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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 August 2008

The Lady is a Fraud . . .

The heroine of my new book, A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, is a fraud. Emma Jensen needs a new identity in order to gamble her meager inheritance into a self-sustaining annuity. And by gamble, I mean literally. Emma has a gift for risk and numbers, and she means to mine the pockets of London’s gentleman for her funds. She can’t frequent gambling parties as an unmarried gentlewoman, so she concocts an alias: the Dowager Lady Denmore.

Now, the ton is a relatively small group of people, so how to let her pull this off realistically? Everybody knew everybody, or at least knew of everyone.

First, I tried to use as much common sense as possible. Emma’s own father had been the ninth Baron Denmore. When he died, the title reverted to her great-uncle, and Emma reverted to him as well. After living with him for years, she knows him well enough to tell stories of his youth that even his old friends wouldn’t question. And her uncle was garden-mad in his old age. He no longer traveled or socialized, and no longer even wrote letters to anyone other than fellow rose breeders. So when Emma appears in London, claiming to be his young widow, it seems perfectly logical to those who once knew him. When he inherited the title, of course he would’ve felt obligated to marry and try for an heir.

But she needs to be sure not to run into anyone from her area of Cheshire. And she can’t risk running into the new Lord Denmore, who’d recognize her story as a lie right away. So Emma travels to London in October, when most of the ton have retired to their country estates. She finds lodging, introduces herself to one of her uncle’s old friends, and begins to make the rounds. The few gentlemen left in London are bored and restless... and perfectly amenable to a few games of chance with a lovely young widow.

Despite all my careful planning, I still felt a bit uneasy. Could this really be done? If so, it must have been done before. I headed to the University of Utah to look for books about charlatans.

I found a few books, but most of them seemed to be about Americans. Funny, huh? Even the hoaxes involving fake lords and ladies starred resourceful Brits who arrived in the US and declared themselves noble. Who could resist such a perfect opportunity?

But keep in mind that a truly successful hoax would never have been discovered, so it does make research a bit sketchy. Still, I was starting to get desperate, so I checked out a couple of encyclopedic collections of hoax stories and skimmed each and every story individually. Finally, I got a few hits with HOAXES AND SCAMS by Carl Sifakis (1993).

Charlatan #1: Byron’s Illegitimate Son
A man arrived in London in the 1840’s, claiming to be the illegitimate son of Lord Byron. George Gordon De Luna Byron claimed to have been a major with the East India Company. This is a pretty brazen lie, as you’d expect him to run into SOMEONE who would know he’d never been with the Company. Despite being ignored by Byron’s family, George remained in London for years, trying to get himself recognized as legitimate. One must assume that at least some people believed his claims, as he sold alleged letters from his father to support himself. (These were later proved forged.) At the very least, he moved about freely and didn’t get himself arrested. He did not decamp until 1852... sailing for America, of course.

Funny enough, an online search revealed this tidbit from the Daily Southern Cross, June 16, 1862 edition: The author mentions “A queer one, calling himself Captain George Gordon de Luna Byron, who is said and believed by many of his acquaintances — though he does not claim it himself — to be the son of the noble English poet.” Never give up. Never surrender.

Charlatan #2: Lord Gordon-Gordon
This guy’s got a long, colorful story, the majority of which takes place after he arrives in - you guessed it - America in 1868. But he needed a little con to get him started on his journey. He started in good old England by establishing himself as “Lord Glencairn” and ingratiating himself with the local clergy who were excited to tout their relationship with a grand lord. He built this identity for months before conning a London society jeweler out of 25,000 pounds. I gather from further research that the jeweler was suspicious at the time of the deal, but hesitant to push too far and insult a man who MIGHT be a Scottish lord. Gordon-Gordon went on to swindle money from all sorts of Americans and nearly started a war between Minnesota and Canada. (Ha!) The London jeweler later recognized him from descriptions in the international press, and Lord Gordon-Gordon was finally caught in his own web and shot himself in the head.

Charlatan #3: John Hadfield (1770’s to 1803)
This is my favorite story, because this guy just couldn’t leave well enough alone. John Hadfield did make it to America at first (there’s clearly something in the water here.), where he married the niece of the marquis of Granby. But he deserted her - the first in a long line of deserted wives - and sailed back to England to live as a bachelor. He ran up huge debts using the names of people related to his wife, knowing they wouldn’t have him thrown in jail. Then he got another relative - a duke! - to pay off all those debts to salvage his wife’s honor.

