie Chadwick was the most extraordinary con woman of them all. She convinced some of the toughest bankers of her time that she was the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and was due to inherit millions when he died. Bankers across the United States loaned Chadwick millions of dollars at illegally high interest rates, on the understanding that she would repay them when she came into her fortune.

Cassie Chadwick photo via Cleveland State University.

Of course, nobody was brave enough to ask Carnegie if he indeed had an illegitimate daughter. Chadwick lived a grand old life as the ‘Queen of Ohio’ for several years, until one of her creditors called in his loan, and her entire scheme collapsed. She died in jail three years later.

All of these con women exploited the Victorian-era stereotype of the helpless, submissive, innocent woman to dupe their victims. Victorian cultural norms simply didn’t allow for the idea that women could concoct such elaborate schemes – let alone have the nerve and skill to execute them.

The Victorian ‘cult of true womanhood’ didn’t die with Queen Victoria. We’re still trying to shake its teeth from the scruffs of our necks. Western culture still expects women to be sweet and self-effacing.

It still fetishes motherhood; still places the home and childcare in the female domain. The election of a misogynist to the American presidency suggests that in the near term, things may get worse for women.

But if history tells us anything, it’s that even in the face of overbearing patriarchy, women find ways to prevail, sometimes in cleverest, wickedest ways. An underestimated woman is a dangerous woman. Watch out, Donald.

Sources: Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain, Lynn Abrams; When Ladies Go A-Thieving, Elaine S. Abelson; Swindler, Spy, Rebel: The Confidence Woman in Nineteenth-Century America, Kathleen de Grave; “‘Chicago May’: Globe-trotting celebrity crook,” Chicago Tribune, 16 Nov 2016.


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Written by Hannah Kohler

Hannah Kohler is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence, where she is researching her second novel, Catspaw, set in the California Gold Rush of 1849. Her first novel, The Outside Lands, is set in 1960s California and Vietnam, and is out in paperback now.