"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Great Expectations of Thérèse Humbert

In the early 1870s, a family named Aurignac lived in Bauzelles, a small French village. It consisted of a widower, who lived with his four children, Thérèse, Marie, Romain, and Emile. The daughters did the housework, while the boys did whatever odd jobs they could find. They could not be called ornaments of their community. The father was a drunkard, who, when he was in his cups, was fond of boasting of his noble ancestry, giving himself the fanciful name of "Count d'Aurignac." These claims were founded on nothing more than his wine bottle, but as it was true that the Franco-Prussian war had impoverished many aristocratic families, he found a surprising number of people who were willing to believe him. Perhaps he came to believe it himself.

After some years, he kicked his story up a notch. He proudly showed neighbors an old chest, which he had elaborately locked and sealed. This, he informed them, was the repository of his title-deeds to Chateau d'Aurignac, a splendid estate in Auvergne, as well as other documentation that would enable his children to inherit a fortune.

His friends were suitably impressed.

Aurignac died in January of 1874. Naturally, the first thing everyone did was to open this mysterious chest that held the proof of the dead man's noble background and fabulous wealth. One can imagine the general sense of disappointment when they discovered it contained nothing but a brick.

Rather than collecting a fortune, his daughter Thérèse became laundry-maid to the family of Toulouse mayor Gustave Humbert. One thing she did inherit, however, was her father's talent for fantasy. She not only continued the fable of descent from a once-mighty family, she embroidered upon it considerably. She told the Humberts and their friends of a fabulous ancestral home in the Tarn, the Chateau de Marcotte. The last owner of this estate, a wealthy old spinster named Mademoiselle de Marcotte, had made a will leaving the chateau and her entire fortune to Thérèse . She repeated this story so confidently and repeatedly that everyone accepted her tale without question. The Humbert family was suitably awed to have their laundry washed by an heiress. The son of the family, a young law student named Frederic, was so taken with her story that he eloped with the soon-to-be-massively rich servant.

Frederic passed his bar examinations, and for several years he and his wife led a quiet and nondescript existence in Paris. Every now and then the lawyer would ask Thérèse about when she'd be getting the de Marcotte fortune, but she always managed to put him off with various cleverly evasive stories. In the meantime, she spread the word around all the local shopkeepers about her "great expectations," which enabled the couple to live very well on credit.

Therese Humbert with her husband and daughter.

For a while, at least. Inevitably, their creditors began to wonder about this grand Chateau de Marcotte. No one they knew of seemed to have even heard of the place. Matters finally came to a head when one tradesman owed money by the Humberts went on vacation near the Tarn. He returned home with the news that no such estate existed anywhere in the area.


The shopkeepers owed money by the Humberts did not take this news well. Threats of criminal prosecution began to fill the air. Thérèse had no choice but to admit to her husband that her whole story was one big fabrication. Frederic, whose salary was not nearly sufficient to pay back all they owed, went to his father--who was by now the Minister of Justice--and told him the whole embarrassing truth. The senior Humbert, anxious to avoid an even more embarrassing public scandal, quietly paid all the couple's debts.

One would think that this narrow escape would have taught Thérèse a lesson, but it only planted still more ambitious dreams in her head. Quietly, secretly, this obscure suburban matron began to build one of the most astoundingly audacious plans in the entire history of swindling.

In early 1881, a remarkable story began circulating in Parisian society. People learned that the daughter-in-law of Justice Minister Gustave Humbert had an amazingly lucky experience. It seems that while traveling on the Ceinture Railway some time back, Thérèse Humbert had heard a man in an adjoining compartment groaning in agony. When she went to investigate, she found an elderly American man who had suddenly been taken very ill. He had had a heart attack. She gave him smelling salts and did what she could to make him comfortable. He recovered sufficiently to be able to leave the train at the next stop, but not before he got her name and address. He thanked her profusely for her kindness, and swore he would never forget it.

The gentleman was a Chicago resident named Robert Henry Crawford. After they parted at the train station, Thérèse forgot the whole incident until two years later, when she received a letter from a New York law firm, informing her that Mr. Crawford had died and left her four million pounds. She even had Crawford's death certificate and a copy of this will to prove it. According to the latter document, Crawford's fortune was to be divided between Thérèse 's younger sister Marie and the dead man's nephews, Robert and Henry Crawford. These three legatees were to pay Thérèse £14,000 a year. These American lawyers wrote that old Robert Henry had instructed that the fortune should remain in the Crawford family. Thérèse was to keep the four million pounds in a safe. Then, when her sister Marie came of age, one of the Crawford nephews would marry the girl, thus keeping the estate undivided.

