You’ve ruined me but I’m not sure you’re a fraud.
C. T. Beckwith
Beckwith was the President of the Citizen’s National Bank of Oberlin, Ohio in 1904 when his dealings with Cassie Chadwick caused the bank to fail and with it his personal fortune. The wife of Dr. Leroy Chadwick, Cassie seemed an unlikely source of bank fraud and failure. She enjoyed an opulent life on Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue; popularly known as millionaire’s row. Her wardrobe was said to fill 30 closets. Her parties cost up to $100,000. She installed a gold organ in her home and gave pianos away to friends as gifts. She took regular trips to New York and Europe. In time she became known as the Queen of Ohio. But there was more to the queen than met the eye.
She was born Elizabeth Bigley in 1857. At 14, she forged a letter of inheritance and opened a bank account. After cashing a number of worthless checks, she was arrested for forgery but released on the grounds of temporary insanity. A few years later she moved to Cleveland and established herself as a clairvoyant; Madame Lydia DeVere. Bad debts and an abortive marriage caused her to relocate her business to Toledo. There she obtained $5,000 from a bank using forged documents. Sentenced to 9½ years in the state penitentiary, she was paroled after four years. Returning to Cleveland, she assumed the name Cassie Hoover and opened a brothel. Several years later she met and befriended Dr. Chadwick. When Chadwick confronted her about running a notorious brothel, she demurred and claimed to be the landlady of a respectable boarding house in which she taught etiquette to the young female residents. Oddly, Chadwick believed her and the two were married.
To support her increasingly lavish lifestyle, Cassie turned to a new deception. She concocted a story claiming she was the illegitimate child of Andrew Carnegie who had given her securities payable upon his death. She told this tale in utmost confidence to a New York banker and asked him to hold the securities for her in his safe. When he asked to inspect the securities, she became indignant and so he relented and gave her a receipt for the unseen documents. She repeated this process several times until she had receipts worth over $15,000,000. Word of her anticipated wealth spread quietly through the financial community and soon bankers, including the unfortunate Mr. Beckwith, were lining up to loan her money with the unexamined securities as collateral. After several years, the fraud was revealed and she was sentenced to 14 years in the penitentiary. She was permitted to bring her clothes, furniture and photographs with her because of her celebrity. She died there less than two years later with the full extent of her fraud estimated in the millions.
Cassie Chadwick was able to easily defraud and deceive because then, as now, people want to believe. And they usually want to believe the best. You want to believe the best about yourself, your family, your friends, your colleagues and your heroes. You don’t want to believe that you’d lie to yourself or harm others or be harmed by them. It’s unsettling to think that you or those you know might be only partially virtuous. But that’s the human condition. To be fully aware we have to acknowledge our goodness and decency as well as our limits and flaws. When we accept these in ourselves, we can begin to accept them in others. It’s the requirement of a whole and balanced life. It’s the path to personal insight and a detour around misunderstandings and disappointments. Beckwith couldn’t accept that he’d been duped. But you can avoid his fate and have a richer life by remembering there’s always more to your and to everyone else’s story. —Ebert