The courtroom was crammed as the world’s richest man pushed through the throng of press photographers, blinking against the dazzling glare of camera flashlights, towards the trial of the century.

From humble beginnings in Dunfermline, he became a famous industrialist turned philanthropist who counted fellow multi-millionaires, royals and politicians in his well-heeled circle.

Across the court was a smooth-talking, highly intelligent and devious con woman, a drifter whose outrageous claim to be his illegitimate daughter lined her pockets to the tune of an eye-watering $60 million and brought a banking system to its knees.

When Andrew Carnegie, all 5ft of him with his snow-white beard, entered the Cleveland courtroom, everyone except the brazen Cassie Chadwick held their breath.

Carnegie, born in a humble weaver’s cottage in Dunfermline and whose steel empire had made him fabulously rich, was there to see for himself the woman who had tricked a string of intelligent men into believing her ludicrous claim: he was her father, and she was set to inherit all his fortune.

Chadwick, whose start in life was every bit as hard up as Carnegie’s, had used the story time and again to trick gullible bankers, lovers, husbands and anyone else she thought might help her amass what turned into an incredible fortune.

They had been conned into believing she would one day be rich enough to pay them back.

But Chadwick was nothing more than a fraud.

Eventually – 120 years ago this year - her lies would unravel when one suspicious businessman dared to ask for some of his $200,000 back.


Dunfermline Press: Dunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie amassed a fortune from his steel empireDunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie amassed a fortune from his steel empire (Image: free)

Her deception revealed a trail of devastated banks and horrified bankers who had used their own and their innocent customers’ money to fund Chadwick’s lavish lifestyle.

While they counted their losses, the boss of the Citizen’s National Bank of Oberlin, $800,000 out of pocket and with the bank forced into bankruptcy, would be so shattered by the humiliating experience this health disintegrated, and he dropped dead.

Carnegie had the title of the world’s richest man, and Chadwick took the crown: the greatest con woman in American history.

Her incredible knack for deceit was all the more remarkable given that it was an age when women were ‘second class’ citizens, neither permitted to vote, nor obtain money from bank loans.

Despite having started out with nothing, she took advantage of America’s ‘Gilded Age’ of immense economic growth when, it turned out, it was astonishingly easy to dupe trusting gentlemen far too polite to dare question a gentle woman’s word.

Swindling women like Chadwick will be the focus of a new BBC Radio Four series being developed by historian and broadcaster Lucy Worsley, which will feature some of history’s infamous female grifters and con women.

Dunfermline Press: Cassie Chadwick became known as the greatest con woman in American historyCassie Chadwick became known as the greatest con woman in American history (Image: Public domain)

Lady Swindlers follows her Lady Killers series which delved into murder, crimes of passion and lurid court cases, including the tale of Glasgow woman Madeleine Smith.

A well-to-do young lady, she had an illicit affair with a warehouse clerk 12 years her junior. When he threatened to expose letters which proved their affection, she was said to have poisoned him with arsenic.

The court case revelled in lurid details of their relationship before Smith was found not proven.

As well as uncovering more fascinating stories of female felons, the new series will offer a glimpse into women’s lives in the 19th and early 20th century: often airbrushed from history, court cases provide rich detail about the lives they led.

Read more: 

The quiet man of Scottish art and the search for his lost works

Scottish Parliament 25 years on: opening day remembered

Lottery windfall saves Mavisbank, Scotland's crumbling historic gem

Canadian-born Chadwick - aka Elizabeth Bigley - was a serial liar who had made numerous false claims in return for money by the time she arrived in Cleveland, Ohio.

She married a well-off doctor, who took pity on her after he broke the ‘news’ to her that the boarding house she was running – and claiming to be a respectable premises - was really a brothel.

As she settled into married life, she developed her audacious Carnegie claim.

Armed with a forged promissory apparently signed by Carnegie that suggested she would eventually inherit his fortune, she enticed bankers to hand over huge loans that she could never repay.