After her previous escapade, one would think that her husband and in-laws would treat this story with a certain skepticism, but no. The most peculiar feature about the whole strange story is that the Humberts appear to have accepted everything she said, and they eagerly told everyone that their relative-by-marriage would soon be an exceedingly rich woman.

No one in Paris dreamed that the powerful Minister of Justice could possibly be mistaken, so Thérèse's story went unquestioned. Almost instantly, she became the most famous woman in the city, and she lost no time capitalizing on her new renown as a romantic heiress. She rented a grand mansion in the heart of Paris, featuring, in the downstairs parlor, a large safe--the safe, which was holding the famed Crawford millions, as well as an equally lavish country home. She became the star of Paris society. Her receptions were the hottest tickets in town. She awed everyone with the splendor of her dresses and the dazzling quantities of her jewels--all bought on credit, of course. The ex-washerwoman was living like a queen. France's wealthiest financiers and business men were willing--eager, even--to lend huge sums of money simply on the promise that one day she would come into a fortune, and would then repay these sums at a hefty interest rate. If anyone showed any signs of failing to completely believe her story, she would take them aside and "secretly" show them a bundle of letters, all supposedly written by the Crawfords. This was enough to remove all doubts.

Thérèse's reign went on merrily for two years. Then, a French newspaper published an article that, for the first time, raised a few doubts about her veracity. The man who wrote the article was from Thérèse's hometown. He remembered well old Aurignac, his fables about nobility, his safe, and his brick. He was speculating that history was repeating itself.

Thérèse knew that if these doubts began to spread, she would be lost. She decided to go on offense, backing up her lies with still more lies. She began by inventing a quarrel with the mythical Crawford nephews over where their family fortune should be kept. The Crawfords, she said, wanted the four million transferred to a bank for safer keeping, and she objected to the plan. The bickering between Thérèse and her imaginary friends--I kid you not--went to court. Lawsuits began to be filed, some of them originating from the Crawfords, some from Thérèse, with both sides hiring some of the most expensive lawyers in the land. The lawsuits on various petty squabbles relating to the estate went on for years.

This flurry of legal action erased any questions anyone might have had about the genuineness of the Crawford fortune. After all, nonexistent people couldn't possibly file lawsuits!

By this time, Thérèse's sister Marie Aurignac had graduated from school. The girl, in all innocence, genuinely believed she was destined to marry "Henry Crawford." She happily boasted to all her friends about the handsome, charming, wealthy young American who would some day soon be her husband.

Therese's sister

All went well until one of Thérèse's creditors, a banker named Delatte, began to grow impatient for Madame to open her now-famous safe and start paying back the huge sums she owed. The longer he had to wait, the more he found himself suspecting that there was something fishy going on. One day, with an air of innocent curiosity, he asked Thérèse where Henry Crawford lived. She told him he was in Somerville, a wealthy suburb of Boston.

Believe it or not, Monsieur Delatte was the first person not to take Thérèse's word for this. He took the first available boat for America to see this mysterious heir for himself. When he arrived in Boston, he found no sign that anyone named "Henry Crawford" lived in Somerville, or anywhere else in the city for that matter. He hired private detectives, and they also came up empty. There was no evidence that such a person existed anywhere in the entire country. He angrily wrote a friend back in Paris of what he had learned. Delatte declared that he was on his way back to France, where he would expose Thérèse Humbert's entire swindle.

He never got the chance. Before he could sail from New York, his body was found in the East River. Was his death an accident? Suicide? Or a sign that Madame Humbert had decided to up her criminal game considerably? No one ever knew for certain.

More and more of Thérèse's creditors became more and more anxious for their money. Surely, they said with increasing insistence, it was time for her sister to marry Henry Crawford and finally open the safe containing the Crawford millions? Thérèse, in typical fashion, sought to extricate herself from the old swindle by perpetrating a new one. She launched a plan from obtaining more money from the public that she could use to pay off her old creditors. And so the Rente Viagere was born.

In the heart of Paris' business district, she opened a suite of impressively luxurious office buildings. It was, the world was told, a large insurance company that promised to provide annuities. French men and women were invited to "invest" their money with the promise of astonishingly large returns. This proved even more profitable than Thérèse's previous hoax. The prospectus she and her brothers drew up was so enticing that people all over the country turned handed her bogus company all they possessed in order to buy annuities or insure their lives, thinking they were making a can't-miss investment that would guarantee them a fabulous return on their money. Millions of francs came pouring into this utterly nonexistent company. Thérèse's creditors were given just enough of this money to keep them soothed and happy.

For a while, at least. Then, inevitably, everyone again became impatient for the Great Safe Opening. Surely, it was long past time for Sister Marie--who had now become popularly known as "the eternal fiancee"--to marry her American and haul out the family fortune? Early in 1901, a group of Thérèse's creditors who were by now, thanks to her, facing bankruptcy, held a meeting and compared notes. They came to the grim conclusion that they had all been swindled. It was noted that even if her story was true, after all these years of expensive lawsuits, there couldn't be much of the Crawford fortune left!

