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Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Matronly Malefactor

C.A. Asbrey

The Victorian female was seen by men as someone to be protected, as long as she remained strictly within the parameters dictated to them by society. They had to know their place; in the home, in the family, in society, and within the rigid class system. Most of all they had to be respectable, and those who appeared in any way compromised was generally fair game for men to prey upon. 

But it didn't always work like that in practice.  Many women found ways to  use those expectations. By maintaining an outwardly matronly or respectable front. One of those women was Sarah Emily Howe. We don't know an accurate birth date. It varies anywhere between 1820 to 1827. There are no photographs of Sarah, but she seems to have been unremarkable. Everyone who met her said how ordinary she seemed. We do know that before she embarked on her criminal masterpiece, she had been a fortune teller. She was rumoured to have married a man called James Solomon as a very young woman, but nobody has any dates or records of it, just a whisper of the marriage being annulled due to miscegenation. A second marriage was said to be short-lived, and left her a widow. Some say there were two more marriages, but nobody really knows the truth of it.

We do know that her marriage to Florimund L. Howe in Manchester, New Hampshire, gave her the name she was to bear for most of her life. It may, or may not, have been a marriage of convenience, as she would not generally be prosecuted for some crimes if she was acting under the command of her husband.  Whatever the truth, he seems to have disappeared, leaving her to run a dodgy line of fake clairvoyance scams before she embarked on a trail of  fraudulent leave applications. Sarah basically applied for loans over and over again, securing numerous sums against the same collateral. Her conviction was overturned on appeal.    

Like many inveterate fraudsters, that reprieve only made her bolder. This time her crime took advantage of the social and economic changes of the era. By the 1870s the USA was rebuilding after the war, and the second Industrial Revolution resulted in previously unprecedented growth. Mass immigration, and  increasing urbanization, changed the social structures of extended families living where people had lived for centuries. It meant that the shifty and dishonest could infiltrate the unwary without their reputations preceding them, and that new banking products made parental advice dated and limited.   

Money was flowing, among white people anyway,  and even women started to have their own money. Developments in women's rights from the 1860s allowed women to claim land in their own names, take out loans, keep their own money, work in previously closed occupations, and in many places she could even get custody of her children in divorce in some circumstances.
Sarah decided she wanted a part of this money, but she wasn't prepared to work for it - not in any conventional sense of the word anyway.  Sarah opened The Ladies' Deposit Company, and offered a bank for women which she claimed was backed by Quaker philanthropists. It offered mainly single women, housekeepers, widows, schoolteachers, and suchlike, an 8% interest rate. She didn't need to advertise. Word of mouth brought her more business than she could handle.  She had plans to expand from her office in Bedford, Massachusetts, to New York and Philadeliphia.  She gathered $250,000 from 800 women, an equivalent of $13 million at today's rates. 

In reality, Howe was running a pyramid scheme. Today's investors were paying dividends for yesterday's investors - the classic Ponzi scheme, but this was forty years before the male eponymous thief got into the game. Sarah dutifully paid the interest before the press noticed that a woman had encroached on typically male domain. The Boston Daily Advertiser wasn't impressed to find a woman in such a role, especially one with such a  chequered past. When they were turned away for being men, one reporter returned dressed as a woman. It ran a story on September 25, 1880 and revealed her as a fraud. 

That started a run on the bank. They returned $80,000 in just one day. On Monday, October 4th, Mrs. Howe announced a suspension of payments. On Thursday, October 14th her home and all bank property was seized by the courts. On Saturday, October 16th, Mrs. Howe was arrested. “The Nation” magazine called it the first “conviction by newspaper. Even through this period women were still lining up to hand over their money.   

Around 1,500 women had deposited money in the bank, but only three hundred got their money back. Nine hundred filed claims, but got nothing. Perhaps another two hundred were too destitute, or too embarrassed to even file a claim. Sara Howe protested all through her trial that she genuinely believed the venture was underwritten by a charity, and that she was an innocent dupe. She claimed she could easily pay all the debts, was sentenced to only three years in prison.   

A true recidivist, Sarah wasn't finished. Upon her release she set up again, this time paying 7%. She had learned from her mistakes, and disappeared with the money when the deposits reached $50,000. After that 'Mrs. Elmer ' set up in Chicago, under the umbrella of The Ladies' Provident Aid. She made a run for it when recognized, and appeared in New Brunswick, Canada, trying the same scam once more. She disappeared once more when the press took an interest. 

She eventually returned to Boston and told fortunes until her death. We'll never know where she spent all the money, as she died destitute in January of 1892. There are a few takeaways from Sarah Howe's case. 

