Born in 1851 in Kobly, near Posen, in Prussia, Bertha Schlesinger, later known as Bertha Heyman, was a 19th century swindler dubbed “Big Bertha” or the “Confidence Queen.” That was because she managed to swindle people out of thousands of dollars. In fact, she sometimes even did so while incarcerated.
Heyman arrived in America in 1861 and sources say she was married twice, although it seems unclear if she was married the first time or if she got a divorce. Those who believed she was married say that her first husband was a mechanic named Fritz Karko. She lived with him in New York and then they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There she married another man she identified as John Heyman, from whom she took the surname Heyman.
Descriptions of Bertha Heyman’s physical characteristics varied. For instance, a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News of New York maintained in 1881:
“She had what is described by the French as a belle figure … was a very attractive person and took your fancy the moment she fixed her big, brown, stag-like eyes upon you. … Her wavy hair is soft and black, and her hands are white, taper-fingered and filbert-nailed. She sat quietly with her dress open at the neck, revealing a shapely throat of a complexion creamy as the inner petals of a lily, and her arms bare to the elbows, soft and dimpled.”
The famous 19th-century American police inspector, Thomas Byrnes, profiled her in his 1886 book, Professional Criminals of America. His assessment of her physically is brief and to the point:
“Thirty-five years old in 1886. Born in Germany. Married. Very stout woman. Height, 5 feet 4½ inches. Weight, 245 pounds. Hair brown, eyes brown, fair complexion. German face. An excellent talker. Has four moles on her right cheek.”
Several contemporary sources provided unflattering physical descriptions of her. For example, one person stated, “Bertha is a stout, gross-looking woman, and it is difficult to imagine how she has succeeded in ensnaring so many victims by appeals to their confidence.” Contemporaries also provided several unfavorable descriptions of her character. For instance, while imprisoned this assessment of her was provided:
“This woman is utterly untrustworthy. She is as bad as bad can be, and would not scruple to swindle her associates in the prison if she should get a chance.”
Bertha Heyman usually relied on well-rehearsed and bold schemes to con money out of people and the people she conned were usually men. She regularly pretended to be a wealthy woman unable to access her great fortune and in need of funds. Her scams generally involved her staying at the most luxurious hotels, being waited on by servants, and bragging about her influential friends, such as the Astors or the Vanderbilts. In 1881, the same year that Mark Twain published his novel The Prince and the Pauper, The Kansas City Times summed up Heyman and her schemes:
“For years she lived in regal splendor in New York hotels, surrounded by luxuries and attended by liveried lackeys. She occupied different apartments at different times in the St. Denis hotel, the Grande hotel, the Gilsey house, the New York hotel, and the Hotel Brunswick. … Her plan was to pass herself off for a millionaire, and then to borrow money on the strength of her prospects.”
One of Heyman’s scams involved a gentleman named Botty. She swindled him out of $5,000 but he sued her and luckily recovered his money. Another $5,000 victim was the firm of Bates, Reed & Cooley. In addition, one of own employees, a Mr. Brandt, was tricked and cheated. He knew her from Karko and began working as her servant. She told him a tall tale that convinced him to advance her the sum of $1,000 believing that she would soon repay him. Unfortunately, he learned too late that she had no intention of ever repaying the money.
By January of 1883, The Chicago Tribune noted that she had “long since earned the sobriquet in the police circles … and other cities as the ‘Confidence Queen.’” The paper reported that she had conducted a scam in 1880 with her victims being Edward T. and Tilly J. Perrin of Chicago. Perrin was a conductor and accordingly, she used her typical scheme of claiming great wealth:
“She [claimed she] was heir to a large estate, and she was paying a New York lawyer $6,000 a year to look after it. Then she suggested that if [Perrin] wished to give up his place he might manage her estate.
The offer was accepted … Perrin was only obtaining $80 per month, and Mrs. Heyman had agreed to make his salary $2,000 a year. After Perrin had resigned his place, the ‘Queen’ began borrowing money from him to pay small debts. At least $1,038, had been obtained when Perrin insisted on entering upon the duties of his agency. The satisfaction that he obtained was her promise that when she came into possession of all her property through Mr. Robert Bonner, who, she said, was her guardian and executor of the will under which she was the heir, the money he had loaned her would be refunded and his duties as agent would begin. Perrin finally came to the conclusion that the woman was not to be believed, and, despairing of ever obtaining from her his money without compulsion, brought suit against her.”
