At the time of her first trial for fraud in 1868, Madame Rachel’s case exposed not only the thinly veiled anti-Semitism that was rampant in Victorian London, but also their fears of independent women running successful businesses. She threatened everything that the Victorians held dear about the role of women, who were supposed to be chaste, unpainted angels who needed protection. Whores, actresses and loose women wore make-up and cared about their appearances, not the average Victorian housewife, or so they thought. Her trial exposed women’s dirty, little secret, that they were willing to pay a high price in their pursuit of beauty.
In the 19th century, cosmetics were a lucrative growth business; companies such as Rimmel were founded. But the industry was still in its infancy, and products were crude, and colors were limited. Make-up consisted of rouge and powder, red salve for the lips and kohl for the eyes but any respectable woman who used more than face powder was given disapproving looks. Queen Victoria, in particular, was appalled at the idea of women using cosmetics. Female beauty was only supposed to be achieved by washing with soap and water, and exposure to fresh air, but not too much dancing as it gave an undignified flush to the cheeks. There was such a general hostility to make-up that most women concocted their cosmetics at home using homemade recipes with ingredients such as arsenic. Only those with money could afford face washes and creams offered by proprietors such as Madame Rachel.
Madame Rachel claimed to be a woman of social standing who was distantly related to the great French tragedienne Rachel Felix. In reality, she was born Sarah Rachel Russell sometime between 1806 and 1814. She grew up poor and illiterate in the East End of London, but what she lacked in formal education, she more than made up with street smarts. According to biographers, Rachel was married to an assistant chemist in Manchester, and then later in 1844 to a man named Jacob Moses who deserted her. She later moved in with a man named Philip Levinson (also known as Levy or Leverson), whose name she subsequently took. Leverson was the father of six of her children. Initially Rachel had a fried fish and potatoes stall in the slums of Clement St. Danes, supplementing her income as a dealer in second hand clothes, before she hit on a more lucrative line of work, selling cosmetics.
She came armed with a sob story guaranteed to win sales, claiming that she’d been ill with a fever and her beautiful locks were shorn. A medical man told her that he would give her a lotion which would make not only make her hair grow back, but even more beautiful and luxurious than before. The product worked and Madame was launched into the beauty business. With the help of her oldest daughter also named Rachel, she wrote a pamphlet called Beautiful for Ever, which laid out her philosophy of beauty. The pamphlet was only 24 pages and could only be purchased exclusively at Madame Rachel’s.
Although she may not have had a formal education, she was a natural when it came to marketing her products and her business. Madame Rachel advertised her exotic sounding wares in publications like The Times of London, the Court Journal and Debrett’s peerage, places where her target audience, wealthy women, would see them and become intrigued. Next she secured premises in Bond Street (No. 47A) for her shop. She claimed to not only be a ‘purveyor to Her Majesty the Queen,” but also Empress Eugenie, one of the most admired beauties of the era. She also jacked up the prices, proving that even in the Victorian age; people believed that if something was incredibly expensive, it must be good. To make it even more alluring, Madame Rachel advertised that nowhere else could women obtain the products that she offered. Everyone loves exclusivity. She also claimed she and her daughters were much older than they were as proof of efficacy of her products. If Madame Rachel were alive today, she would probably be the CEO of a global advertising firm.
Women would arrive at her door heavily veiled so that no one would recognize them. Once inside, Madame made sure that they were surrounded by luxury. The premises were decorated with Middle Eastern opulence, the scent of sandalwood and incense in the air, their every need attended to by young women in flowing robes. And at the center of it all was Madame Rachel, dressed all in black, like a spider luring its prey. For her more discreet patrons, Madame Rachel also made house calls. The season which stretched from about the beginning of February until mid-July was her busiest time. According to her most recent biographer Helen Rappaport, Madame Rachel raked in thousands of pounds on a weekly basis, which eventually bought her a box at Covent Garden, a fine carriage and a pair of horses. Madame Rachel didn’t just spend her money on herself; she used the money to send her younger daughters and sons to school in Paris so that they could obtain the education that she never had. Her eldest son David was attending medical school in London.
