Book Review: Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion by Tori Telfer

This book offers a brief look at the lives of various con women throughout history. It’s divided into four sections: The Glitterati, The Seers, The Fabulists, and The Drifters. Each section contains brief essays about women who fit those descriptions. For example, Jeanne de Saint-Remy is in the Glitterati category. In the 1700s she convinced a jewelry company that she was Marie Antoinette’s best friend and the company’s owners handed her a decadent but ugly diamond necklace for Marie Antoinette to wear. Interestingly, Marie Antoinette had previously rejected the necklace and disliked wearing necklaces.

For the category of Seers, Telfer talks about spiritualists who could supposedly help their customers communicate with the dead for a fee. The Civil War helped these women become especially successful since so many people wanted to contact loved ones who died during the war. Though not an honest profession, it did help nineteenth century women to make money independently, which was rare.

In the Fabulist category, the author includes women who either made money off of tragedies or gained notoriety. One woman, Tania Head, claimed she survived 9/11 in one World Trade Center tower while her husband died in the other. She even formed a survivors organization which she was kicked out of when a New York Times reporter discovered the holes in her story.

The Drifter category introduces readers to Lauretta Williams, aka Loreta Janeta Velasquez. She disguised herself as a Confederate soldier and claimed in her book that she fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. There is no proof of her claims and the book’s contents are wildly inconsistent.

I was familiar with a few of the women in this book, including Lauretta Williams, but the the majority were unknown to me. I enjoy learning about little known aspects of history and I enjoyed the book. The explanation in the introduction and conclusion about why con women fascinate us and how they manage to con people who are otherwise intelligent was interesting. In part, they manage to con people because they are likable. Many people, including men, get conned because the women are so charming. They also speak to something in us that wants to be important or liked or to believe that we can control our lives.

The one major disadvantage to Confident Women is that it doesn’t go into depth on the women featured, but it’s a useful introduction to con women and readers can do more research if interested.

I recommend Confident Women to readers who enjoy women’s history. Tori Telfer is also the author of Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History which I’m looking forward to reading at some point.