More audacious scams by Bertha Heyman followed. She also swindled a Mrs. Schlarbaum of Staten Island and took another $5,000 from a T.W. Morris of New York after giving him a bogus draft for $13,000 on a Milwaukee bank. When she was finally arrested for larceny by two Pinkerton detectives, The Kansas City Times reported she described herself as a “wronged” and “injured woman.” The situation was further explained:
“Since her arrest she has been a prisoner only by name. She occupies a suite of apartments in the court house; has been attended by a maid; and is treated to carriage rides every day. She has been at many excursions, and spends much of her time in attendance at scenes of festivity in the city. To such an extent is this carried that she is called ‘The Princess’ by the residents of the village of Richmond. In conversation she is most plausible and graceful, and presents an air of injured innocence that induces many credulous person to believe she is really a wronged and persecuted woman.”
In October 1881 Bertha Heyman was tried for having obtained $500 from Morris by false pretenses and was convicted in five minutes. She then received a sentence of two years. However, just before she was sentenced, she ran up a bill with the dentist employed by the judge hearing the Morris case. When the dentist requested payment “she sent word that … [he] need not trouble himself about so trifling a sum, as she had $14,000,000 on deposit down-town, but could not spare the time to cut off the coupons.”
In 1883, despite being imprisoned, Bertha Heyman was able to conduct another scam. According to The Chicago Tribune, “[F]rom her cell in the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary she was able to communicate with a trustful German named Charles Karpe, in New York, and … secured from him nearly $1,000 upon like representations to those which had deceived Perrin and the unfortunate Mrs. Schlarbaum.” Apparently, Heyman also told Karpe that she was the owner of strong box and that it contained great riches consisting of bonds and jewelry. She claimed the box was stored away in a vault and she needed cash to pay liens for its storage. She told him that once it was in her possession, she would pay him back tenfold.
She also claimed she needed cash to bribe the prison warden so she could get a commutation of her sentence. Karpe therefore advanced her money several times. Of course, everything Bertha Heyman was telling Karpe was a lie and she ultimately fleeced him out of everything and made him a pauper. That was why newspapers reported in 1883:
“The history of [Bertha Heyman’s] exploits and adventures would fill a book. She is up to every device, stratagem, and trick that is calculated to deceive. She used to lodge at the leading hotels, and was always attended by a man servant and a maid. At the Windsor and the Brunswick she had elegant quarters. When plotting one of her swindles she would glibly talk about her dear friends … known for their wealth and social position. On such occasions it was not unusual for her maid or servant to bring in to her a valuable bouquet bearing the card and complements of Gould, Astor, or Vanderbilt. The florist from whom she procured the bouquets still retains exceedingly lively recollections of her as an undesirable customer. She possesses a wonderful knowledge of human nature, and can deceive those who consider themselves particularly shrewd in business matters.”
After scamming Karpe and being released from Blackwell Prison, Bertha Heyman went to live at the Hoffman House in New York. While there she committed more scams and was eventually tried and convicted in the Court of General Session on 22 August 1883. She received a sentence of five years for having swindling $87,000 from her victims and was sent to Sing Sing Prison. She was released from that prison on 30 March 1887.
Despite doing prison time, Heyman could not stay of trouble. Less than a year later, in 1888, a dispatch from San Francisco to New York stated that “‘the queen of crooks,’ has been operating among the Hebrew portion of [the San Francisco] … community with wonderful success.” However, this time she was using the name Bertha Stanley and was accompanied by her stepson, William ‘Willie’ H.M. Stanley. According to newspaper reports:
“They ran up large bills in the various stores, through the clever fashion they had of shopping in the company of some wealthy Hebrew. She had for a suitor a popular and wealthy young merchant whom she gave a check for $30,000 on the LaSalle bank for safe keeping, and he in return gave her a $500 diamond ring and other gems aggregating several thousand dollars in value. After Bertha left, the duped suitor wired the LaSalle bank and discovered that the check was worthless. … She is wanted here for forgery and counterfeiting.”
Heyman and her stepson were tracked to San Antonio, Texas, were they were arrested. Extradition papers were prepared, and she and Willie were returned to California by Officers James W. Gillin and John Parrotte. The group came by boat and upon docking in San Francisco the San Francisco Examiner gave the particulars:
“Bertha was treated considerately on the journey, no handcuffs being put on her. She and Willie, … were in remarkably good spirits from the time San Antonio was left until San Francisco was reached, and in the jail they showed not the least trace of dejection. … Two writs of habeas corpus were successively obtained and dismissed, the question in reference to the last one turning on the woman’s identity. William Gruhn, the deluded lover and expected bridegroom went to San Antonio and satisfied the Court on this point. … Bertha … objected strenuously to going [to San Francisco] but had no choice.”
