If you’re to believe popular culture, the world of the professional swindler is a particularly masculine place. After all, it’s con MAN not con PERSON. Even so, fraud is an equal opportunity employer packed with wily and wicked women. In honour of International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at some of the women of deception that history has over looked.
1. Big Bertha Heyman
Known as the ‘confidence queen’ in the late 19th century, Bertha Heyman was a Prussian migrant who specialized in scamming wealthy men. She’d pretend to be a rich European widow, unable to access her fortune. Her victims delighted in rescuing her, keen to get their hands on both Bertha and her missing money.
Like many of the swindlers of her time, Bertha believed in only scamming those who should no better. “The moment I discover a man’s a fool I let him drop,” she admitted, “But I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned.’ It ministers to my intellectual pride.”
2. Barbara Erni
More a thief than a con artist, Erni deserves her place this list for the brilliance of her scheme. Throughout the 18th century Erni would travel Liechtenstein dressed as a woman of wealth and privilege. Everywhere she visited she would bring a large, ornate trunk. Arriving at inns she would insist that it be stored in the most secure room in the building.
Later that night, an accomplice would climb out of the trunk and steal everything of value from the room before climbing back into the luggage. Eventually caught in 1784, she was sentenced to death for her crimes and was the last person ever executed in Liechtenstein.
3. Elizabeth Bigley
More famously known as Cassie Chadwick, Bigley was a Canadian woman who claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie, the billionaire industrialist. After working as a fake psychic and a forger for many years, in 1897 she established herself as Carnegie’s heir.
Rather than asking for money, she claimed the billionaire had showered her with riches in an effort to keep her quiet. The story got out and banks soon came to her, offering her loans. It is estimated she took the financial institutions for $10-$20 million before dying in prison in 1906.
4. The Fox Sisters
While they performed their greatest scam as just children and while they made very little money, the Fox sisters are responsible for igniting the 19th century spiritualist movement, a breeding ground for con artists to this day. Without Leah, Maggie and Katy, we’d probably have no John Edward, no Ur Gellar and no James Van Praagh.
The girls claimed they could talk to the ghost of a previous tenant of their house. Visitors would hear a rapping sound each time the girls spoke to him.
The girls were celebrities for most of their lives until, in 1888, Maggie admitted they were frauds in her memoir The Death Blow To Spiritualism. She confessed that the sisters had clicked their toes against the wooden floor to make the rapping sound.
5. Thérèse Humbert
Like Elizabeth Bigley, Therese Humbert also claimed to be heir to a great fortune. In her case, she claimed that the family fortune of imaginary American millionaire Robert Crawford was locked in a large safe. After saving Crawford’s life she’d been given the safe in his will under the condition that it not be opened until her younger sister Marie was old enough to marry Crawford’s two nephew.
In 1879, Humbert took out a huge loan against the safe and used the money to furnish an extravagant lifestyle. But, in 1901, her impatient creditors sued her and obtained a court order that the fabled safe be opened.
Inside? A brick and a single English half penny.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author and honest con man.