Madame Rachel: A Victorian Era Con Artist

Sarah Rachel Russell was born into a Jewish theatrical family around 1814 and became known as Madame Rachel, an infamous criminal and con artist who operated in Victorian London. She was purportedly cousin to musician Henry Russell, an English pianist, baritone singer, and composer. She was poor and illiterate and grew up in London’s East End using her street smarts to survive which also landed her in jail because she was not always on the up and up in her dealings. In fact, in 1854, according to the Peterhead Sentinel and General Advertiser for Buchan District:

“[S]he appeared as a witness to prove an alibi for a well-known character name Belasco, a fighting man, who was charged with manslaughter, and she was committed to Newgate by Lord Chief Baron Pollock, before whom the case was tried, for perjury, the evidence given by her in support of the defence of the alibi being palpably false. There were, however, difficulties in … establishing that charge, and after she had been in Newgate about three weeks she was set at liberty.”[1]

Madame Rachel. Public domain.

Besides the occasional police trouble Sarah’s personal life involved several men. She first married a Manchester assistant chemist and then wed Jacob Moses in 1844. Exactly why her first marriage ended is unclear but her second husband deserted her. She then pursued another relationship and that one appeared luckier because her third relationship was with Philip Levinson (also known as Levy or Leverson). She lived with him, used his surname, and bore him six children.

Around the time she met Levinson, she was running a stall and selling fried fish and hot baked potatoes in the slum area of Clement St. Danes. She also supplemented her income by dealing in second-hand clothes and may have even worked as a procuress for a brothel owner named David Belasco. Nonetheless, at some point she fell ill, and her gorgeous black hair began to fall out.

She was desperate to save her beautiful locks and saw several doctors hoping to find a tonic that would restore her hair to its once previous thickness and luster. Eventually one tonic worked and so she decided to go into business selling hair restoratives. Unfortunately, she had no reputation in the field and as there was nothing special about her, she decided the best way to establish herself, acquire a good reputation, and obtain clients was to link herself to someone who was already famous.

That someone was the French actress, Elisabeth Félix who was better known as Mademoiselle Rachel. She had been mistress to several well-known men, including Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, the illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet, it was not Mademoiselle Rachel’s questionable relationships that brought her fame. Rather she became famous once she appeared onstage in La Vendéenne in January 1837 at the Théâtre du Gymnase. From there her reputation as a tragedienne increased and became more solidified after she achieved great stage success in London in 1841. Unfortunately, her health was not good and after suffering for a time she died on 4 January 1858 at the age of 36 from tuberculosis.

Madame Rachel - Mademoiselle Rachel

Mademoiselle Rachel. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

With Mademoiselle Rachel dead, Sarah thought it would be a good thing to link herself to the actress and muddied the waters by calling herself Madame Rachel. She then opened a “woman’s headquarters” that involved selling beauty preparations she created. However, Sarah’s cosmetic business also depended on quackery, blackmail, and bullying and according to author Charles Kingston, she also “relied principally on her knowledge of the weaknesses of her sex, and those would-be clients whose financial position obviously precluded them from adding to her profits she skillfully used to advertise her merits.”[2]

Sarah or rather Madame Rachel’s remarkable marketing skills involved such things as her giving her products exotic sounding names and describing them as exclusive or rare. She also began consistently advertised them in newspapers, women’s magazines, court journals, and theatrical publications. For instance, one advertisement that ran on 3 March 1859 and appeared in the Morning Post did so under the title “Beautiful Women.” It stated:

“Madame RACHEL’S BLANCHINETTA and ARAB BLOOM POWDER can only be obtained at Madame Rachel’s residence, 480, New Oxford-street (opposite Mudie’s Library). All preparations, notwithstanding there may bear Madame Rachel’s name and labels, if obtained elsewhere than at the above address, are spurious and decidedly injurious.”[3]

A mere two months later it appeared as if Madame Rachel had achieved overnight success because by May she was claiming that she was supplying her cosmetics to some of Europe’s most elite personages. She also began to suggest that there was some sort of familial link to herself and Mademoiselle Rachel. An example of this appeared in an advertisement she ran in May 1859:

“Madame Rachel had the honour of supplying and furnish the Elegant Cabinet Toilet to Her Majesty the Suntana, by whom her costly Arabian Preparations have been so fully appreciated that another order has been received by Madame R., whose success in restoring and beautifying the complexion, imparting a bewitching brilliancy to the eyes, removing all defects from the skin and teeth, and adding fresh grace and luxuriance to the hair, has been acknowledged by most of the crowned heads of Europe and the Aristocracy of this country. Madame Rachel, as being a near kinswoman of the late lamented Tragedian of that name, manufactured all the costly preparations for, and used by, that distinguished actress.”[4]

Madame Rachel’s cosmetics and toilet requisites supposedly relied on exclusive Moroccan items like “Desert Water” or “Liquid Dew.” She also claimed to have purchased this ingredient at great expense and had exclusive rights to its use. Moreover, she began to allege that she was selling her unique cosmetic preparations to women like Queen Victoria, who of course would have never used them.

