Flimflam artists have always been with us. Schemes for extracting money from vulnerable people by playing on their greed, vanity, or other baser instincts are as old as history itself (if not older). Certainly there was no shortage of hucksters in Greater London during the 19th century but, of all of them, few ever attained the notoriety of Sarah Rachel Russell, a.k.a. "Madame Rachel."
Born in 1814 to a Jewish theatrical family, Sarah went through a series of husbands and eventually had seven children whom she largely raised on her own. She also had a colourful work history including stints as a fortune-teller, old-clothes dealer, and, if rumours be true, did a bit of prostitution on the side as well (which led to a brief jail term). At some point during the late 1850s however, Sarah decided to move on to bigger and better things.
Taking the name of Leverson from the man she happened to be living with at the time, Sarah founded her own beauty salon on Bond Street in the upper-class Mayfair district. Taking advantage of the chemical knowledge she gained from an early marriage to an apothecary's assistant, Sarah, or "Madame Rachel" as she was calling herself by then, began offering assorted creams and lotions at her exclusive "Temple of Beauty." Her various newspaper advertisements offered her willing clients the chance to become truly beautiful (for a price). According to one advertisement which ran in the Morning Post, " “BEAUTIFUL WOMEN – MADAME RACHEL begs to inform her lady patronesses, the nobility, the aristocracy, that she has opened her ANNUAL SUBSCRIPTION list for the supply of her Costly Arabian Preparations for the restoration and preservation of female loveliness.” While she got off to a rocky start, including flirting with bankruptcy, that passed quickly enough as Madame Rachel's reputation grew.
All of the customers drawn in by the advertisements and word of mouth from other satisfied customers were personally greeted by Madame Rachel herself, dressed in grand robes and bedecked with jewels and crystal ornaments. Gifted with a magnetic personality and a true flair for salesmanship, few customers doubted the extravagant claims she made about her products. To add to the ambience, customers were attended on by a young black boy wearing a turban whose exotic appearance made customers feel as if they were in an Arabian palace.
And what kind of beauty aids were these customers purchasing? Among the most popular were Madame Rachel's Magnetic Rock Dew Water, supposedly imported straight from the Sahara Desert which, among other benefits was said to "the appearance of increasing youth to persons of considerable antiquity." Then there the other exclusive products such as her patented Armenian Beauty Wash, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Royal Arabian Face Cream and Honey of Mount Hymettus Soak. Needless to say, these products weren't quite as exotic as Madame Rachel promised and often contained such alarming ingredients as prussic acid, carbonate of lead and arsenic. For the privilege of applying these dangerous products to various parts of their bodies, customers were expected to pay as much as £250 for a personal consultation with Madame and a stiff price for each application.
Along with her Temple of Beauty, Madame Rachel also offered an exclusive spa in the building next door. The spa, which she named the "Arabian Baths" offered a wide range of services catering to her customers. And if you happen to be wondering how she was able to afford such an expensive establishment, I should probably mention the other services which Madame Rachel offered. Her expensive establishment also featured rooms that could be rented by her customers for secret trysts. Many of her more adventurous customers were perfectly willing to pay extra to ensure that she kept silent about what they were doing. This included very discreet blackmail which added to the revenue Madame gained from her various enterprises.
But not every customer was thrilled at the service they were receiving. Her expensive beauty treatments certainly weren't as effective as Madame had been claiming (and could also cause skin irritation if used improperly). Also, despite the estimated £20,0000 she was pulling in each year, expensive jewelry of customers had a habit of"disappearing" while their owners were enjoyed an Arabian bath. One particular victim, Georgiana Elizabeth, the Countess of Dudley, managed to lose an irreplaceable set of diamonds which she had left with Rachel as security for the beauty treatments she was receiving. To explain their disappearance, and to safeguard her own reputation, the good Countess had to invent a story about their being stolen. The jewels were never found.
Though rumours began flying about the scandalous goings-on at Madame Rachel's establishment, including allegations of blackmail and adultery, nobody dared complain to the police about what was happening. In the end, it was Madame Rachel's own greed, along with the courage of one of her victims, that brought bout her downfall.
Mrs. Mary Tucker Borradaile was a reportedly frail-looking widow who likely didn't fit the profile for Madame's usual customers. The widow of a major who had died in India, Mary Borradaile had only her husband's military pension to live on and most of the creams and lotions on offer were probably beyond her reach financially. For whatever reason, Madame Rachel decided to target the widow for a rather special confidence scheme.
One day, while Mary was relaxing in the Arabian Baths, Madame approached her with the alarming news that one of the male customers had accidentally seen her bathing. But there was a silver lining to this Victorian faux pas however: the man, whom Madame identified as "Lord Ranelagh" had been so taken with Mary's beauty that he wanted to marry her. As a middle-aged widow whose prospects for remarrying seemed remote, it must have seen like a dream to Mary, and the romantic letters that she received overcame any reservations she might have had about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, there were two big problems to Mary's chances for life as member of the gentry. Not only did her would-be bridegroom (whom she only met once) have difficulty convincing his family that she wanted to marry a commoner but he was, as it happened, flat broke. Though he expected a large inheritance, his family had cut him off and he needed funds to stay out of debtor's prison. Which was where his loyal fiancee would come in....
Unfortunately, the confidence scheme worked all too well and Madame Rachel managed to bleed Mary dry in just a few months. Not only did Mary lose her life savings but also her husband's pension . It's hard to say how many other customers Rachel had managed to fleece the same way since none of them had been willing to go to the police. Mary was the exception and Madame Rachel quickly found herself on trial. While her expensive lawyers did their best to discredit Mary, the bare facts of the case became plain soon enough. Not only was there never a "Lord Ranelagh" but the man who had posed as him was just a shill who enjoyed using peepholes to spy on the woman as they bathed. While other customers also started coming forward with their own stories, Madame's lawyers tried legal trick after legal trick to save their client. Finally, following a lengthy legal battle, including a retrial, Sarah Rachel Russell was finally convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Released in 1872, Sarah quickly resumed her larcenous career and attempted other beauty cons, including billing herself as "Arabian perfumer to the Queen." But people were more wary of her this time around and, just a few years later, she was again on trial and was sentenced to another five years in prison. She died on October 12, 1880 after having served just two years of her sentence.
Though other beauty salons would spring up to take the place of Madame Rachel's Temple of Beauty, London society would never be quite the same.