The Cosmetic Huckster
This week’s Victorian character impresses as more than just colorful. Madame Rachel, notorious con artist and flamboyant celebrity, made a fortune off the vanity and gullibility of high society. She may have been an actual madam as well. If she lived today she might well be found as a purveyor of health and beauty products to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
At the height of her fame, Madame Rachel served clients from a salon on Bond Street, where she welcomed countesses and the wives of wealthy businessmen. She also attracted the lonely and the desperate. Her precipitous fall, when it came, exposed her clients as fools even as it exposed the ugly anti-Semitic undercurrents prevalent in England.
Madame didn’t start out in high society. Born Sarah Rachel Russell in London in 1814, she grew up the hard way in London’s East End. She worked as a seller of rabbit skins and second hand clothes and later ran a dried fish shop. At a young age she married an apothecary/chemist in Manchester, who may have taught her skills she found useful when she emerged as Madame Rachel. That man died, as did her second husband. She later lived with and took the name of Philip Levison. London newspapers would later variously call her Rachel Russell, Levison, Levenson or Levy. She bore seven children, whose fathers cannot be identified with certainty.
Always enterprising, the woman migrated to the area near Covent Garden where she told fortunes for a penny and procured girls from the theaters for nearby brothels, a trade she probably also practiced earlier as well. Soon after, Sarah Russell reinvented herself as Madame Rachel, purveyor of cosmetics in that same area. She told a sad tale of illness and the loss of all her hair, claiming a physician taught her a recipe that not only restored her hair, but made it more abundant and beautiful than ever. She also claimed non-existent social standing and a relationship with a famous French Jewish actress known for her beauty.
The desire for beauty, then as now, drew the gullible and the needy in great numbers as advertisements from the age show. Her efforts worked. By 1860 she moved her business to the much more lucrative world of Mayfair and opened premises on Bond Street. She may have grown up illiterate, but she had a genius for promotion. Her advertisements in The Times of London, Debretts Peerage, and other publications described products with exotic sounding names that played on beliefs about the secrets of exotic locales, such as Armenian Beauty Wash, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Royal Arabian Face Cream and Honey of Mount Hymettus Soak. She claimed to be a purveyor to Her Majesty the Queen and Empress Eugenie.
The premises reflected all the opulence women of the privileged classes expected, and, in an era in which cosmetics were still considered the less than respectable tools of the theater and the demimonde, she promised privacy and discretion. The products also had a air of exclusivity. Madame claimed costly ingredients from Arabia, Circassia, and Armenia and charged astronomical prices meant to reassure her clients that they were select and discerning women. Her products were later found to be made up of easily obtained (and sometimes harmful) ingredients such as bran, arsenic and prussic acid.
The belief that something obscenely expensive must be a superior product thrived in the Victorian era just as it does today. Madame Rachel understood that well. Her “Magnetic Rock Dew Water of the Sahara for Removing Wrinkles,” for example, sold for roughly $160 in today’s dollars. Services expanded. For fees as high as $300 she would provide personal beauty counseling. She opened a spa where women might enjoy “Arabian Baths.”
Money flowed in. Though uneducated herself, she saw to expensive education for her seven children. One son went to medical school. One daughter became a successful opera singer. Her eldest daughter helped her write “Beautiful Forever,” a bestselling book available exclusively through her shop. It promised eternal youth to those who followed the proper regimen (with products from Madame Rachel, of course). She used her daughters to sell the idea, claiming they were much older than their actual ages.
While all of that added up to significant income, it paled next to her lucrative sideline: blackmail. Victorian women had no money or possessions of their own and the upper classes were often deeply in debt. Madame Rachel extended unlimited credit. She requested, however, that they leave a little something on deposit—like their diamonds and pearls, which she promptly pawned. If a woman complained it would be firmly pointed out that her husband would be most displeased to know that jewels belonging to the family or estate had been used for something as paltry as cosmetics, or that the scandal sheets would enjoy hearing about her foibles. The Countess of Dudley, for one example, placed over $20,000 worth of family diamonds as surety for a course in beauty and later made up a story about how they were stolen to cover her tracks. Her husband never recovered the diamonds.
Other forms of blackmail went on as well. The spa connected to a set of discrete rooms that could be used for trysts. Her careful records about who used them and how provided a steady source of income. Not all of her victims were wealthy. When things fell apart and she went to trial, one of the more notorious cases involved a military widow. Madame Rachel hinted to the lady that an aristocratic lord had “accidentally” seen her in her bath and wished a relationship, one made impossible by his family’s disapproval. He had alas no money, but Madame offered to act as a go between. The man in question, a notorious rake, later claimed he never met either woman. By the time it was over Madame had bled the widow of her entire savings and army pension.
Eventually rumors proliferated and swirled around the place for quite a while. It was the overreach involved in the case of the widow, Mary Tucker Borradaile, that broke it open. She did something no one else had been willing to do: she went to the police. She had nothing to lose. It is easy to assume that enough ill will had been floating around to insure that the authorities swooped down with glee.
Newspapers went wild covering the subsequent trial at Old Bailey in August 1868, which ended in a mistrial. The coverage exposed an ugly underbelly of anti-Semitism, with cartoons, scurrilous articles, and savage attacks.
Between Madame Rachel’s first and second trials the gutter press, satirical journals and music halls had a field day with their savagely antisemitic character assassination of Rachel and the two daughters who assisted her, as a “nest of Jewish vipers” at New Bond Street.
The Jewish Chronicle, April 8, 2010
The gentlemen in power didn’t care for a cocky, successful female entrepreneur either. A second trial, in September 1968 sentenced her to five years in Millbank Prison. Upon release, she once again set up shop. Convicted of fraud once more in 1878, she died in prison two years later.
For more information see:
“Beautiful Forever – The Life of Madame Rachel,” Scandalous Women, http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2013/06/beautiful-forever-life-of-madame-rachel.html
Blackburn, Virginia, “Victorian con artist Madame Rachel: Fortune from fake beauty products,” Sunday Express, April 19, 2010 http://www.express.co.uk/expressyourself/170084/Victorian-con-artist-Madame-Rachel-Fortune-from-fake-beauty-products
The Extraordinary Life & Trial Of Madame Rachel At The Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, As Quoted Verbatim In The Times, http://www.archive.org/stream/extraordinarylif00greaiala/extraordinarylif00greaiala_djvu.txt
“The Great Victorian Beauty Con,” Providentia, February 26, 2017, http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2017/02/unmasking-madame-rachel-.html
A tale of money, vanity and a ruthless con-artist, The Jewish Chronicle, April 8, 2010, https://www.thejc.com/culture/features/a-tale-of-money-vanity-and-a-ruthless-con-artist-1.14860
The most frequently cited biography of Sarah Rachel Russell is:
Rappaport, Helen (2010). Beautiful for Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street – Cosmetician, Con-Artist and Blackmailer. Ebrington: Long Barn Books. ISBN 978-1-902421-52-0.
Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. In addition to History Imagined, she is a regular contributor to The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century scandal sheet.
Her current series, Children of Empire, is set in the early Victorian era and focuses on three cousins, driven apart by lies and deceit, who must find their way back from the distant reaches of the empire. The second book in the series, The Reluctant Wife, set in India and England, will be released April 26.
Click here to find out more about her books: http://www.carolinewarfield.com/bookshelf/