A tale of money, vanity and a ruthless con-artist

Madame Rachel preyed on rich Victorian women by pandering to their desire to be beautiful. But she was a victim too, says author Helen Rappaport

Madame Rachel was the target of vicious antisemitic caricature

Madame Rachel was the target of vicious antisemitic caricature

In the mid-19th century, when women were first beginning to express a serious interest in cosmetics, and the beauty business was in its infancy, there was one practitioner in London whose name was on everyone's lips - Madame Rachel. Anyone who was anyone in fashionable society and who wanted to preserve their looks paid discreet visits to her salon at 47A New Bond Street to indulge in her mysterious beauty treatments, handed down, so she claimed, from generation to generation in her family.

The name might sound glamorous, but the woman who called herself Madame Rachel and who conned a fortune out of rich and gullible high-society women in the 1860s and 1870s was a clever con-artist who had risen from humble Jewish beginnings in the East End. Then known as Sarah Russell, she had grown up in the Petticoat Lane area, selling bottles and rabbit skins from a barrow and later dealing in second-hand clothes among the actresses of Drury Lane. It was here that she probably had a hand in procuring girls for a brothel run by her friend David Belasco, brother of the famous East End bare-knuckle boxing champion, Aby Belasco.

She next turned her hand to the Victorian equivalent of the fast-food trade, setting up a fried fish and hot potato shop in Clare Market in the 1850s, catering in particular to the demand among her fellow Jews for cold fried fish for the Sabbath.

But the clever and enterprising Sarah had aspirations for much bigger pickings. An expert at self-reinvention, with an intimidating air and an unshakeable belief in her own talents, she discovered the merits of hair restoratives when she lost her hair after an illness and decided to cash in on the growing demand for hair lotions and cosmetics.

Setting herself up in business in Covent Garden, she said goodbye to plain Sarah Russell. She adopted a new trade name which added an air of mystique to her enterprise, by claiming to be related to the illustrious French Jewish tragedienne Mademoiselle Rachel, who had been a great hit with London theatre audiences in the 1840s. Word soon spread among rich society women about the range of exotic creams and potions she had on offer. Her rapid rise to fame enabled her to move to Mayfair in 1860, to suitably exotic premises in New Bond Street. Here, at what she grandly called her "Temple of Renovation" Madame Rachel systematically fleeced the vain and gullible women who beat a path to her door, willing to pay the astronomical prices she charged.

Her "costly Arabian preparations", Madame Rachel assured her clients, were made from the choicest ingredients, imported at great expense from far flung Araby, Circassia and Armenia. Her sales catalogue listed a wide range of unguents, lotions, scents, and herbs for the skin and the bath - and she obliged her customers by extending unlimited credit to them, as was commonly expected by ladies of social standing.

Rachel's most expensive product, at two guineas a bottle – something like £130 today – was her "Magnetic Rock Dew Water of the Sahara for Removing Wrinkles", brought all the way across the desert on swift dromedaries, according to the sales hype, exclusively for her salon. There were bottles of precious Jordan Water too, with its miracle-working properties. In court Madame Rachel's prosecutor would later wonder which river Rachel had in mind - the Jordan or the Thames.

Rich women could not get enough of Madame Rachel's colossally expensive products and soon ran into trouble. For, in the days before the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, they were effectively spending their husbands' money. They ran up huge debts; when they couldn't pay, Madame would suggest they left their jewels with her as security, which she then promptly pawned. Rachel's accounts book thus became a blackmailer's dream; she preyed on the terror of exposure that haunted her fashionable clients. But in the end, some of them finally had the courage to tell their husbands and seek legal advice.

The levels of Rachel's con-artistry were exposed in two high profile trials in 1868 - the first a mistrial - followed by a High Court Appeal the next year. But, while exposing the extent of her fraudulent operation, the trials also laid bare the unpleasant underbelly of British antisemitism, on the rise since the Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli - who had converted to Christianity as a teenager - had become Prime Minister earlier that year. Between Madame Rachel's first and second trials the gutter press, satirical journals and music halls had a field day with their savagely antisemitic character assassination of Rachel and the two daughters who assisted her, as a "nest of Jewish vipers" at New Bond Street.

Madame Rachel might have been a criminal but she deserved a fair trial - which she did not get. Many in the legal profession pointed out that she had been condemned contrary to the evidence and should have been acquitted. Her sentence to five years for fraud, was as much a condemnation of her as a woman - and a Jew - as for being a criminal.

The racism that fuelled her trial did not go unnoticed. "Madame Rachel," claimed the Penny Illustrated Paper, had been "the subject of a great amount of much that we should call prejudice."

Rachel's prison sentence did nothing to deter her. After being released early, in 1872, on a ticket of leave, she went back into business, albeit on a reduced scale, at Great Portland Street, and in 1878 was again taken to court for fraud. But, suffering from a weak heart, she did not survive her second five-year jail term.

Sarah Rachel Levison, or Leverson, or Levy, or Moses or Russell - or any of the several other names attributed to her during her notorious career - died in Woking jail in 1880. But her name lived on in Victorian popular culture and so did the aspirations to eternal beauty that drove women to her door. No lessons, it would seem, have been learned in the quest to keep the ageing process at bay. Women today are prepared to pay the same inflated prices for increasingly invasive cosmetic treatments. Like Madame Rachel's clients before them, they are still engaged in a futile quest to remain beautiful for ever.

Helen Rappaport's book Beautiful For Ever is published by Long Barn Books in hardback at £12.99

    Last updated: 11:02am, April 8 2010