In the spring of 1902, a woman named Cassie Chadwick pulled up to the New York City mansion of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, leaving a prominent lawyer, whose services she had retained, in the horse-drawn carriage. She rang the bell and, under the pretense that she was inquiring about a new maid, gained entry. When Chadwick returned to the carriage, she dropped a forged document, ostensibly by accident, that indicated she was in line to inherit Carnegie’s fortune.
When the lawyer pressed her, Chadwick told him that she was the tycoon’s illegitimate daughter, swearing him to secrecy but knowing he would spread the word. In time, the former self-proclaimed clairvoyant from Canada, whose birth name was Elizabeth Bigley, was able to borrow nearly $2 million ($60 million in today’s dollars) from banks across the U.S., using only her fraudulent reputation as the heiress to millions. In the coming months, Chadwick’s life and exploits will take center stage in two books.
Chadwick was very much a product of her time, says Thomas Crowl, author of Queen of the Con (Kent State Univ., Oct.). Though her skullduggery took place several decades before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women’s rights were already a national conversation, and Chadwick capitalized on the moment.
“Women were demanding and taking a more active role in managing their financial affairs,” Crowl says. “Most successful men, especially older, conservative ones, didn’t know how to react.” Given the choice between saving their assets and saving their pride, they chose the latter. “Cassie discovered that they were willing to lose money and remain silent rather than risk their reputations by admitting to being outsmarted by a woman.”
Chadwick used this prevailing gender bias against women to take bankers “to the cleaners,” says William Elliott Hazelgrove, author of Greed in the Gilded Age (Rowman & Littlefield, Feb. 2022). While fraudulently securing large loans, Chadwick wasn’t concerned with the banks’ high interest rates and the kickbacks they demanded.
“She understood the method of banking in the late 19th and early 20th century better than the men who owned the banks did,” Hazelgrove says. “Cassie played their greed, their lasciviousness, their prejudice against women, perfectly—and destroyed some of the banks in the process.” When Chadwick’s scheme fell apart and came to light, the story was front-page news.
So what is it about a charlatan that captures our attention? “Many suspect that the deck is stacked in favor of the few,” Hazelgrove says. “When someone comes from nowhere with not a cent to their name and beats the ‘one percent’ at their own game, it is with fascination, envy, and a bit of satisfaction that we read or watch these very smart, sly people perform their art.”