Elizabeth Margaret Burch, 39, enjoyed a comfortable life in a large house in the sunny suburbs of Ashford, Kent. In 1893, she had been the fortunate beneficiary of a substantial inheritance that had come her way quite by chance. Five years previously whilst living in South Kensington, Elizabeth had been amongst a crowd in St James’s Park awaiting the arrival of the ladies to Buckingham Palace, when an elderly gentleman, near to where she was standing, had fainted in the heat. She had rushed to his aid with a glass of water. When the gentleman died, some years later, his solicitors revealed that, having no relatives of his own, he had left his fortune of £150,000 (over 14 million in today’s money) to his kindly rescuer. The heiress then moved to Ashford, where she dined on fine foods and wore the most fashionable clothes.
Grateful for her considerable fortune, Elizabeth decided to use her wealth to help those in need. Even before her windfall, she had saved her sisters from bankruptcy after their dressmaking business had failed. Leading by example, she used her newly-acquired position in Kent society to encourage donations from others for a number of charities, including the widows of the South Wales colliery explosion, the National Benevolent Institution and the Aged Pilgrims’ Friendly Society. However, all of a sudden the Ashford Heiress disappeared without a trace.
A few months later, a new and distinguished visitor arrived on the scene in Manchester and began to mix in high-ranking social circles. Reticent about using her title of Lady Russell, she often used an alias when she was on business in town, but when she came to the notice of the ever-suspicious Detective Chief Inspector Caminada, he caught the very distinctive whiff of a scam. Jerome Caminada paid a visit to ‘Lady Russell’ at her lodgings and found the ‘most stylishly attired’ woman sitting at her writing desk, gold-rimmed spectacles perched on her nose as she bent to her task. On searching the room, the detective found a number of begging letters, as well as account books listing the donors to her charitable causes. He even uncovered a memo book interleaved with blotting paper that, although the pages had been removed, bore the indelible traces of the amounts of money received, which ranged from 1 shilling to 5 pounds. This consummate swindler was, in fact, Elizabeth Margaret Burch.
The Ashford Heiress was found guilty of obtaining money by false pretences and was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment. She later admitted that the inheritance had been fake, although she had helped the gentleman in St James’s Park. In an astonishing twist to the case, worthy of the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in prison Elizabeth turned her talents to creative writing and although her previous existence had been a work of fiction, there is no evidence to suggest that she was as successful in her endeavour to become a writer.
I will be sharing stories from Detective Caminada’s casebook at the Rochester Literature Festival on Monday 29 September, from 6.30 pm at the Dot Café. Tickets are available here. All welcome!