Con Girl on Paramount+: Who are the greatest female con artists of all time?
Paramount+’s new four-part documentary Con Girl has been causing quite a stir. One reviewer called it “quite possibly the most astonishingly outlandish story ever told”. The documentary details the unbelievable enterprises of Australian Samantha Azzopardi, who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2021 for conducting a series of scams in Australia, Ireland and Canada.
To provide a taster of the mind-boggling true story, the documentary begins in 2013, when a young woman, who indicated that she was 14 years old, was found outside a museum in Dublin. Authorities were called, the girl wouldn’t speak, she spent weeks in a children’s hospital, and no one know who she was or what had happened to her – not even Interpol nor the Missing Persons Bureau. After releasing a photo of her – an unusual and desperate move – she was recognised by authorities in Australia as Azzopardi, a 25-year-old prolific con artist. The doc tells the story of the unravelling of her exploits.
Following the documentary’s release this week, here is our pick of some of the other most cunning and successful female con artists in history.
Anna Sorokin (b.1991)
After Elizabeth Holmes, Anna Sorokin is without a doubt the world’s most famous living con woman. The New York socialite, who went by Anna Delvey, gained a reputation in the city for her lavish lifestyle (which involved living at several upscale hotels), funded, she claimed, by her ultra-rich father who would wire her money from her trust fund, and her big plans to create a private members club in one of New York’s most exclusive buildings. But her life was a lie and the house of cards quickly came crashing down as unpaid bills started to pile up.
In an interview before her 2019 sentencing, Sorokin famously said: “I’d be lying to you and to everyone else and to myself if I said I was sorry for anything.” After being sentenced to four to twelve years in jail she made a $320,000 deal with Netflix for her story, which she used to pay her legal fees and restitutions to different banks. Shonda Rhimes’ Inventing Anna, which starred Julia Garner as Anna, was released in February 2022 and became a huge hit. Something about Anna’s wreckless ambition spoke to people and the con woman gained as many fans as critics.
Elizabeth Holmes (b.1984)
The jury is still out over whether Elizabeth Holmes deserves to be on this list. Some believe Holmes was a genius who only did what any entrepreneur would do on their way to the top in the ever-competitive Silicon Valley. Others – including the American justice system, which successfully convicted her for conspiracy and wire fraud in 2022 – see her as a fraudster and liar who put hundreds of lives at risk through promising biomedical technology that her company could not provide.
Holmes’ company Theranos was once worth $9 billion. It claimed to have devised simple blood tests that would provide users with a range of results from a very small amount of blood. The idea was to cut out the middleman: imagine how much cheaper it could be, and how many lives could be saved, if people could do their own blood tests for a range of issues illnesses including cancer, kidney disease and diabetes. Undoubtedly an inspired proposal, the issue was that Theranos was not able to create the technology.
Linda Taylor (1926-2002)
Linda Taylor is best known as a scammer who cheated the American welfare system. She became so famous for her extensive frauds that Ronald Reagan even used her in his 1976 presidential campaign as an example of the flaws of the system, which he criticised.
In order to con people, Taylor changed her ethnicity, job role and age and went under a dozen different names including Linda Jones, Constance Loyd, Linda Lynch, Linda Mallexo and Linda Ray. She used her multiple identities to receive multiple welfare payments. When she was finally arrested, she’d reportedly created as many as 80 different aliases, and she’d received as much as $100,000 in welfare payments.
Amy Bock (1859-1943)
Bock is not only New Zealand’s most famous con woman, but was also described by writer Fiona Farrell as the country’s “most unusual and energetic con artist”. She spent her entire life trying to scam people out of money and her frauds varied in grandeur and success. In the most outrageous case, she pretended to be a man in order to marry the daughter of a wealthy family. She nearly pulled it off, too: she did indeed marry Agnes Ottaway, but was arrested three days later and the marriage was annulled. Ottaway’s father apparently said: “Well, it might have been worse.”
Over the course of her life Bock spent 16 years in prison. She would employ every trick in the book to be given money and property and then abscond. But most often, once she was caught she would admit everything and return her takings. She was also a school teacher, but even then got up to mischief, doctoring how many kids were in attendance (which boosted her salary) and taking constant sick days.
Elizabeth Bigley (1857-1907)
Elizabeth Bigley, who is best known by her con name Cassie Chadwick, was a Canadian fraudster who astonishingly managed to scam banks out of between $800,000 and $1.3 million by pretending to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. A newspaper article published in 1955 said she had used a letter from ‘an attorney in London’ which said she had been bequeathed $1,800. She lived on credit provided by merchants (very Sorokin, or rather, Sorokin was very Bigley) until she was eventually found out and arrested. The newspaper said: “At her trial, she made faces at the witness. The jury, convinced she was insane, acquitted her.”
She married a doctor, but he chucked her out only 11 days later after debt collectors came round to collect money for expensive wedding gifts she had been buying. Bigley’s stories go on and on, each as incredible as the next: one scam involved worthless notes and a clairvoyant; she spent lavishly, under one guise buying eight grand pianos; one bank was even forced to close after its president had lent her $240,000 – four times the bank’s capital stock. By the time of her trial, she was incredibly famous. She was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but died two years into her sentence.
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy (1756-1791)
Although Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, who went by Comtesse de la Motte, did not conduct any frauds on the scale of Theranos, or Bigley’s exploits, she deserves to be on the list because of her involvement in one of France’s biggest scandals, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The scandal is often named as one of the factors that led to the downfall of King Louis XVI.
Like so many of the con women on this list, Comtesse de la Motte’s main initial aim was raising her social status. She was born into an impoverished family but managed to marry Nicholas de la Motte, who claimed to be a nobleman (though it’s not clear that he actually was). She started hanging around the palace in the hope of speaking to Marie Antoinette to ask for a more generous royal pension, but the Queen, who had been warned about Jeanne, avoided her.
Jeweller Charles Auguste Boehmer was trying to sell a necklace that was so expensive that only the King was able to buy it. But the King didn’t want it. Jeanne saw an opportunity to make some money so asked her lover, Rétaux de Villette, who happened to be a master forger, to write letters from ‘The Queen’ to the ‘Comtesse’ saying that she wanted the necklace but that the King wouldn’t buy it for her. In the letters ‘The Queen’ asked the Cardinal to lend her money so she could secretly purchase it and said that Jeanne was her agent.
The cardinal, believing the letters to be true, purchased the necklace and gave it to Jeanne who then took off with it and started selling the diamonds. She, her husband and her lover, all of whom were in on the scam, were eventually found out and arrested, but the damage had been done at court.
Marie Antoinette’s reputation was on the rocks, and the public trial of the con artists (a decision made by the King and Queen to try and reinstate their honour) in the end only reinforced preconceived ideas about the royal family and their lavish spending. People felt sorry for Jeanne, and had a kind of admiration for her chutzpah, as centuries later people have sympathy for Sorokin and Holmes.
Barbara Erni (1743-1785)
It’s hard to work out where the legend around Erni starts and her real-life story ends. Sounding like a character from a Celtic legend rather than one of the world’s greatest con women, the story goes that Erni was strong with red-blonde hair and apparently carried a large treasure chest on her back. At night a man popped up out of the chest, would steal all the objects in the room and off Erni and the man would go again.
In truth, she was a skilled thief, who would steal from inns across Lichtenstein and Western Europe using a confidence trick. She and her accomplice – who history has not remembered – were arrested and trialled in 1784. She was sentenced to death and beheaded in 1784 in front of approximately 1,000 spectators. She was the last person ever executed by the Liechtenstein state.
Con Girl is now available on Paramount+