True Crime Sunday: Big Bertha Heyman

We’ve spent the last three weeks talking about Jack the Ripper, so I thought we’d do something a little different this week. Today we’re taking a look at a charismatic lady who gave zero hoots, who turned lemons into lemon merengue pie, and who may or may not have been somewhat of a Robin Hood.

Bertha Schlesinger, later Heyman, was born in Prussia and came to the United States in 1878. In the years following her move to the United States, she was arrested several times. Her con was straightforward: galivanting around New York City as a wealthy woman having difficulty accessing her money. Bertha was able to leverage her imaginary wealth into stays at the best hotels, fine clothing, and hired help.

Bertha was arrested in September 1880 after she conned a train conductor she met on a trip from Chicago. She told him she was the owner of an estate she wanted him to manage. Sweet deal, right? After he was on the hook, she told him she needed roughly $1,000 to finish getting everything in order. He sued her after he realized there was no job waiting and no estate.

In February 1881, Ms. Heyman was arrested in Ontario after she conned several hundred dollars from a Montreal businessman.

In June 1881, she stood trial for theft and was acquitted. As she left the courthouse, she was arrested again for conning almost $1,500 from a couple of New York City businessmen. She was found guilty on one count and was sentenced to two years. You might think her sentence would mean being out of the game for some time. Nope. From inside prison, she befriended a man and conned him out of $900.

There’s a Bertha-esque story behind her attorney, as well. She convinced her attorney she was worth millions. Just like the others. For that fraud, she was sentenced to five years. But she was far from finished with her schemes.

In 1888, she approached a rabbi who she knew from her childhood in Prussia. She told him that she was a widow who made the mistake of marrying outside her faith. She said she was interested in remarrying, this time to a man of the Jewish faith. The rabbi’s brother-in-law was delighted to offer her his hand. Suddenly, this woman was part of the congregation’s elite and reaping the benefits of such. There was one problem. Her stepson (wink, wink) had an issue with the marriage. He demanded Bertha’s fiancé pay him $900 and hand over a great deal of jewelry so it could be reset for her.

It will surely be no surprise to you to learn that after the money and jewels were handed over, Bertha and her stepson disappeared. The pair was later arrested in Texas. She was acquitted and her pretend stepson was found guilty.

Shortly after, she was invited to perform on stage and recreate her deeds. She also performed in a production of Romeo and Juliet. On stage, she went by the name Big Bertha. Reports indicate that when she took her show on the road, she was approached by more suitors.

Bertha’s actions make her an interesting figure, but the surprises don’t stop there. In 1883, she told the New York Times that she only conned men who should know better. She also claimed that she was more interested in getting money, not keeping it. Allegedly, she gave a lot of the money away. This claim is disputed, but it’s kind of fun to think about being true.

It’s easy to see why New York City detective Thomas F. Byrnes described Bertha as “one of the smartest confidence women in America.” She had quite the life, and the fact that her crimes turned her into a stage celebrity doesn’t come as a huge surprise in the context of her story.


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