11 January 1642 - 22 January 1673)
Englishwoman, Mary Carleton, used false identities such as a German princess, to marry and defraud a number of men.
Her real name was Mary Moders and she was born in Canterbury, the daughter of a fiddler. She wed a young journeyman shoemaker named Thomas Stedman. Together they had two children who both died in infancy. Her marriage failing, she left Thomas and moved to Dover where she met and married a surgeon. This soon resulted in her prompt arrest and trial in Maidstone for bigamy.
After the trial she travelled to Cologne where she entered into a brief, but torrid, affair with a local nobleman. He bestowed her with many a valuable trinket as he pressed her for her hand in marriage. He even began the wedding preparations.
Fearful of getting into trouble again, Mary snuck out of Germany, not only with all her precious gifts in hand, but also with most of her landlady's money. She returned to England by way of the Netherlands.
By 1663, she was back in London and assumed the identity of the orphaned Princess van Wolway from Cologne. She claimed that she was born in Cologne and that her father was Henry van Wolway, Lord of Holmstein and that she had fled a possessive lover.
With this guise, she met and married John Carleton, brother-in-law of the landlord of the Exchange tavern, one of her favourite watering holes.
Soon after their wedding, someone sent her husband an anonymous letter which exposed her lies. Once again, she was arrested and brought to trial.
Her first recorded appearance was during that same 1663 trial. Charged for masquerading as a German princess and marrying John Carleton in London under that name, she insisted that John Carleton himself had claimed to be a lord and was trying to extract himself from their marriage because he had discovered she had no money. Divorce in those days was not only scandalous, but unheard of. Both John and Mary produced and published pamphlets to support their own claims. Lucky for Mary Carleton, the court believed her and she was acquitted.
Cashing in on her new fame, Mary wrote her own story entitled The Case of Madam Mary Carleton. It is suspected she used a ghostwriter. She also acted in a play about her life which resulted in numerous admirers all clamoring for her attention and all of which showered her with valuable gifts and jewels. She eventually married one of those gentleman. But in keeping with her character, she left him too, and took all his money, valuable, and keys while he lay in a drunken stupor.
Free once more, Mary took on the assumed identify of rich virgin heiress fleeing an undesirable suitor whom her father had arranged for her to marry. To back up her story, she arranged for someone to send her letters that contained bogus updates of family news. Conveniently, her new landlady found the letters, read them, and initiated a match between Mary and her nephew.
Never one to hesitate, Mary immediately arranged for a new letter to arrive. This one claimed that her brother had died and left her his entire inheritance, which included her father's forthcoming inheritance. The letter further stated that her father now became even more determined to marry her to a suitor she detested. The nephew, her new lover, invited her to live with him, but Mary and her accomplice who was disguised as a maid, stole his money.
Over the following ten years Mary used imilar methods to defraud numerous other men and landlords, often with the aid of her maid. It was easy and she got away with it most of the time because many of the poor men she tricked were too embarrassed to reveal they had been duped. Even though she was accused many times, she was jailed only briefly.
Once, she was arrested for stealing a silver tankard. She was given a death sentence which was commuted to penal transportation and was put on a boat and sent to Jamaica. Somehow, after only two years she returned to London, again under the pretence of being a rich heiress. This time, she married a wealthy apothecary at Westminster. As was her practice, she stole his money too and left him.
In December 1672, she was captured by a man who was searching for his stolen possessions finally found her. Her trial began on January 16, 1673 at the Old Bailey. It was soon discovered that she had returned from penal transportation without permission. This fact, in addition to her other crimes, resulted in a death sentence. On January 22, 1673, she was executed by hanging.
Rumours about her life abound. At one time, it was said she had taken to masculine cross-dressing.
This is an amazing story, especially when you think about how confined by societal rules we consider women of the past to have been!
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