Ten Fun Facts: Forgotten Women - Famous and Infamous


Cassie Chadwick, Swindler Extraordinare

Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed League of Wives, Heath Hardage Lee's inspiring story of the persevering wives of American POWs and MIAs during the Vietnam War, and Josh Levin's The Queen, an in-depth reporting on Lynda Taylor. Levin's book tells of how Taylor was made famous as the "welfare queen" of Ronald Reagan's many speeches, and of how the fight against "welfare fraud" was used by many politicians to further their careers.

Both books focus on women as their protagonists. In both books the women are strong, facing adversity but in the end coming out on top. 

In Lee's book the wives of Vietnam War POWs and MIAs press on against their own government to fight for and win the release of their captured husbands, and the accounting for those missing in action. Well known in their time, the wives and their story had faded into the background until Lee's book came out.

In Levin's book, despite a lengthy career of crime, including a few stints in prison, Linda Taylor dies a free woman. A full accounting of all the lies, swindles and more that she committed may never be known, and she did not face justice for most of her crimes. The subject of more than one national news report in the late 1970s and early 80s, Taylor largely faded from the headlines until Levin's book brought her full story to light.

So, for this week's Ten Fun Facts, here are ten women or groups of women,, well known in their time but mostly forgotten today. The list includes five famous for fighting long odds to make the world a better place, and five infamous for their careers of crime:

Mostly Forgotten Famous Women

  1. Inez Milholland - Born in 1886, Vassar educated Inez Milholland became a lawyer in New York when few women were admitted to the bar. She championed many worthy causes, including prison reform and equality for African Americans. She gained fame as a suffragette. From her first appearance as part of a woman's march in 1911 Milholland quickly became the face of woman's suffrage, dubbed by the press "The Most Beautiful Suffragist". She died on a speaking tour for the National Woman's Party in 1916, of "pernicious anemia", so unfortunately she did not live to see the right to vote granted to women nationally with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Carl Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote poems about her after her death, but over time her fame has faded. 
  2. Rani Lakshmi Bai - Rani (Queen) Lakshmi Bai ruled the princely state of Jhansi in North India during the mid-1800s, when India had fallen under British rule. When her husband the Maharaja fell ill in 1853 he adopted a child and had the adoption witnessed by British representatives. He died the next day. Lord Dalhousie, then Governor-General of India refused to recognize the adopted child as a rightful heir and moved to annex Jhansi to a neighboring state. The widowed queen appealed to London, but her appeal was denied. The state jewels were seized, and she was ordered to relocate. Instead, she assembled an army and in 1857 led a rebellion against British rule. She ruled Jhansi until her death in battle in 1858. Because of her courage and ability to fend off the British, she became an icon of independence for the next generation of  Indians.
  3. Mary Edwards Walker - The only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Her first practice, alongside her doctor husband, failed because the public would not accept a female physician. At the start of the Civil War she joined the Union Army as an unpaid volunteer surgeon. She was then commissioned as the first female US Army surgeon in 1863. In 1864 she was captured and held prisoner by the Confederates until released in a prisoner exchange. In 1865 she was awarded the Medal of Honor based on the recommendation of Generals Sherman and Thomas. Well known in her day for her service to her country and her habit of wearing men's clothing, Mary Walker died peacefully at her home in 1919. 
  4. French Female Spies of WWII - During World War II 38 French women worked with British Special Operations as spies inside Vichy France. Ten were executed by the Nazis. One was sent to a concentration camp, but survived. Among the women, Andree Borrel and Lise de Baissac were the first to parachute into France. Borrel recruited resistance fighters, organized parachute drops, and attacked German infrastructure. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and executed in 1944. Information about the women was classified, though some of them became publicly known. A 1950 movie called Odette celebrated the wartime exploits of one of the women, Odette Sansom, though their fame has faded with time.
  5. The Mirabal Sisters - Beginning in 1930 Generalissimo Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron fist. His callous rule included bribery, murder, rape and torture. He made the mistake of making unwanted sexual advances to Minerva Mirabal. Rebuffed by her, he had his officers make life difficult for her and her two sisters. In response, in 1959 the Mirabals founded "The Fourteenth of June" a revolutionary recruiting effort dedicated to overthrowing the dictator. The Mirabal Sisters were jailed, tortured and raped more than once by Trujillo's army, but they continued their efforts. Finally in November of 1960 the secret police attacked them while traveling home. They were beaten and killed, and put back in their car which was then pushed off a cliff. Newspapers claimed the sisters were victims of an automobile accident, but many believed they had been murdered. Their deaths became a turning point against Trujillo, who was assassinated in 1961. Still well known and celebrated within the Dominican Republic, the sisters are little known outside the country.

Mostly Forgotten Infamous Women

  1. The Poillon Sisters - In the 1920s, many small town girls, turned "flappers" made their way to the big cities only to be victimized by designing men. The Poillon sisters turned the tables however. From 1900 through the early 1930s they became known as the "Terrible Sisters", dating wealthy men and skipping out on bills from fancy hotels all over New York. When caught they'd claim the wealthy men promised to pay. In 1902 one of the sisters sued a wealthy New Yorker for $250,000 for breach of promise to marry. Their swindling ways mostly worked for them, because, as they said in the marriage case, the "had to goods" on many prominent New Yorkers. Their antics put their names in newspapers across the country. When one of the sisters died in 1935 their slide into obscurity began, leaving the Poillon sisters mostly forgotten today.
  2. Sweetheart Scammers - So-called sweetheart, or romance, scams hit the news about once a year. Today, we mostly associate sweetheart scams with online dating sites. But sweetheart scams are not new, and can happen offline as well. For example, in 2013 Samantha Pham was convicted of swindling a 67 year old man out of over $100,000.  In this case, she'd met her victim in person.  But, when she was apprehended by police and her case publicized, six other men came forward to say she'd swindled them as well, after they had met her online through match.com. Pham spent most of her loot gambling. Altogether police determined that she'd gambled away at least $1 million dollars in a three year period. 
  3. Rita Crundwell - In 2012 Rita Crundwell, the chief financial officer in Dixon, IL, best known as the birthplace of Ronald Reagan, was arrested for embezzlement. Originally charged with stealing $30 million dollars, the final tally came in at over $53 million. Crundwell had been stealing from the town for 30 odd years, and used the money to buy cars, homes, and championship racehorses. She was caught when she took vacation and the person filling in for her noticed suspicious transactions in several city accounts.
  4. Harriette Walters - Rita Crundwell took the municipal embezzlement crown from Harriette Walters, who was sentenced in 2009 for stealing nearly $50 million from the District of Columbia. Walters had served as tax manager for the district for 20 years, and used her position to issue millions of dollars in bogus tax refunds to herself, family members and friends.
  5. Cassie Chadwick - By far one of the most famous female swindlers in her time had to be Cassie Chadwick, but she's seldom heard about today. From 1902 to 1904 Chadwick successfully posed as the daughter of Andrew Carnegie and used that supposed connection to swindle one bank after another out of at least $630,000, worth $16.5 million today. That was just the last and most successful swindle she pulled off, having embarked on a career as a con artist in 1870, at the age of 13. She was eventually caught for the Carnegie swindle and served a 10 year sentence. Carnegie himself attended her trial, and observed that the whole affair could have been avoided if anyone involved had bothered to talk to him.
So there they are - the famous and the infamous. Do you have a story of a once famous woman mostly forgotten today? Leave your comment below.