Madame Rachel offered an array of treatments all with suitably luxurious and exotic names. Items such as Rejuvenating Jordan water which sold for 10 to 20 guineas a bottle (about £1,000 today), Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymetus wash, along with perfumes, oils and spices that she imported at great expense from Armenia, Circassia and Madagascar. But her most sought after treatment was what she called ‘enameling.’ Anyone who has seen portraits of Queen Elizabeth I probably have a good idea of what the treatment entailed. Her customers craved a white, porcelain complexion not just on the face but also the bosom and shoulders. The price for this treatment was a mere 20 guineas. The treatment was actually quite simple. Madame would use various lotions to remove facial hair, followed by an alkaline toilet wash to cleanse the skin, and then she would fill in the lines and depressions on the face with a thick white paste. A little powder to set the paste and a touch of blush completed the process.
But beauty treatments weren’t all that Madame Rachel offered. She also had a neat little sideline going as a so-called marriage broker, as well as procurer. Lonely widows and spinsters would come to Madame Rachel for treatments, and then once she had ‘beautified’ them, she offered them a chance at personal happiness but it was all lies. Like con artists since the dawn of time, Madame Rachel exploited the weaknesses of women to make a profit. She would also encourage her clients to take an Arabian bath and then men would pay money to spy on them through a peep hole.
But her most profitable sideline was in blackmail. Madame’s treatments cost a fortune, and many of her upper class clients were in debt up to their eyeballs. Until the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882, a married woman had no money of her own unless she had a forward thinking Papa who made sure that his little darling had an allowance or pin money as part of her dowry. Most women were not that lucky. They were basically spending their husbands’ money without his permission. Madame Rachel would extend them credit and then once they owed her thousands of pounds, she would try to collect. Since the women were too afraid to tell their husbands the truth, Madame would offer to take their jewels as collateral. Madame would then take the jewels to a pawn shop and keep the money for herself. Women were too afraid to take Madame to court because it meant being exposed to ridicule and social humiliation.
In 1868, one of her former clients was finally brave enough to sue Madame for fraud and malpractice. While Madame was eventually convicted, her client’s reputation was ruined. The client’s name was Mary Tucker Borradaile, a widow of an Army colonel who had been stationed in India. She had met Madame Rachel in 1864, and continued to patronize her shop for several years. As an inducement for Mrs. Borradaile to continue her treatments, Madame Rachel told her that an aristocrat named Lord Ranelagh (Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh) was in love with her. Mrs. Borradaile corresponded with Lord Ranelagh solely through Madame Rachel, continuing to give her money for treatments, until in the end she’d even signed over her widow’s pension. Of course, Lord Ranelagh, a notorious rake and scoundrel, denied that he had ever met Mrs. Borradaile or set foot in Madame Rachel’s shop.
The newspapers and tabloids had a field day with the story. They printed vicious anti-Semitic cartoons; the case seemed to confirm people’s suspicions about Jews, that they were avaricious and foreign, preying on the good citizens of Britain. There was so much coverage of the case, with so many slanderous stories, that it would have been impossible for Madame Rachel to receive a fair trial. The case went through two trials before Madame Rachel was convicted. By the end, the judge clearly believed that she was guilty and made no bones of his opinion in front of the jury. Madame Rachel nee Sarah Rachel Leverson was sentenced to five years penal servitude, of which she served three years. Unrepentant, she went back into the beauty business. Ten years after her first conviction, she was once again convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison where she died in 1880. During her second trial, several of her products were analyzed and found to contain nothing more than water, fullers earth, pearl ash, starch and hydrochloric acid.Sources:
Margaret Nicholas, The World's Wickedest Women, Octopus Books Limited, London, 1984
Helen Rappaport, Beautiful for Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street – Cosmetician, Con-Artist and Blackmailer. Ebrington: Long Barn Books 2010.
The Extraordinary Life and Trial of Madame Rachel at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey