An 1880s swindler who preyed on New York men

“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]

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10 Responses to “An 1880s swindler who preyed on New York men”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    I really wonder how she swindled these rubes. Someone needs to write a book on her and make her life into a movie. You have to feel sorry for the saps who believed her. I can’t stand con-artists. It’s a sickening feeling to know you’ve been duped because you had a good heart and were trying to help someone.

  2. adrianlesher Says:

    She appears to have a bit of Robin Hood in her: “Chief Murphy says she has been known to find a ten-thousand dollar victim, but the money does little good. Within a week she will have given the money or the bulk of it to the poor.”

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Hmm…I’m suspicious of that.

  4. fivepointsguy Says:

    You mean the wife of the Nigerian ambassador that I gave money to wasn’t real?

  5. adrianlesher Says:

    Why be suspicious? It’s Chief of Police Murphy who says she gives to the poor, not her lawyer or publicist.

    Here’s another Times article about her, cited in the Wikipedia entry about her: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F70F15FF3A581B7A93C5AB178BD95F458884F9

    I like this quote: “Big Bertha
    was gifted with insight into human nature, and is said to
    have succeeded in deceiving the shrewdest business people.”
    http://www23.us.archive.org/stream/cu31924092592322/cu31924092592322_djvu.txt

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    Well, I wonder where is the chief getting his information. Did she tell him that she gives the money away? If so, I don’t believe it. You can’t trust anything a con says. As she admits, she lies and steals for kicks. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of social justice concern behind her swindles.

  7. Bob_in_MA Says:

    At that time, it’s a sure thing Chief Murphy and his boys were getting a cut, so he probably had a reason to present her as a sympathetic character.

  8. lisaakalisa Says:

    The Robin Hood ruse will never die so long as con men may depend on the widespread belief that person A is somehow justified in taking involuntary “contributions” from person B, on behalf of person C.

    Instead of asking yourselves if this is true, ask yourselves if this is proper or right, were it true.

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