Book review: Fake princesses, false mediums and other female con artists

Tori Telfer's Confident Women is an entertaining, if rather cartoonish, account of some of the most notorious female con artists in history.
Tori Telfer's Confident Women is an entertaining, if rather cartoonish, account of some of the most notorious female con artists in history.PHOTOS: HARPERCOLLINS

Non-fiction

CONFIDENT WOMEN: SWINDLERS, GRIFTERS, AND SHAPESHIFTERS OF THE FEMALE PERSUASION

By Tori Telfer

Harper Perennial/ Paperback/ 336 pages/ $29.81/ Available here 

3 out of 5

In 18th-century Paris, a woman scammed the royal jewellers out of a diamond necklace by pretending to be best friends with Queen Marie Antoinette.

In 19th-century America, two sisters pretended they could speak to spirits and accidentally started a religious movement, which in turn spawned a demand for female mediums who produced "ectoplasms", or pale, gooey substances.

These are just some of the tales of true crime in Tori Telfer's Confident Women, an entertaining, if rather cartoonish, account of some of the most notorious female con artists in history.

Her subjects are grouped into four categories - glitterati, seers, fabulists and drifters - and run the gamut from Wang Ti, scammer of Beijing's elites, to Cassie Chadwick, who claimed to be the heiress of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Confident Women asks this question: How did these women get away with it?

The stories demonstrate how intelligence is often no bulwark against con artists - so easy it is to be seduced by them.

In the chapter on the fake Princess Anastasias who emerged in the wake of the execution of the Romanovs, the imperial family of Russia, Telfer suggests that the public's willingness to hear them out was down to good timing.

They were telling their stories, however sloppy, to a world reeling from World War I, the sinking of the Titanic and the fall of dynasties. "They were performing for a world that was desperate for happy endings."

There is nothing earth-shattering about Confident Women and readers can probably get the gist of most of these stories from Wikipedia. The book tends to be at its best when it ventures some psychological insight into the con artists and their victims.

"When humanity is operating at its finest, we approach the world with trust, not suspicion," Telfer observes. "Our confidence - the very thing that she uses to trick us - is the best part of us."

Her bite-size versions of history are entertaining enough to keep the reader hooked. Not unlike the confident women she writes about, she is a good storyteller, with a keen eye for drama and an ear for pacing. She pads out any gaps in historical detail with a surfeit of wit and imagination.

Confident Women might not be the most scintillating piece of non-fiction out there. But it would, I wager, make for a fun Netflix series.

If you like this, read: Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer (John Blake Publishing, 2017, $19.94, available here) about female serial killers.

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