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Barbara Erni was a famous con artist in the 1700s whose treacherous trunk trick earned her a reputation, and ultimately an untimely end. Source: Thicha & Andrey Kiselev / Adobe Stock

The Brazen Cons of Barbara Erni and Gregor MacGregor

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Throughout our relatively modern history, con artists, thieves, and scammers have been a dime a dozen. In dire times of poverty and lawlessness, shrewd and mischievous people resorted to the world of crime. They’d swindle and steal, trick and lie in order to get rich quickly and flee from the long legs of the law. One such deceitful dame was a charming young lady, whose luscious looks and natural womanly charm perfectly hid a much baser nature. Barbara Erni was a natural born thief, but the way she did it is the most astonishing part of her tale. Today we go to one of Europe’s tiniest nations – Liechtenstein – as we retrace the steps of Miss Erni and her many misdeeds. This riveting tale is so surreal that it could easily pass for a witty crime thriller.

Ruffians, Thieves and Con Artists: Deception Is the Name of the Game

There are many ways to be a thief. From plain old ruffian criminal, to cunning heister, and all the forms of trickery in between. One thing is clear: there are innumerable ways to fool people and relieve them of their most precious belongings. One of the subtler ways of stealing is fraud. And since the “heroine” of our story was a charming young woman, old-fashioned thievery was certainly not for her. That is why Barbara Erni relied on a particularly subtle form of fraud called confidence tricks .

A confidence trick is one of the simpler forms of deception, which relies on basic human compassion. The trickster exploits a good natured victim, whose simplicity and compassion make it easy for the thief to achieve their intended goal. One defining aspect of con men and women who rely on confidence tricks is their ability to lure people into voluntarily agreeing to some elaborate scheme which usually involves an exchange of valuables. Of course, such an exchange is a lie, and is only beneficial for the thief.

Miss Erni was one hell of a talented con artist. And it was not the complexity of her methods that set her deeds apart, but quite the opposite. Her scheme was such a laughably simple plan that it is a wonder that it actually worked.

Humble Origins of Goldene Boos

Much is lost to time regarding the humble origins of this peculiar lady, but we do know some things for sure. Barbara Erni was born in the small town of Feldkirch in Austria, right on the border with Liechtenstein, with a population of around 3200 people in the 18 th century. Her parents were both homeless, and from this we can liberally deduce that her childhood was far from ideal. If she and her parents remained homeless, we can safely assume that she was raised on the streets, perhaps even stealing and conning from an early age.

Erni was born in 1743, on February 15th. The next time she appears in the historic record is when she is 36 years old, due to her marriage with a man of questionable repute. Tiroler Franz had a penchant for crime. Either Erni met him during a joint operation, or simply learned her tricks from her new husband. Either way, Barbara Erni quickly became the talk of central Europe, having carried out a string of crafty frauds.

History has noted that she had reddish, strawberry blond hair, and was quite well built and strong. In the area where she grew up, Barbara Erni was known as the Goldene Boos, most likely due to her hair.

Wherever con artist Barbara Erni travelled, she lugged a hefty trunk, which was the main prop in her laughably simple confidence trick. ( dcw25 / Adobe Stock)

The Fidgeting Midget: The Treacherous Trunk Trick

Either way, Barbara Erni seemed awfully fond of travelling, something quite unusual during the mid-1700s. And wherever the Golden Boos travelled, she lugged a hefty travelling chest. During these trips, Erni frequented the inns of Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Germany, and other neighboring lands. Once she entered one of these inns, Barbara would ask for a room for the night. But not just any room. She would ask for the safest, most secure room in the building.

At this point she would begin her elaborate, well rehearsed ruse: The hefty chest she was carrying contained priceless valuables, which she could not leave overnight in a basic room. Falling for her tall tale, the inn keeper would comply, locking the chest in the safest room available. This room was always the room that contained valuables. After successfully managing to convince the inn proprietor, Barbara Erni would casually retreat to her room for the night, leaving her chest locked away. This is where the fun part began.

When night fell and the inn was closed, Barbara Erni’s unassuming trunk would come to life. Within it there wasn’t any treasure, but a little man. Whether a dwarf, or simply a child, is unknown. What clues remain after all this time, point to the possibility that the locked accomplice was in fact an adult dwarf. Either way, this individual would exit the chest during the night, hunting for money and valuables, and unlock the room from within. Barbara Erni would then elope with her little accomplice, never to be seen again.