It was a bad move on the duke’s part. Hadfield kept up his impersonations and had to be bailed out at least one more time. The third time, Hadfield was thrown in jail. Still, he landed on his feet and gained the sympathies of a rich widow whom he married after getting out of prison. Two years later, he moved back to London as a bachelor, though he was engaged to yet a third woman at the time.

In London, he posed as a wealthy (and real) colonel and married a renowned debutante in a huge society wedding. He was exposed as a fraud three days later (duh!) and left his third wife behind. He was caught and hung in 1803. Unfortunately, his latest bride was pregnant at the time.

Whew! That guy was insanely bold. Not only did he sometimes impersonate ACTUAL people who had ACTUAL friends, but he himself was known among society by his real in-laws. No wonder he got caught.

I think what I discovered in my research is that the key to pulling off a hoax in England was to make it short and sweet. Emma Jensen wasn’t trying to swindle her way into a marriage. She wasn’t setting herself up for a lifetime of lies. She just needed to make a little money before disappearing for good, so I think her deception would have been more than possible. I’m not sure her ruse would have ever been noticed if not for an unwise affiliation with a notorious duke. Those torrid affairs do tend to draw attention...

You’ll have to read the book to learn what happens. *wink*

Thank you so much to all the Hoydens for inviting me to visit. It feels good to be back! Do any of you have good stories of period imposters?

8 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Victoria! I think the most famous one is of course that of Princess Caraboo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Caraboo,http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2007/11/scandalous-hoax-of-princess-caraboo.html ). And then the "Napoleon of Crime" Adam Worth who stole the Gainsborough portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Yes, there DID seem to be a lot of foreign princes and princesses around! I was specifically looking for someone British, trying to pass themselves off as a long time member of society. But there were a TON (no pun intended) of other kinds of scams the British fell for like crazy. Anything involving foreigners or ancient artifacts or deposed (is that a word?) French royalty seemed to have gone over well. *g*

8:34 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post, Vicki!

I've got a book that's all about a man returning from Australia in the 1840s claiming to be the long lost heir to a title and fortune . . . sadly I'm blanking on the title and I can't get to my Shefari page from work. I do remember that one of the things that outs him as an imposter is the lack of a tattoo that he and all his friends got while they were boys at school (Eton I think). I loved the fact that his established tattooing in England during the Regency (c. 1815).

I think Heyer’s The Masqueraders is a fabulous example of a book about practiced imposters (and just how someone might prove who they really are). Now I’m really dying to start Vicki’s book. Damn.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I was about to mention Princess Caraboo,too -- but I got beaten to the punch. There was an excellent article on her, complete with fabulous images, in the Jane Austen's Regency World magazine a few issues back. They may put back issues online after a certain period of time, so it would be worth a look. The magazine is the glossy publication put out by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.

I'd never heard of the charlatans you mentioned, Vicki, so it was wonderful to "discover" them from your terrific post!

My father is a lawyer and several decades ago he represented some woman claiming to be Princess something-or-other (I remember the name but not the spelling; she was Continental European, or claimed to be); and she made a practice of phoning society people at the last minute and announcing herself over the phone by using her title ... "This is Princess [XX]. Were you expected me for dinner this evening?"

Well, the society folks (or their staff who answered the phone) were too embarrassed to say no, so this "Princess" got herself a lot of free meals.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Vicki. We must include the "Anastasia" impersonator on this list---the poor woman.

I think she was somewhat demented in the end, and really believed she was Anastasia, having lived the hoax so long. ;-)

10:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Kathrynn for mentioning Anna Anderson. I find her story incredibly fascinating. I was always on the fence about whether or not I believed that she was Anastasia. Of course, the DNA testing when the remains of the Romanov's were found proved that she wasn't, but she fooled a lot of people for a long time.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Vicki! (And it makes me even more intrigue to read your book). Stories about people masquerading as other people have so much wonderful tension and conflict. One of my favorite writers, Robert Goddard, has a great book (blanking on the title, it's a Victorian setting)in which a man who has been missing for years reappears. Some of his family embrace him, but some believe he's an impostor. The truth isn't clear until the end of the book (with lots of twists and turns along the way). In my mom's and my first book, the heroine posed as a widow so she could chaperone her sisters and pretended to have been married to a soldier friend of her brother's who had died in the Napoleonic Wars. Only then, late in the book, it turns out he isn't really dead...:-).

10:53 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I forgot about the story of Martin Guerre, which I had thought was just a movie, and a bad remake with Jodie Foster, and an even worse musical, but it turns out to be a true story.

Thanks for the book rec, Tracy, it sounds really interesting. I'll have to look it up on Amazon.com

5:03 AM  

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