Beside claiming that her preparations were free from “deadly leads” and “other injurious matters,” she also made other remarkable claims about her products. She maintained that the items she sold were the “purest, rarest, and most fragrant productions.”[5] She also guaranteed her clients that they would see miraculous transformations in their skin and receive everlasting youth if they used them. Yet, despite all her outlandish claims her creations later proved to be worthless having been created from nothing more than ordinary water and bran.

Among the many cosmetic creations that Madame Rachel sold at her salon were various washes, an “Armenian Liquid” and a “Magnetic Rock Dew Water” that purportedly removed wrinkles, “Liquid Flowers” and “Herbs” for the bath, and a soothing balm. She also produced complexion preparations that included disinfecting powders and a “Circassian Powder” for the hands and nails, as well as makeup that included “Indian Coal” for the eyes and “Chinese Leaves” for the lips and cheeks. Mouthwashes and dentifrices were also sold promising bright, sparkling teeth and fresh breath. Hair preparations, creams for the face, and numerous soaps and perfumes could also be purchased at her salon.

Madame Rachel went further and maintained that her exclusive products were applied by “enamelling the face.” This was process where clients were painted up to have perfect porcelain looking skin that involved Madame Rachel cleaning their skin, removing any hair or fuzz, and applying a cream, all of which was achieved partly through “the use of the Arabian Baths, composed of pure extracts of the liquid of flowers, choice and rare herbs, and other preparations equally harmless and efficacious.”[6]

At the time when Madame Rachel began hawking these beauty preparations the use of cosmetics was frowned upon by Victorian women. In fact, they could not openly use them without facing public scorn. However, that did not stop women from privately seeking a solution as many were desperate to maintain or enhance their beauty and it was about this time that Madame Rachel’s advertisements began appearing.

Her advertisements made outlandish claims promising women they could achieve everlasting beauty. Because Victorian women feared they would be discovered using cosmetics they needed someone willing to keep their secrets. As Madame Rachel was constantly advertising her beauty preparations, she appeared to be just the woman they needed to help them and because she ran a salon, they could visit her in secret without their friends knowing. Thus, before long heavily veiled women were appearing at her salon for clandestine consultations and private beauty appointments.

Madame Rachel soon learned that she did not have to sell fake beauty preparations to obtain her client’s money. She could easily blackmail them. That was because the women that visited her wanted to preserve their anonymity and keeping quiet for a fee was what she could offer them. Yet, that was not her only way to scam customers because she also decided that she could easily bilk wealthy customers out of their property and money.

She was sure that her clients would not sue her because they would have to face public exposure. One customer that Madame Rachel therefore targeted was one her regular clients, Mary Tucker Borradaile, the tittering widow of Colonel Borradaile, whom she had first met in May or June 1864 when Borradaile called at Madame Rachel’s salon and purchased some cosmetics.

Borradaile faithfully continued her beauty visits. Eventually at one appointment Madame Rachel gave her a 24-page book she had written titled Beautiful For Ever. The book explained her beauty philosophy and offered tips on how women could achieve eternal beauty. Madame Rachel also then suggested that Borradaile be made “beautiful for ever.” Unfortunately, to do so was expensive.

It would cost Borradaile £1,000 to have everlasting beauty and so she hesitated. To encourage Borradaile to shell out the £1,000 Madame Rachel told her that a nobleman, Lord Ranelagh, was interested in her and wanted to marry her. Madame Rachel then organized a brief meeting between the two. Of course, Lord Ranelagh knew nothing of the fraud and later maintained that he did not know Borradaile, never had any intentions of marrying her, never requested any money from her, and never wrote her any letters.

After Borradaile discovered the scam and realized that she had been bilked out of her life savings, she decided the public scorn was worth exposing Madame Rachel for the fraud she had committed against her. Borradaile therefore took action to retrieve her lost property amounting to between £4,000 to £5,000. Madame Rachel was thus arrested and faced trial in August 1868.

Madame Rachel

Madame Rachel’s trial. Courtesy of Harvard Library.

