The Fake Heiress Who Conned America's Banks In The 1800s

Lydia DeVere, Cassie Chadwick, and Madame Marie Rosa. These were just three of the names used by Elizabeth "Betty" Bigley, a con woman who managed to steal millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims in both the United States and Canada around the turn of the 20th century. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Bigley was born in Ontario, Canada, in October 1857. Even from a young age, her peers and siblings noticed that she was different. One reason was because of her deafness in one ear, which meant that she chose her words slowly and carefully.

When Bigley was just 13 years old, she decided to run her first con. She claimed that she was the beneficiary of a small inheritance from a distant relative and forged a letter that managed to fool a local bank. The bank gave her an advance on the money, which she quickly spent before the bankers could recognize her scam.

A variation of this quickly became one of her trademarks, and when she was 22 years old, she executed it again — this time fooling a bank by showing business cards she had printed with the header "Miss Bigley, Heiress to $15,000." This time, though, she was discovered and arrested, per Maclean's. However, the judge acquitted Bigley on grounds of insanity, leaving her free to continue conning her way across North America.

Elizabeth Bigley next set her sights on the United States

After her trial, Elizabeth Bigley moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to stay with one of her sisters. However, she quickly took advantage of this act of charity and used her sister and brother-in-law's furniture and other valuables as collateral to get a bank loan. When the couple discovered Bigley's deception, they kicked her out, forcing her to find another means of survival.

Bigley found her next victim in the form of Dr. Wallace S. Springsteen. He was captivated by Bigley, and the pair got married in December 1883. Within hours of the wedding, debtors descended on the Cleveland-based doctor and demanded he pay off Bigley's expenses. The marriage lasted 12 days, per Smithsonian.

Bigley would go on to marry three more times and embark on a new scheme: pretending to be a psychic under the name Madame Marie Rosa. She would ask for loans from her clients in addition to scamming them of money. When her clients asked to be repaid, she not only faked her own death but also wrote her own tribute. She also took up a new name: Lydia DeVere.

Her biggest con involved millionaire Andrew Carnegie

Elizabeth Bigley would also pretend to be related to wealthy people and take out multiple loans, repaying each with a new loan in a type of Ponzi scheme. Her successful scams meant that she could purchase luxuries that only added to the perception that she was part of the upper class. For example, she gifted eight friends a baby grand piano each and wore thousands of dollars worth of jewels on a daily basis.

Her biggest scam was pretending to be the illegitimate daughter of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. As part of her plan, she asked a loose-lipped lawyer to escort her to her "father's home," i.e. the Carnegie mansion. She entered the house and asked about a maid's reference when questioned about her presence by staff, but told the lawyer, who had been waiting outside, that she was receiving an allowance from her father.

As news of her faux lineage spread, banks offered generous loans under the assumption that Carnegie would pay off all debts. But this was obviously not to happen, and Chadwick was eventually arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison after bankers realized the fraud. Carnegie himself attended the trial. 

In total, Maclean's estimated that the con woman scammed as much as $1.5 million from her victims. Adjusted for inflation, that would be over $40 million today.