“How can hard-headed business men of caution and experience be victimized by women who lack the first elements of female charm?”
That’s the question posed in a May 1923 New York Times article about notorious 19th century swindler Bertha Heyman, whose picture “is one of the least attractive in the police records of that day.”
Heyman, dubbed the Confidence Queen in the 1880s, came New York after immigrating from Prussia in 1878.
Her scheme was the one fraudsters use today: She’d claim to be a wealthy woman who was blocked from accessing her estate. (Nigerian internet scams, anyone?)
The men would advance her money in return for a cut of her fortune—and she’d take off.
Heyman, who stayed at the finest hotels and boasted of having A-list friends, had a knack for picking rubes.
After getting hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars from several men, she was convicted of obtaining $500 on false pretenses and sentenced to prison on Blackwell’s Island.
But even there, she didn’t stop: She convinced another male New Yorker to fork over his $900 life savings.
What’s so fascinating isn’t how she pulled the wool over the eyes of so many guys but that she later said she didn’t do it for the money—it was the sheer enjoyment of tricking someone.
“The moment I discover a man’s a fool I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned,’” she told The Times in an 1883 article. “It ministers to my intellectual pride.”
[top photo: a tobacco card of Bertha from 1888]