Thérèse Humbert concocted some very convoluted schemes.
Thérèse Humbert concocted some very convoluted schemes. Sarah Ferone

Everyone loves the story of a good grift, from brilliant ruse to inevitable downfall. This week, we’re ushering in the spring of the swindle by highlighting the stories of the greatest con women in history. Previously, we heard about Barbara Erni and her very special trunk and Madame Rachel’s dangerous cosmetics.

Thérèse Humbert built an empire, acquired a castle, and owned a rather distasteful but expensive leech hat, all through invented schemes so torturously convoluted that no one could understand them enough to prove them wrong.

In 1856, Thérèse Daurignac was born into a peasant family in Toulouse, France. Her father was a verified kook who spent his days studying alchemy and ranting about noble ancestors or hidden inheritances. Neighbors often spotted him running around their fields in thunderstorms with a magic wand, as he claimed he could control the weather, according to Hilary Spurling’s biography La Grande Thérèse: The Greatest Scandal of the Century. It seems that a young Thérèse got her first ideas from her fanciful father, who warded off would-be creditors by showing them a locked chest that he claimed held legal documents that could incontrovertibly prove his wealth.

Humbert pulled off her first scam when she married her first cousin, Frédéric Humbert, the son of the mayor. (It was very appropriate to marry cousins back then, particularly if they were related to the mayor.) They met while Thérèse worked as a laundry-maid in Frédéric’s home, where she wooed him with tales of a castle she supposedly inherited from the wealthy lover of her dead mother. Though Frédéric may have started out as a mark, he soon became a willing accomplice when she used this very fake castle—she called it the Chateau de Marcotte—as collateral for a very real bank loan, which allowed the Humberts to move into a real castle of their own, according to Spurling’s book.

But Thérèse’s master scam occurred, so she said, in 1879, when she boarded a train to discover a man having a heart attack in the adjacent compartment. Upon being revived by her smelling salts, the man said he was an American millionaire named Robert Henry Crawford and that he would be forever in her debt. Just two years later, she said, she received a letter naming her sole beneficiary of his will, which stated that his family fortune should remain in a sealed safe until Thérèse’s younger sister Marie was old enough to marry one of Crawford’s nephews. Thérèse kept this document in a lockbox in one of her handful of Parisian apartments, along with three other separate wills that each detailed some oddly specific filial requirement—and each of which, coincidentally, happened to leave Thérèse with an enormous fortune.

The wily Thérèse told her bankers that if they would just lend her six million francs, she would axe the Crawford nephews out of the will, inherit a hundred million francs, and pay her them all back with considerable interest, Spurling writes. They, absurdly enough, agreed.

And so Thérèse lived an unbelievably posh life in an apartment on 65 Avenue de la Grande Armée, where the lavatory brushes had pink satin bows and her famed lockbox was polished once a week. Thérèse entertained the snobs of Paris, welcoming presidents and prime ministers in her customarily enormous hats, heaped high with feathers and fake fruit, according to Spurling’s book. One of her hats quite famously resembled a giant leech, slurping away at her coiffed hair.

When her web of claims came into question, Thérèse had her two brothers impersonate the two Crawford nephews (with horrible American accents, of course) in an actual court of law, Spurling writes. The ruse finally collapsed there, when one fed-up lawyer asked where the Crawford brothers lived and Thérèse replied “1302 Broadway”—a laughably vague address for America. In 1902, the Humberts fled to Spain, and the State Prosecutor seized Thérèse’s lockbox for a very public opening. Before nearly 10,000 people, he lifted the lid to find an old newspaper, an Italian coin, and one trouser button.

Needless to say, the Humberts were arrested and sentenced to five years’ solitary confinement with hard labor. The 52-year-old Thérèse was released from prison in Rennes in 1908, and her husband was released from a prison in Melun the same year. The two promptly disappeared from history as if, like the inheritance, they never existed in the first place.