Charles Ponzi
Firstly, that the crime was named after Charles Ponzi -  even though the first big cases were perpetrated by women. Sarah Howe, and even earlier in Germany by Adele Spitzeder. Another woman did the same in Madrid.  Even then it wasn't new. Such schemes feature in Martin Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit. Many railroads were built, canals dug, and fortunes won and lost on similar schemes in the 1840s and earlier. What was previously termed as 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', became worthy of a snappy name when important, rich men were conned.
Secondly, the way Sarah Howe was treated by the press. She was described as “short, fat, very ugly, and so illiterate as to be unable to write an English sentence, or to speak without making shameful blunders” by the Banker’s Magazine. The Boston Herald claimed that Howe was “nearly as deaf as a post” and cross-eyed.  I think you can take those descriptions with a huge pinch of salt, as the Howe wrote, "The fact is, my dear man, you really know nothing of the basis, means or methods on which our affairs are conducted, and when shut up in the meshes of your savings-bank notions, you attempt an exposition of the impossibility of our existence, you boggle and flounder about like a bat in a fly trap.”  No such attacks were made on male fraudsters. Nobody described Howe as anything other than ordinary before the press got involved, and had she been so obviously impaired, she would have lacked the credibility to be a successful fraudster.  Fraud was seen to be the domain of the master criminal when men were duped, but women were seen as easily fooled. It seemed incredible to the Victorian mind that a woman's character couldn't be read externally. In fairness, they thought the same about men. But that's a whole other blog post. 



Almost everyone woke simultaneously, jolted by the sound of the brakes grinding, and the engine puffing and huffing in protest at an unscheduled stop. Jake’s hand reached for his gun even before he was fully conscious.

“No!” The cry came from Jeffrey, the younger steward, who staggered into the aisle in shock.

Nat strode out of the curtained area, fastening his trousers. “What’s wrong?”

“Mrs. Hunter,” Jeffrey stammered. “She’s dead.”

Nat dragged the curtain aside, revealing the tiny-framed woman lying in a pool of blood. He kneeled and scrutinized her. “Bring a lamp.” He reached out and touched her face. “She’s alive. She’s warm. Fetch Philpot. He’s a doctor.”

The Englishman wandered groggily forward. “I’m not a doctor. I’m a—”

“We don’t care what you are, Philpot,” Jake growled. “You’re the nearest thing we’ve got. You’ve got medical training. Get in there.”

Mrs. Hunter’s eyes flickered weakly open. “My moonstone. Miss Davies—she took it.” She fell back into insensibility.

Jake frowned and his keen blue eyes looked up and down the railway car at the passengers crowded in the aisle in various stages of undress. “Where is Miss Davies? Have you seen her, Abi? You’re bunkin’ with her.”

“No, she isn’t here.” Abigail frowned. “I haven’t seen her for ages. She wasn’t even in her bunk when I changed Ava.”

Malachi padded briskly up to the group, pushing various butlers out of his way as they milled around. “Oh, my goodness! The poor woman.”

Jake nodded. “Yeah, Philpot’s seein’ to her. She’s still alive. Why’ve we stopped? We ain’t at a station.”

Malachi quickly fastened a stray button. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I have been informed that a rock fall has blocked the tracks. We will dig it out and be on our way as soon as possible.”

“A rock fall? So, how far to a station?” Nat asked. “We’re high in the mountains, miles from anywhere.”

There was another ominous rumble somewhere above them and the carriage shook. The roof thundered with the thumps and clattering of stones and gravel pounding the roof. Worried glances rose upward while Abigail hunched protectively over her baby. The noise gradually stopped, but for an occasional patter of settling gravel and stones shifting above them.

The head steward’s brow crinkled into a myriad of furrows. “I’d best go and check that out.”

Nat’s brows knotted into a frown. “We’re miles from anywhere? So where has Maud Davies gone?” “With the moonstone?”

Jake strode over to the door and looked out at the huge feathery flakes drifting down from the heavy skies onto an expansive mountainous vista. “There’s nowhere to go.”


  1. Women, in reality, were not what most would expect. For that reason I love stories like the one you tell from the newspaper clipping. Such fun. Doris

  2. Thanks, Doris. Indeed. The most interesting women have always been those who refuse to conform, whether for good or ill.

  3. What a fascinating, and sad, story. A pity that something which could have helped women -- whose opportunities were so limited at the time -- was a scam. I'd rather like to see Abi take her on!

    1. Isn't she just so venal? And gutsy enough to write letters to take down male critics too. I wish there had been a photograph of her.

  4. Seems that Sarah was addicted to schemes, fraud, and deception. Still, one has to admire her persistence even after a conviction and prison term. I guess she deserved to spend her final days telling fortunes and living in poverty, but I have to hand it to her, she didn't lack for invention and energy in taking other people's money.
    I don't mind men like Charles Ponzi getting credit for shady deals and scams even though, apparently, women were the brains behind those schemes.
    I enjoyed your excerpt from "In All Innocence" and the danger the train and its passengers seem about to experience from a rock fall. And where IS Maud with that Moonstone?
    All the best to you, C.A.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. I find myself attracted to Sarah, and think she'd be a great character for a book. I think easy money is too tempting to give up. It's always amazed me how often criminals keep doing the same thing, despite getting caught.

  5. I always enjoy reading your posts, Christine. Crime is deliciously fascinating, isn't it, especially when it's not directed at us and we simply read about it. I'm addicted to crime shows, not because of the grisly crime, but the investigation and final conclusion. It seems only logical that Mrs. Howe would be reviled as being fat, ugly and stupid--there was nothing stupid about her to pull off her daring scams. She was a skillful actress. I so enjoy your posts and your books.

  6. Thank you so much. Your replies make them worth researching and posting.