As usual there was great conjecture over how someone like Bertha Heyman could so enthrall a man that he would willingly give her large amounts of money. The San Francisco Examiner explained her appeal while she was imprisoned:
“A sight of Bertha is necessary to let one perceive how a woman with so much flesh, and whose appearance has been often referred to as homely, could attract the attention and win the confidence of men. Her power lies in her eyes. They are brown, but of such a dark color they are bright enough to light up her entire countenance. She is not handsome, but she is not bad looking either, and accounts that have been given of her visage have been overdrawn. … There is not a tailor’s measure in the town that can encompass her ample form, and even Oscar Fisher, who is over 6 feet high, failed, it was rumored, to reach even half-way around her waist when he became her favored inamorata and her promised bridegroom. … Anyone with an eye for distances can readily perceive that the lady has passed her hugging days, but to one who has such a contempt for men as she this can occasion little regret.
Bertha’s massiveness in repose is not as effective as when she stands up. One finds himself involuntarily calculating whether more cloth is needed for the width than for the length of her garments when she is on her feet. When she moved to the bath, which the prison officials kindly let her have in the Receiving Hospital, the expressive contours of her person were studied by everyone in the jail. Yet she can carry herself without any unusual amount of effort.”
During her imprisonment, Bertha Heyman willingly talked to San Francisco reporters about the charges she was facing. She claimed she spent more money than she ever received and maintained that any man who was interested in her was really interested in her for her money. She and Willie also denied that Gruhn or anyone else had given them any money or any checks. In addition, Heyman stated that that she had no living husband and that she became Mrs. Stanley after she divorced Heyman and that she was never married to Karko.
A theatrical man, impresario Ned Foster of San Francisco, learned of Heyman and her antics. Thinking about her “gifts” he decided to make her a stage star and bailed her out jail. Furthermore, to promote her on stage career, cabinet photos were taken of her. The San Francisco Examiner reported:
“Her costume was back nun’s vailing dress, black hat and feather to match, gloves, fan and jewelry worn during her preliminary examination.
After a short delay two negatives were brought into the room, one a bust, and the other a three-quarter length picture. Both were good likenesses … These pictures will be sold at twenty-five cents … when the Queen makes her debut.”
In addition, large posters were placed around town prompting Heyman. The posters also attracted huge crowds. In fact, it was noted that people gathered around them all day long and discussed at great length their interest in seeing ‘Big Bertha’ on stage. When Heyman did finally appear, she created a scandal. Apparently, she was not shy about wearing flesh-colored tights and did so opposite actor Oofty Goofty, born Leonard ‘Leon’ Borchardt, who was a German sideshow performer.
Bertha Heyman was a huge hit on stage and off. That may be one reason why the criminal proceedings against her related to Gruhn fell apart. Moreover, during Heyman’s sensationalized trial Judge Murphy reported he was so besieged by courtroom onlookers he could barely make it to the bench. Although Heyman was found not guilty, when Willie met Judge Murphy in the courtroom, he was not so lucky. He was sentenced to six months at San Quentin and find $100.
The public found Bertha Heyman an intriguing character during her swindling heydays and they could not get enough of her on San Francisco stages where she appeared at such places as Woodword’s Gardens, Bella Union Theatre, or Cremorne Gardens. They also loved her when she toured and appeared in staged boxing matches where she knocked opponents out. Public fascination focused not only her enormous size and stage presence but also on her outlandish swindling exploits.
As to why she favored swindling to survive that can be discovered in her philosophy regarding life. Apparently, she was once quoted as saying:
“I take no pride in overveiling a fool. The moment I discover a man’s a fool, I let him drop. But I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned.’ It ministers to my intellectual pride.”
-  Buffalo Evening News, “Queen of Swindlers,” November 7, 1881, p. 11.
-  T. Byrnes, Professional Criminals of America (New York: Cassell & Company, 1886), p. 200.
-  K. Seagrave, Women Swindlers in America, 1860-1920 (McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2007), p. 161–62.
-  K. Seagrave. 2007, p. 161.
-  The Kansas City Times, “A Confidence Queen,” July 9, 1881, p. 2.
-  Chicago Tribune, “The Confidence Queen,” January 10, 1883, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  The Kansas City Times, p. 2.
-  Chicago Tribune, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Chattanooga Daily Times, “The Queen of Crooks,” April 1, 1888, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  The San Francisco Examiner, “Big Bertha Back,” June 4, 1888, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  The San Francisco Examiner, “Acting Her Life,” June 14, 1888, p. 8.
-  D. Shadel, Outstmarting the Scam Artists (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Publishers, 2012), p. 13.