Many an innkeeper was greeted in the morning with a nasty surprise: his guest gone without a trace, alongside his valuables. The ruse was simple and far-fetched, but it worked. And not just once. Barbara Erni successfully committed such thefts seventeen times all over the region, leaving many inns impoverished and clueless.

News of Barbara Erni’s deceit spread fast in the small country of Liechtenstein, causing anger and demands for justice. She was killed in a public beheading in Vaduz in 1785, the last person to receive capital punishment in the small European nation. (Public domain).

News of Barbara Erni’s deceit spread fast in the small country of Liechtenstein, causing anger and demands for justice. She was killed in a public beheading in Vaduz in 1785, the last person to receive capital punishment in the small European nation. ( Public domain ).

Unintended Consequences: Sweet Justice for Barbara Erni

But her luck would eventually run out as word spread of a young charmer with a large trunk. After a string of years filled with successful robberies, Barbara Erni was caught alongside her tiny accomplice. She was arrested in May 1784 in the small town of Eschen in Liechtenstein and put in prison in the capital city of Vaduz on May 27 th of the same year. Barbara confessed to committing 17 thefts using her infamous confidence trick.

During her trial she described her methods in detail for the benefit of the court. At the time, Liechtenstein was a sanctuary of sorts, which enjoyed high standards of living, and maybe for this reason she believed she would be spared. But alas, the court decided to dispense a strong measure of justice. Barbara Erni, and her accomplice too one must assume, was sentenced to death by beheading on December 7 th 1784.

Liechtenstein was always a small country. Being only 25 kilometers (15.6 miles) long and 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) wide, this tiny nation was smaller than some cities of the time. And in such small places, news spread quickly. At the time Liechtenstein had only around 40,000 citizens in the entire country, but these were 40,000 somewhat angry citizens. The citizens demanded justice, and the courts had to concede. Capital punishment was not a usual occurrence in Liechtenstein, and the nation had to import an executioner in order to go through with the execution.

Thus it was, that on February 26 th, 1785, Barbara Erni departed this mortal coil as her head was parted from her body on a scaffold during her public beheading in Vaduz. Around a thousand spectators witnessed her final moment. It is safe to assume that her miniscule partner-in-crime shared the same, grisly fate. Liechtenstein officially abolished the death penalty many centuries later, in 1987. But, even so, Barbara Erni was the last person to receive capital punishment.

Con Artist and Brazen Fraudster: Gregor MacGregor Takes the Biscuit

We can all agree that Miss Erni’s scheme was straight out silly and shameless. But hey, if it works it works, right? While she remains one of the earliest documented con artists and confidence tricksters, she narrowly misses the title of the most brazen fraudster of all. That privilege goes to one Scottish gentleman by the name of Gregor MacGregor. Now, buckle up, because if you though Barbara Erni’s midget-in-a-box scheme was outrageous, you’re in for a surprise. How does “inventing an entire new country” sound?

Gregor MacGregor, who claimed to be Cazique of the fictional Poyais. (Public domain)

Gregor MacGregor, who claimed to be Cazique of the fictional Poyais. ( Public domain )

Gregor MacGregor, of Clan Gregor, was born in 1786, the year following Barbara Erni’s untimely departure from the land of the living. He was a respected officer of the British Army. A bold adventurer, a soldier and eventually a general, but above all a confidence trickster. While he accomplished many respectable military feats during his career, today he is remembered for his inspired Poyais scheme.

Gregor MacGregor of Clan Gregor – King of Con Men With a Cool Name

In 1820 MacGregor found himself on the Gulf of Honduras in coastal Central America. The region was under the British Crown and influence, and inhabited with varied indigenous peoples and mixed race mestizos. The British had managed to control the indigenous chieftains by simply proclaiming them “kings”. In reality, they were not kings at all, and unbeknownst to them they continued to be mere tribal chieftains under the direct control of the British Crown. The British of course had an ulterior motive: by protecting the locals and declaring the land as indigenous, they could prevent the Spanish from claiming it.

