As promised last time, today I will delve into the life of one of North America’s most notorious conwomen, Cassie Chadwick.
|Cassie L. Chadwick. Source: Wikipedia.|
There is quite a bit of confusion concerning the events in Cassie’s life–I read no fewer than four different accounts in the space of an hour last night–so I’ll just present the ones I like best, with cavalier disregard for their veracity.
Born Elizabeth Bigley in October 1857 (or so) in Canada, young Betsy reportedly executed her first fraud scheme at the age of 13, passing a number of bad checks based on a fictitious inheritance from an equally imaginary uncle. She was arrested, but released due to her age and told to behave herself.
She didn’t listen.
When Betsy was 18 she first used the scam that would become infamous in just a few decades. She bought fancy stationery, imprinted it with the name of a prominent Ontario attorney, and wrote a letter to herself notifying her of a $15,000 bequest by a philanthropist. Then she printed calling cards which read simply, “Miss Bigley. Heiress to $15,000.” This scam worked for awhile, allowing her to buy clothing and other goods and set herself up as an heiress in a London, Ontario hotel for just a bit too long. She was arrested again, but her youthful appearance allowed her to act the role of the contrite child, and she got away with it once again. A third scam resulted in her arrest and trial, where she again played the child to great effect; the judge ruled her temporarily insane and released her into the custody of her parents. Her parents, quite done with her, sent her to Cleveland, Ohio with her newly married sister in or about 1875.
In Cleveland, she borrowed money using her sister’s furnishings as collateral (and did the same in a succession of boardinghouses she lived in, leaving a trail of debt behind her). Then she set up shop as a clairvoyant, Madame Lydia DeVere. She turned her attentions to romance, soon seducing a local physician named Wallace Springsteen. They married on November 21, 1882, and he was prominent enough in the community that their picture was printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The story was read by a number of Madame’s creditors, as well as Betsy’s sister, who all showed up at the newlyweds’ home demanding to be paid. Dr. Springsteen, realizing that his new bride was a liar and a thief, divorced her immediately.
After a divorce in which she managed to fleece a number of lawyers and nearly bankrupt the good doctor, Mrs. Lydia Springsteen disappeared. Cassie resumed her role as clairvoyant, this time under the name of Madame Marie LaRose. She seduced another swain, a Trumbull County farmer named John Scott, and for four years after their marriage there are no accounts of check fraud, forgery, or other misdeeds, until she claimed she committed adultery and filed for divorce. A prenup she had insisted on signing before she married ensured that this time she walked away with none of her husband’s property.
Following this, she gave birth to a son, lived as a British heiress in Toledo, and seduced yet another unwitting dupe, who cashed $40,000 worth of fraudulent checks for her. In 1889, Cassie was arrested again, and this time she was sentenced to 9-1/2 years in prison.
Unrepentant, in jail she launched a letter-writing campaign to the parole board seeking her early release from prison, which was granted by Governor William McKinley after she had served only three and a half years.
She returned to Cleveland in 1891 as Cassie L. Hoover, posing as a respectable, conservative widow. Apparently unsatisfied with the income of a clairvoyant, however, she turned to prostitution instead. She opened a brothel, and supplemented her take of the proceeds by blackmailing her patrons.
Dr. Leroy Chadwick, a wealthy young physician with a home on Euclid Avenue, visited the brothel after the death of his wife.
|Cassie Chadwick’s Euclid Avenue home, c. pre-1906. Source: Wikipedia.|
I haven’t found a satisfactory account of their meeting, but the story goes that he met Cassie there. She claimed she had thought it was a boardinghouse when she bought the brothel, and swooned dead away in his arms when she realized her mistake. He was completely taken in by this performance, which strains credulity to such a degree I can’t believe that the story is true. In any case, they married in 1897.
And then things really got interesting for Mrs. Chadwick. On a visit to New York City, Cassie convinced one of her husband’s associates, a Cleveland lawyer named Dillon, to take her to the home of Andrew Carnegie. He stayed outside while Cassie went in on a mysterious errand. After grilling the housekeeper for about half an hour on some pretext, she left the home with a promissory note for $2 million, apparently signed by Andrew Carnegie. He was, Cassie told Dillon when he discovered the note she had “accidentally” dropped in front of his nose, wracked with guilt over being informed she was his illegitimate daughter.
|Andrew Carnegie, c. 1878. Source: Wikipedia.|
Cassie lived large on this when she returned to Cleveland, and was dubbed “The Queen of Ohio.” No one wanted to embarrass the illustrious Carnegie by mentioning his illegitimate daughter, especially since he was not the type to have one. Cassie used his name and the promise of an inheritance upon Carnegie’s death to forge bank notes of between $10 and $20 million over the next eight years.
One of the banks she defrauded was associated with my alma mater, Oberlin College. She borrowed $240,000 from the Citizens National Bank of Oberlin, four times the bank’s actual capital. The resulting loss caused a run on the bank and it failed, bankrupting many Oberlin students and organizations.
In 1904, her luck ran out. A Boston banker sought repayment of a loan of $190,800. When Cassie refused to pay, he went to the police and filed suit. Cassie was arrested (reportedly while wearing a money belt containing $100,000) and stood trial in federal court in Cleveland. On 10 Mar. 1905, Cassie Chadwick was convicted on 7 counts of conspiracy against the government and conspiracy to wreck the Citizens National Bank of Oberlin. She was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined $70,000. She died in prison on her 50th(or 48th) birthday, October 10, 1907. She is buried in Woodstock, Ontario.
Andrew Carnegie, who attended the trial, is reported to have said that the whole thing could have been avoided if anyone had bothered to ask him. He was also so sorry that Oberlin College had been harmed by the scheme that indirectly involved him that he donated $125,000 for a new College library.
|Carnegie Library, Oberlin, Ohio. Source: Oberlin College Archives.|
* Cleveland Curiosities: Eliot Ness & His Blundering Raid, a Busker’s Promise, Ted Schwartz, 2010.
* “Cassie Chadwick,” The Biography Channel website, http://www.biography.com/people/cassie-chadwick-20649415 (accessed Mar 09, 2014).
* “Chadwick, Cassie L.,” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CCL)
* “Chadwick Paper out is Over $19,000,000,” The New York Times, December 11, 1904.
* Cleveland in the Gilded Age: A Stroll Down Millionaires’ Row, Dan Ruminski and Alan Dutka, 2012.