Over just eight years she obtained $2million – roughly $60million in today’s money – aided by the polite manners of the day that meant no-one would be so bold as to question Carnegie about her for fear of offending him.

As money poured in, she splashed out on diamond necklaces, a gold organ, grand pianos, 30 closets worth of clothes and filled her millionaire’s row mansion with art and fine furniture.

Dunfermline Press: Cassie Chadwick's 'Millionaire's Row' home in Euclid Avenue, Cleveland Cassie Chadwick's 'Millionaire's Row' home in Euclid Avenue, Cleveland (Image: Public domain)

Her deceit came to a head in 1904. With calls for money to be repaid growing louder, Carnegie issued a statement denying her claims.

It led to the so-called ‘trial of the century’, with the diminutive Carnegie face to face with his fake daughter, watched by the world’s press.

Chadwick was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. Two years later, on her 50th birthday, she died.

Carnegie, meanwhile, was so upset that he made generous donations to help students who had lost savings when the Cleveland bank collapsed.

Speaking on a History Unplugged podcast, William Hazelgrove, author of Greed in the Gilded Age: The Brilliant Con of Cassie Chadwick, said Chadwick showed ‘sociopath’ traits, with a brilliant ability to create complicated legal papers that were capable of tricking lawyers and financial experts.

She also seemed to share certain characteristics with Carnegie: “Carnegie was ruthless,” he says. “When he was working for the railroads and working his way up, he was privileged to inside stock information from telegraphs, and he used that to get inside traded stocks.

“If he did it today it would be illegal.

“He understood that collusion was a very powerful tool; he colluded with other men who had inside information, and he was amazed that he would get a stock dividend for doing nothing at all.

“You have this Scottish immigrant and this Canadian immigrant who come to America; both see a wide-open market. They both climb these hills, end up on ‘millionaires row’ but at the core there were probably more similarities than dissimilarities with this ruthless intent.”

Chadwick became world famous, but 30 years earlier Anne Bruce Sutherland became notorious across Scotland after being caught weaving elaborate stories to secure goods and services.

Her typical method saw her roll into town, take up residence at a property and set about securing goods and services from humble traders and loans on a promise she’d pay for them later.

In places like Broughty Ferry, she told her favourite story: she ran a scholastic institution in Rome, had a salary of £150 per annum, and that she had met his Holiness the Pope and kissed his ring.

Other tales narrated her philanthropic efforts, how she visited criminals in prisons and reformatories, or fake claims she was employed by London based Christian organisation.

She was 23 years old when she appeared in court in Dundee in 1872 on 17 charges of fraud and sentenced to nine months imprisonment.

Dunfermline Press: Historian Lucy Worsley's new series will explore tales of women swindlersHistorian Lucy Worsley's new series will explore tales of women swindlers

She may have got off lightly: for Alexandrina Askew, her lies and deceit would send her halfway across the world.

Born in Inverness, she was just 18 when she landed in court in Aberdeen. Having already served time for theft, she was ordered to be transported for “falsehoods, fraud and wilful imposition” in obtaining clothes.

She arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1845, one of 30 Scottish women on board the convict ship, Tory, for a seven-year sentence.

Their sentence complete, many created new life stories to conceal the truth about their backgrounds.

Alexandrina, apparently good looking and well-spoken, chose to weave a fabled life as the wife of a wealthy sheep and cattle farmer.

Often accompanied by her illegitimate son dressed in Highland costume, she would secure lodgings, pay a small deposit and then howl in anguish that she had lost her purse.

In a 19th century version of ‘dine and dash’, she’d accept hospitality from kind strangers before fleeing.

She may have acted with deceit but, according to Melbourne University Emeritus Professor Janet McCalman, who researched Alexandrina for her book, Vandemonians: “Alexandrina Grant was a success among Scottish convict women transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

“She lived into her ninth decade; was not a conspicuous drunkard; and married a free man, William Askew, who stayed with her.

“Few of the 1636 Scottish women transported to Van Diemen’s Land achieved anything like this ordinary triumph over poverty, stigma and marginalisation.”