It was here that the Gregor MacGregor thought up his cunning plan. A plan so devious, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. On returning to London in 1821, he claimed that “King” George Frederic Augustus had granted him a huge swath of land. While the name sounded rather regal, George Frederic Augustus was merely a chieftain of the mixed-race tribe of Miskitos. These Miskito Sambo people inhabited the coast of Honduras known as Mosquito Coast, and held no real power at all, even though they appropriated British names.

As part of his elaborate ruse, Gregor MacGregor printed Bank of Poyais dollar notes in Scotland, which he bartered for real British money with gullible would-be settlers. (Public domain)

As part of his elaborate ruse, Gregor MacGregor printed Bank of Poyais dollar notes in Scotland, which he bartered for real British money with gullible would-be settlers. ( Public domain )

But that didn’t stop MacGregor from pulling off his crafty scam. “King” Frederic Augustus signed a legal document in April 1820 granting MacGregor an enormous piece of land on the Miskito Coast. MacGregor thus claimed he had been made a Prince of 8,000,000 acres (3,237,485 hectares). To the Miskito natives this was perhaps a bunch of numbers on paper, but the area was actually larger than Wales! Gregor MacGregor got this “modest” piece of land in exchange for rum and some jewelry. Talk about a good deal!

A Country Born of an Overactive Imagination: MacGregor’s Poyais Scheme

Back in London, MacGregor invented an elaborate backstory. During his time in Latin America , he had been proclaimed a Cazique, a term for a native chieftain and prince, of a land he named Poyais. The grand tale he span of the exotic kingdom of which he was ruler made him the toast of London, where he was showered with invitations to every grand event, prominent dinner and ball by sophisticated London society.

Gregor MacGregor produced a 355-page guidebook called “Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, Including the Territory of Poyais”, part of an aggressive sales strategy which was part and parcel of his spectacular Poyais Scheme, the ultimate confidence trick. (Public domain)

Gregor MacGregor produced a 355-page guidebook called “Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, Including the Territory of Poyais”, part of an aggressive sales strategy which was part and parcel of his spectacular Poyais Scheme, the ultimate confidence trick. ( Public domain )

MacGregor claimed he had come in search of investors and settlers for the land of Poyais. He even printed a false proclamation of his state, which he showed to those who believed his lies, and claimed that his nation followed a democratic system of government. All the while, he was actually “King” of a huge swath of inhospitable jungle.

MacGregor announced a land grant for investors and colonists, and created a highly detailed system of government for his nonexistent nation, official army uniforms and all. It was the talk of the town. Hundreds of trusting people made investments into the invented country of Poyais, filling MacGregor’s pockets to the brim. Around 1822, about 250 eager, and mostly Scottish, settlers emigrated to Poyais, travelling across the ocean in search of a bright future on Mosquito Coast.

Once there, these people found nothing but dense and inhospitable jungle, with no trace of human habitation. Nearly all of them died, with only about fifty people returning to Scotland alive. MacGregor’s scheme was soon discovered, and he and his accomplices were involved in a lengthy and complex trial. Eventually, he was acquitted and set free. He attempted to pull other smaller swindles in London, and eventually died peacefully in Caracas in 1845.

The Art of the Con: Don’t Get Any Ideas!

It takes a good deal of imagination and deceit to find innovative ways to steal from others. Even though Barbara Erni lost her head in the end, it didn’t mean her ludicrous scheme didn’t work. However, greed is a mischievous trickster in and of itself, that can cajole you to keep going in search of more and more, until you ultimately run aground and get caught red handed. And when that happens, all the money in the world won’t be worth a thing. Barbara Erni and Gregor MacGregor have taught us that even the simplest or outlandish of schemes can work when performed by skilled con artists and criminals. Just don’t try it yourself, ok?

Top image: Barbara Erni was a famous con artist in the 1700s whose treacherous trunk trick earned her a reputation, and ultimately an untimely end. Source: Thicha & Andrey Kiselev / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Headsman. 2015. 1785: Barbara Erni, the Golden Boos. ExecutedToday. Available at: http://www.executedtoday.com/tag/barbara-erni/

Imbler, S. 2019. The Liechtensteinian Lady Burglar and Her Mysterious Trunk. Atlas Obscura. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/who-was-barbara-erni-grifter

Simanaitis, D. 2017. Con Women – Balancing the Game. Simanaitis Says. Available at:
https://simanaitissays.com/2017/04/02/con-women-balancing-the-game/

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