Madame Rachel was charged with using “false and fraudulent” pretenses to obtain a large amount of money and property from Borradaile. Her three-day trial garnered enormous public interest while also generating great fear by some of her patrons that they might be exposed. However, there was also an entertainment factor because according to the Cardiff Times, “[E]ach day the court has been crowded with listeners expecting to catch a glimpse of aristocratic depravity or middle-class folly.”[7] The “aristocratic depravity” or the “middle-class folly” was aptly demonstrated when Borradaile testified:

“I think the book mentioned something about the sum of one thousand guineas being required before a lady could be made beautiful for ever. (Laughter.) I understood from her that it was necessary I should be made ‘beautiful for ever’ before I was married to the rich and good man she had introduced me to, and who, of course, I understood was Lord Ranelagh. I did not know how the process of enamelling or beautifying was to continue. (A laugh.) I did take more than a hundred baths by her direction. … She always said that I must do as she told me.”[8]

Lord Ranelagh also testified at trial. He maintained that he had indeed been to Madame Rachel’s but he maintained that he knew nothing of Borradaile and had only given her his card when Madame Rachel introduced them. He stated under oath:

“My name is Thomas Heron Jones—I have been frequently at Madame Rachel’s shop—I never authorized her to use my name in any way as representing a desire or intention on my part to marry Mrs. Borradaile—I never authorized Madame Rachel, or any person, to request the loan of 10l. from her—I made no representation on the subject of jewels, or desired that it should be made; nothing of the kind—I never desired that I should be considered to pass by the name of William or Edward—I am very anxious to see the letter stated to bear my cypher—I had no paper with my arms upon it, if I have any paper, it is with the direction of the street and my monogram—I have a monogram with two R’s reversed and the coronet, and if I had been in the habit of writing to Mrs. Borradaile or Madame Rachel, they would have known the correct one.”[9]

Having heard the evidence, the jury debated for more than four hours. When they returned, they were deadlocked and unable to reach a verdict. A second trial ensued with the case being retried on 21 September 1868. This time Madame Rachel was found guilty after a mere fifteen minutes. She was then sentenced to five years of penal servitude. She served nine months at the Millbank Prison where she picked oakum and was then transferred to Brixton where she served the remainder of her sentence before being released in 1872.

Once free Madame Rachel showed that she had learned nothing from her imprisonment. Soon after her release she resumed committing fraud and in 1878, she was once again arrested and tried, this time for “unlawfully obtaining from Cecilia Maria Pearse two necklaces and other articles by false pretences.”[10] Once again she was sentenced to five years imprisonment but this time, she served out her sentence at Woking Prison.

Madame Rachel

Madame Rachel. Author’s collection.

It had been reported that at trial Madame Rachel was “weak” and “ill” and when she entered the Woking Prison on 15 July 1878 the medical staff there noted that she was in “indifferent” in health. Four days later she was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with catarrh. She then began to suffer from other health issues that included rheumatism, heart disease supervened, and dropsy before she died on 12 October 1880. Of her death The Illustrated Police News reported:

“[Madame Rachel] died at 5:30 on Tuesday morning. She did not complain … on the contrary, she expressed herself grateful for the attention she had received. Eliza Thomas, one of the prison matrons, said that the deceased died in her presence on the 12th inst., after a serious illness of several week’s duration. The Coroner summed up the evidence and the jury returned a verdict that the deceased died by the visitation of God, from dropsy.”[11]  

She was buried in the Willesden Jewish Cemetery without fanfare and with a headstone. Interestingly, this is the same cemetery where Sir George Lewis, 1st Baronet was buried. He was instrumental in prosecuting the case against Madame Rachel for fraud in 1868.

Sir George Lewis. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Peterhead Sentinel and General Advertiser for Buchan District, “Conviction of Madame Rachel,” October 2, 1868, p. 4.
  • [2] C. Kingston, Remarkable Rogues (London: John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd., 1921), p. 64.
  • [3] Morning Post, “Beautiful Women,” March 3, 1859, p. 4.
  • [4] Lady’s Own Paper, “The Toilet – Beautiful Women,” May 28, 1859, p. 355.
  • [5] S. R. Levison, The Extraordinary Life and Trial of Madame Rachel (London, 1868), p. v.
  • [6] Ibid., p. v.
  • [7] Cardiff Times, “Madame Rachel,” October 3, 1868, p. 3.
  • [8] The Morning Post, “The Trial of Madame Rachel,” September 23, 1868, p. 3.
  • [9]Sarah Rachel Leverson Deception: fraud,” The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Illustrated Police News, “Death of Madame Rachel,” October 23, 1880, p. 2.

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