When we were children, many of us probably enjoyed playing pretend. Maybe we were royalty or movie stars with lots of money. And then when we got older, most of us grew out of that. Not so for the star of this week’s True Crime Sunday post.
Thérèse Daurignac was born in France in 1856. Her family was poor, but Thérèse wanted badly to be a rich, important member of society. Though she lacked wealth and worldliness, the girl had charisma. As a child, she convinced her friends to give her their nice clothes and accessories so she could make people think she was wealthy. As an adult, she played a similar game, but with much higher stakes.
She convinced her cousin, Frédéric Humbert, son of a mayor, that she was descended from nobility. She also convinced him that they should be married. The happy couple moved to Paris where she took her first steps into society, thanks to her father-in-law’s status. Being a mayor’s daughter-in-law and the descendant of nobles (as she had her husband believing) was great, but it seems she wanted something a little more exciting. Prestigious.
In 1879, Mrs. Humbert imparted that her quick thinking saved a man’s life on a train. Who was this man? Why, it was none other than Robert Crawford, American millionaire. So grateful was he that he made Thérèse the beneficiary of his will. There was a stipulation in the will that the money was to be held until Thérèse’s younger sister was old enough to marry one of Crawford’s nephews.
Thérèse borrowed money people with the promise that they would be repaid once she received the money from her inheritance. She finally had fine homes, fancy clothing, and all the status she could ever want and her husband acting as her accomplice. The couple lived in luxury for twenty years or so thanks to the roughly 50 million francs they borrowed from friends and associates over that time.
Before the game was over, she decided to created a fake insurance company. The Humberts promised small business owners huge returns, and they used the new investors to pay the old investors. A Ponzi scheme before it was fashionable! This brought their total to nearly one hundred million francs.
Sadly, one of their investors took his own life after Thérèse Humbert refused to give him the money he was owed. After that, authorities began investigating her and her husband’s finances, and the people from whom they borrowed their money started to figure out that there was no way she would be able to pay them back—even if the inheritance was real. Wait a sec…
As I’m sure you figured, the inheritance and American millionaire Robert Crawford were fictional. An investigation into the claims and the safe supposedly holding the money revealed nothing but a brick and an English halfpenny.
The Humberts fled France but were arrested in 1902. Each was sentenced to five years of hard labor. Some reports claim that Thérèse Humbert went to America after she was released, some say that she remained in France. Either way, her days of lavish homes and society balls were behind her. She died without a penny to her name.
The stories of Thérèse Humbert, Victor Lustig (from a previous post), and others made me wonder how people go along with astronomical loans and purchases of famous landmarks. Luckily for me, The Crime Book (from the Big Ideas Simply Explained series) answered that question nicely. Most con artists share three traits—the con artist trifecta. Personality profiles will often reveal psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Con artists have perfected the art of persuasion. They know when to push, when to pull back, and exactly how much truth to sprinkle in with the lies.
What’s on the menu for next week? More con artists? Back to serial killers? Disappearances? There’s only one way to find out…
Looking for more related to this case?
La Grande Therese: The Greatest Swindle of the Century by Hilary Spurling
Thérèse Humbert by Oriol Laurence