The term “Big Bertha” is used to describe the most spectacular example of a piece of equipment. In World War I, Big Bertha described the enormous cannon used by the Germans to destroy previously impregnable forts. Today, Big Bertha is used to describe the world’s largest earth-moving machine, capable of boring a hole 58 feet in diameter. But in the 19th century, Big Bertha described a person — a spectacular woman, capable of separating previously impregnable men from their money.
In February 1888, Bertha Stanley visited Dr. Messing, Chief Rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation, accompanied by her stepson, Willie. She told the rabbi that she had inherited $300,000 ($6,000,000 in today’s money) from her husband, who was Christian, but she wanted her next marriage to be with someone in her original faith: Judaism. Bertha offered $1,000 to the person who would find her a thoroughly acceptable Jewish husband. She visited Dr. Messing frequently and met Messing’s brother-in-law, Abraham Gruhn, a wealthy businessman.
Bertha was described by the Chronicle as “being 40 years of age, decidedly ugly and weighing 250 pounds.” Though the newspapers made sport of her weight — describing her as elephantine, comparing her to a battleship — what she lacked in looks she made up with charisma.
Gruhn fell madly in love with Bertha and proposed marriage within a few days; there were many others to follow. Soon, Bertha had charmed her way into the top social class of Beth Israel, giving a check for $1,000 to the congregation and hinting at much more to come. She was the guest of honor at numerous soirees and managed to acquire an extensive wardrobe including jewelry, either as gifts or on credit.
Bertha told Gruhn her stepson was opposed to the marriage, and Gruhn lent Willie $500 as a way of softening his resistance. Then, Bertha and Willie departed to Los Angeles, pausing only to pawn the more expensive jewels.
When Bertha’s check bounced, Gruhn became suspicious and visited Isaiah Lees, San Francisco’ captain of detectives. Upon hearing Bertha’s description, Lees reached for a book, turned to photograph No. 122 and showed it to Gruhn. “Is this the woman?” he enquired.
A shocked Gruhn nodded his assent. The book was “Professional Criminals of America” by Thomas F. Byrnes, New York City’s chief of detectives. The description read, “Bertha Heyman, alias Big Bertha, Confidence Queen.”
Written in 1886, the book detailed her many swindles and noted that she was currently incarcerated. “Her sentence will expire in April 1887. She has the reputation of being one of the smartest, confident women in America,” Byrnes wrote admiringly. “She possesses a wonderful knowledge of human nature and can deceive those who consider themselves particularly shrewd in business matters.”
A warrant for Bertha’s arrest was issued. She and Willie fled L.A., but were captured in Texas. With calm confidence, Bertha was the picture of outraged innocence and soon became a press favorite.
Impresario Ned Foster saw an opportunity and launched Bertha into a theatrical career after bailing her out of jail. He booked her into Woodward’s Garden, and 18,000 people streamed in to see her and hear her paint herself as the victim in her poem, “The Confidence Queen.”
“So when vain grasping men
pant for glittering gold,
And find their bonanza in me
Is it wicked to show up how
badly they’re sold,
And the rogues that men
can sometimes be”
Bertha was acquitted in the trial, though Willie was convicted and sent to San Quentin for a short stretch. Bertha’s career continued with a booking in The Bella Union, San Francisco’s most popular music hall, and she discovered her lack of talent was no barrier to popularity. Bertha was paired with Oofty Goofty, a Barbary Coast character who made his living as a human punching bag. They staged boxing matches on stage, during which she would invariably knock him out. Then, in a stroke of comic genius, Foster cast them as the title characters in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Due to Bertha’s weight, the tender love scene had to play with Oofty in the balcony and Bertha on the ground.
One day, Bertha confided in her manager that her suitcase had a false bottom, containing $10,000 in Canadian bonds and thousands of dollars in jewelry. She asked him to handle the sale for her. While they negotiated over the next few days, Bertha borrowed small sums of money from Foster. He agreed to pay her $1,600 for the trunk, but before doing so he snuck into her room and discovered that the false bottom was a fake.
“The moment I discover a man’s a fool, I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned.’” Bertha once said. “It ministers to my intellectual pride.”
Bertha also claimed not to care about the money she made and said she gave some away to needy people; the records show otherwise. Like most con artists, Bertha robbed from everyone and kept everything.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit to www.crookstour.com.