The Duchess of Criminality
The only lady on our list would be known by many names in her lifetime, the first being Elizabeth Bigley. Although she was originally from Canada, her greatest crimes would take place in the US at a time when women could neither vote nor obtain loans from banks, but that wouldn’t stop her.
She started her life of crime at the age of just fourteen in Woodstock, Ontario where she managed to open a bank account with a dubious letter of inheritance from an “unknown” uncle in England and a small amount of cash. Soon after she would start passing several worthless checks but was quickly arrested. She escaped prosecution due to her age and the fact that she pleaded insanity.
After her parole in 1875 she would follow her sister to the US after she married a carpenter from Cleveland, Ohio. After staying with them for a while she would rent an apartment, claiming to be a widow and a clairvoyant she adopted the pseudonym Madame Lydia DeVere. With this name she would meet and marry Dr. Wallace S. Springsteen.
As Mrs. Lydia Springsteen, a photograph and story of her wedding would appear in the newspaper where she was recognized for her previous frauds and many people came knocking looking for their unpaid debts. Dr. Springsteen, horrified by this revelation, threw her out of the house and sought immediate divorce, which he got.
After her divorce she would re-established herself as a clairvoyant, this time as Madame Marie LaRose, where she would convince a farmer John R. Scott. After four years of farm life she filed for divorce citing adultery (which never happened) on her part and as she had convinced Scott to sign a prenuptial agreement, she would walk away with a payday.
In 1889 her crimes would catch up with her again but this time she would not escape prosecution and was sentenced to nine and a half years in a penitentiary in Toledo for forgery. She would only serve four years of that sentence before returning to Cleveland, this time as Mrs. Cassie Hoover, where she would open a brothel.
There she would meet a wealthy widower doctor named Leroy Chadwick. Knowing of her loss she would play the genteel widow who ran a respectable boarding house for women. When Dr. Chadwick pointed out they everyone knew this was a brothel, she ‘fainted’ asking to be taken away from this place as she was unaware it was a house of ill repute and would never want to be associated with such a place.
The poor doctor fell for it, so much so that they were married in 1897. This is when she would take the name Mrs Cassie Chadwick, a name that would make her famous, well, infamous, as soon she would commit a crime so ambitious that the newspapers of the day would call her one of the greatest con artists in American history.
Through her marriage to the good doctor she would meet many respectable people, and on a trip to New York City in 1897, she would make the acquaintance of one of her husband’s associates, a lawyer named James Dillon. She would ask Dillon to accompany her on an errand to a lavish mansion on Fifth Avenue, where he would wait outside, rather bemused, as she conducted her ‘business’.
That mansion just so happened to belong to the one of the richest men in the world, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Curious about what possible business Chadwick could have with Carnegie, Dillon inevitably asked. Swearing him to secrecy, she confessed that she was his illegitimate daughter and she stood to inherit millions, knowing fine well the lawyer would not keep his word and tell everyone.
Well aware that no one would dare challenge such a powerful and influential man like Carnegie about an illegitimate daughter, Chadwick found it easy to secure massive loans from every bank she walked into. She would manage to keep this ruse going for an astonishing seven years, but as they say, nothing lasts forever.
The game would be up in 1904 when a banker demanded she pay back a loan worth almost $200,000. When she failed to do so, the disgruntled money man approached Carnegie who, of course, had absolutely no idea who Cassie Chadwick was. She would soon be arrested and convicted of fraud.
On 1 January 1906, Chadwick was sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus where she would pass away only two years later. A feature film on Chadwick’s life was scheduled to begin shooting in 2020 with the aptly named title The Duchess of Criminality.