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There’s nothing new about fraud. From fake jewels and cleverly plated gold in Phoenician times, all the way to the present, the only thing that has radically changed is the speed with which the stories are circulated. Today a clever fraud in Buggertweet, Kansas, can be broadcast round the world before the crook makes it to the getaway car.
The Cleveland Police Museum, however, can whisk us back 110 years — to the legend of Cassie Chadwick.
Born as Elizabeth “Betty” Bigley in 1857, she grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada. Deaf in one ear and with a resultant speech impediment, she was an extreme introvert. There was no such thing as ‘autism’ in the late 1800s; had there been, she surely would have been labeled as such. A favorite pastime was to practice family members’ signatures. When she was 13, she put that rather unique skill to work and devised her first known scheme.
Writing a letter saying an uncle had died and left her money, she used the document she produced to dupe a local bank to allow her to access the money prior to the actual disbursement. It didn’t last long, but it whet her appetite for bigger and better scams. Ignoring her promise to never do it again, she did indeed do it again. In 1879, at age 22, she forged the name of a non-existent London, Ontario, attorney to a letter notifying her that a wealthy philanthropist had bequeathed her $15,000. To announce her good fortune, she had calling cards printed, “Miss Bigley, Heiress to $15,000” and then proceeded to write checks for items of expensive items, usually for more than the item’s price tag, with the difference taken in cash.
As that scheme fell apart, she headed to her sister’s home in Cleveland — where she soon arranged a bank loan using her sister’s furniture, paintings, and silver as collateral. Hardly amused, her brother-in-law kicked her out. Betty simply moved to another Cleveland address and soon met Dr. Wallace S. Springsteen. They were married in 1883, and when the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed the marriage announcement, scammed merchants immediately showed up at the door demanding payment. Twelve days later the marriage was over, but not before the good doctor paid his bride’s debts. Clean again, Betty reinvented herself as Mme. Marie Rosa, a clairvoyant. Traveling through Erie, Pennsylvania, she claimed to be the niece of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman just before she became seriously ill – – or so she said. Kind neighbors collected money to loan her so she could get back to Cleveland; when they later wrote asking for repayment, they received letters stating that she had died two weeks earlier. Maintaining the Mme. Rosa identity, she married two of her clients. The second, businessman C.L. Hoover, died and left her $50,000. That money allowed her to assume yet another identity, this time as Mme. Lydia Devere, another clairvoyant. As Lydia, she continued her trail of fraud, convincing one of her customer’s to cash over $40,000 in forged checks — until they both were arrested. Sentenced to nine years, she wrote even more letters, this time to the parole board. She claimed remorse, promised to reform, and was out of prison in just three and a half years. Returning to Cleveland as Cassie L. Hoover, she married Dr. Leroy Chadwick and once again gained access to the city’s elite. In 1902, using the name Cassie L. Chadwick, she traveled by train from Cleveland to NYC in what may have been one of the earliest examples of stalking. Her target was a friend of her husband’s, lawyer James Dillon. She found him at the Holland House hotel, known internationally for its $350,000 wine cellar and ornate decor, and “accidentally” bumped into him. Expounding on the delightful coincidence of seeing him, she asked if he would accompany her to her father’s house to take care of some private family business. Being a fine gentleman, he agreed, and they stepped into a carriage to go to 2 East 91st Street. Arriving at the four-story mansion, owned by none other than Andrew Carnegie, Cassie told the rather astounded Dillon to wait for her and proceeded to knock on the door. Out of range of Dillon’s hearing, she told the butler that she wanted to speak to the head housekeeper and was admitted to the mansion. Through more clever verbal diversion, she kept herself inside for almost half an hour, then exited, extracted a large brown envelope she’d had hidden in her coat all along, and climbed back aboard the carriage. Dillon, perplexed, asked who exactly her father was. Her response was that she was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter, but claimed it to be a secret that he never could reveal. To prove it, she showed him the contents of the envelope. Inside were promissory notes and securities worth more than $5 million signed by Carnegie himself. It was guilt money, she said, adding that she would inherit millions more when he eventually died. Of course it was a secret that he could not keep.
Meanwhile, back home again, in an attempt to impress her socially prominent neighbors, Cassie began a spending spree the likes of which Cleveland had never seen. Furniture, jewels, clothing, and baubles with price tags equivalent to the combined incomes of lesser square mile neighborhoods. When her husband voiced objections, she borrowed against her future inheritance. Many financial institutions fell under her spell — Ohio Citizen’s Bank, Cleveland’s Wade Park Banking Company, New York’s Lincoln National Bank and more. She chose Wade Park Bank as her primary base of operations and provided her counterfeit promissory notes from Carnegie. The swath of her larceny was wide, including $340,000 from Citizen’s National Bank president Charles Beckwith, $800,000 from a Pittsburgh steel mogul, and $104,000 from a Euclid Avenue Baptist Church acquaintance, Boston investment banker Herbert Newton. Newton, ‘tis said, thought he had her as she signed a promissory note for $190,800 without questioning the outrageous interest. In reality, she had him, and when he realized that she had no intention of repaying the loans or the interest, he filed suit in federal court in Cleveland. To stop her from fleeing or hiding her money, he requested that Ira Reynolds of Wade Park Banking of Cleveland continue to hold the promissory notes from Cassie’s “father,” Andrew Carnegie.
Cassie vehemently denied it all; however, in 1905 she was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud a national bank and sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary. Carnegie himself was in the courtroom audience and got the chance to see the infamous promissory notes he had allegedly signed, commenting that it was not flattering that anyone could have believed he had drawn up misspelled and badly punctuated documents. “Why, I have not signed a note in the last 30 years,” he said, adding that the whole scandal could have been avoided if anyone had bothered to ask him.
With each successive loan, Cassie repaid earlier interest or loans. Two would pay one, Three would pay two, and so on. Charles Ponzi was not the first to come up with the scam that bears his name. Ponzi schemes could very well have been more aptly named Cassie schemes. The reported losses were $633,000, more than $16.5 million by today’s standards.