Saturday, July 20, 2019

"What a 19th-Century Scammer Can Teach Us About Women, Lying, and Economic Boom-and-Bust Cycles"

From Longreads:

The No. 1 Ladies’ Defrauding Agency
Sarah Howe’s early life is mostly a mystery. There are no surviving photographs or sketches of her, so it’s impossible to know what she looked like. She may, at one point, have been married, but by 1877 she was single and working as a fortune-teller in Boston. It was a time of boom and invention in the United States. The country was rebuilding after the Civil War, industrial development was starting to take off, and immigration and urbanization were both increasing steadily. Money was flowing freely (to white people anyway), and men and women alike were putting that money into the nation’s burgeoning banks. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and in 1879 Thomas Edison created the lightbulb. In between those innovations, Sarah Howe opened the Ladies’ Deposit Company, a bank run by women, for women. 

The company’s mission was simple: help white women gain access to the booming world of banking. The bank only accepted deposits from so-called “unprotected females,” women who did not have a husband or guardian handling their money. These women were largely overlooked by banks who saw them — and their smaller pots of money — as a waste of time. In return for their investment, Howe promised incredible results: an 8 percent interest rate. Deposit $100 now, and she promised an additional $96 back by the end of the year. And to sweeten the deal, new depositors got their first three months interest in advance. When skeptics expressed doubts that Howe could really guarantee such high returns, she offered an explanation: The Ladies’ Deposit Company was no ordinary bank, but instead was a charity for women, bankrolled by Quaker philanthropists. 

Word of the bank spread quickly among single women — housekeepers, schoolteachers, widows. Howe, often dressed in the finest clothes, enticed ladies to join, and encouraged them to spread the news among their friends and family. This word-of-mouth marketing strategy worked, Howe’s bank gathered investments from across the country in a time before easy long-distance communication. Money came in from Buffalo, Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington, all without Howe taking out a single newspaper advertisement. She opened a branch of the bank in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and had plans to add offices in Philadelphia and New York to keep up with the demand. Many of the women who deposited with the Ladies’ Deposit Company reinvested their profits back in the bank, putting their faith, and entire life savings, in Howe’s enterprise. All told, the Ladies Deposit would gather at least $250,000 from 800 women — although historians think far more women were involved. Some estimate that Howe collected more like $500,000, the equivalent of about $13 million today. 

It didn’t take long for the press to notice a woman encroaching on a man’s space. And not just any woman, a single woman who had once been a fortune-teller! “Who can believe for a moment that this woman, who a few years ago was picking up a living by clairvoyance and fortune-telling, is now the almoner of one of the greatest charities in the country?” asked the Boston Daily Advertiser. Reporters were particularly put off by their inability to access even the lobby of Howe’s bank, turned away at the door for being men. One particularly intrepid reporter, determined to find out what Howe’s secret was, returned dressed as a woman to gain entry and more information.....