These creditors went to one of France's leading lawyers, Rene Waldeck-Rousseau. The lawyer, who had met Thérèse in court on a number of occasions, instinctively disliked her, and was quite willing to believe she was a shameless fraud. He had known a number of people who had been swindled by her--including his own son-in-law--so there was a personal motive in his desire to see "La Grande Thérèse " finally brought to justice. He conferred with the editor of the newspaper, "Le Matin," who agreed to publish a series of articles boldly accusing Madame Humbert of being a crook.

The most notorious safe in France

These articles emboldened Thérèse's creditors to demand that the courts order her to immediately open that damn safe. Unfortunately for her, the presiding judge agreed that it was the only way to settle the issue. Although Thérèse and her lawyers vigorously fought this decision, they were finally forced to give in. Thérèse turned in the keys to her safe, and May 9, 1902 was set for the Unveiling.

On May 8, Thérèse and her siblings quietly vanished.

The next morning, the safe was opened. All it contained was--in quaint tribute to Dear Old Dad--a brick.

Arrest warrants were immediately issued for Thérèse and her brothers. (It was obvious to everyone that poor Marie Aurignac had been as duped as everyone else.) In September, they were finally tracked down in Spain and hauled back to Paris.

Thérèse, you will be happy to know, stayed true to form to the last. She refused to admit any wrongdoing. Instead, her defense was a tale that had everyone in the courtroom reeling. She conceded that the wealthy American Crawford never existed. The man who really left her his fortune, she now said, was Marshal Bazaine, who was by then infamous for having turned over the fortress of Metz to the Germans. The four million pounds had been Germany's payoff to him for his betrayal. Thérèse said that for some time she had not been aware of the source of this money. When she did realize it had been an enemy bribe, she felt that in all conscience she could not keep such tainted money. In a patriotic fervor, she had burned every last cent of it, which explained why the safe was now empty.

"But it does not explain the brick, Madame!" the judge answered tartly.

Madame Humbert in court

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Aurignacs were all found guilty of fraud. Thérèse was sentenced to five years, Romain three, and Emile two. Her husband Frederic was also sent to jail, although there is still some question about whether he was an accomplice or yet another dupe. After she served her sentence, it is generally said that Thérèse emigrated to America, where she died in obscurity in 1918. (Other, unconfirmed reports state that she remained in France, where she lived a reclusive existence at least as late as 1930.)

The famous safe was displayed for some time in a Paris shop, where it attracted large crowds. So, in the end, it finally provided an honest profit for somebody.


  1. It astonishes me that, at the beginning, no one in Bauzelles questioned why the Aurignacs, who were reportedly not only related to wealthy people but in line to inherit from them, worked at menial tasks and odd jobs. The gullibility of people is endless.

  2. There were certainly a few scandals in France at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, this one, plus the Dreyfus and Matisse Affairs.

    I wonder if we will ever know exactly how many people were swindled by Humbert. I think that there were quite a few wealthy people who wouldn't want their reputation to be destroyed by admitting that they were gullible and easily duped.

  3. Really interested to see your blog of La Grande Thérèse! She fascinates me and I have done lots of research into her life and activities. Actually I wonder if the 'unconfirmed reports that she remained in France etc' are from my Wikipedia edit. This information came from a newspaper I purchased from the 30's with an article by one of the lead detectives involved in the Humbert case. I can provide more details if you would be interested. I was also interested in your comments about how she managed to swindle so many people. I think a lot of it was down to Paris at that particular point in time. There was rampant inflation during a lot of the 19th century and people were making and losing fortunes all the time and many were also very greedy because of the opportunities which cropped up for land development and so on. I think this in part explains how she was able to get away with it all for so long. All this coupled with having the Minister for Justice as your father in law!!! Well done, on the blog. At some stage I plan to put all my research on line but just haven't got around to it yet.

    1. When you do get around to putting your research online, please let us know, I'd love to see it.

      A really spectacular grifter fascinates me, and Therese was one of the best. I'd love to be able to read more about her, but I just wasn't able to find that much in the English language. And, yes, I did get that information about her remaining in France from the Wikipedia article!

  4. Very interested to see your blog on La Grande Thérèse. She fascinates me. In fact, I suspect your reference to 'unconfirmed reports state that she remained in France' etc are down to my Wikipedia edit. I have a copy of a newspaper of the time with an article written by the lead prosecuting detective of the time which shows pictures of where she was living and so on which all seem very credible. I would be happy to exchange information on this if you are interested.


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