#122 Bertha Heyman

Bertha Schlesinger (Abt. 1853-1901), aka Bertha Heyman, Bertha Kerkow, Bertha Stanley, Big Bertha, etc. — Swindler

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-five years old in 1886. Born in Germany. Married. Very stout woman. Height, 5 feet 4 inches. Weight, 245 pounds. Hair brown, eyes brown, fair complexion. German face. An excellent talker. Has four moles on her right cheek.

RECORD. Bertha Heyman’s maiden name was Bertha Schlesinger. She is a native of Koblyn, near Posen, Prussia. Her father served five years in prison there for forging a check. She was married twice, first to one Fritz Karko, when she first came to this country in 1878. After living in New York a short time they went to Milwaukee, where she was afterwards married to a Mr. Heyman, although her first husband was still living. She has been concerned in a number of swindling transactions, and has the reputation of being one of the smartest confidence women in America. In September, 1880, she was sued in the Superior Court of New York City for obtaining by false pretenses $1,035 from E. T. Perrin, a conductor on a palace car, whom she met in traveling from Chicago. She was arrested in London, Ontario, on February 8, 1881, in company of one Dr. J. E. Cooms, charged with defrauding a Montreal commercial man out of several hundred dollars by the confidence game.


Bertha, in her last years, preferred to be known by her nickname, Big Bertha, and used it to publicize her stage appearances and the honky-tonks that she managed in Spokane, Butte, and other cities. One reason for that decision is that it eliminated the necessity of having to explain the many married names she had accumulated. She was born in Kobylin, Prussia (now Poland), not far from Breslau. On one marriage record she listed her parents as David Schlesinger and Ernestine Frankel. She once gave an interview that offered a version of her early career, much of which can be verified:


“Fred” was Friedrich Kerkow, a partner in a very small bank in New York that served German-speakers. Fred’s story is that he first saw Bertha working as a cleaning woman, and was entranced by the pretty young girl. They married in November, 1870, when Bertha was still a teen. The marriage lasted many years; they moved together to Milwaukee in 1875 to open a millinery store–likely an ambition of Bertha’s more than Fred’s. Did Fred abandon her in Milwaukee? He never offered his version of events. In 1877, Bertha remarried to a traveling suspender salesman, John Heyman. They maintained the millinery store in Milwaukee for a short while, but Bertha and Heyman moved to a more expensive residence, where Bertha soon gained a reputation for entertaining young German actresses and the men wishing to meet them. Unpleasant rumors caused Bertha and Heyman to decamp to New York City in the spring of 1880.

On the way to New York from Chicago, Bertha struck up conversation with a Pullman palace train car conductor, and convinced him that she had many wealthy assets in need of management, and enticed him to quit his job and take over as her estate manager–but first she needed $1000 in cash to settle some matters. The conductor, Mr. Perrin, thought it was a good opportunity, and lent her the money. Upon arrival in New York, Bertha encamped in a series of luxury hotels and ran up bills, retaining a respected lawyer to advise her. Soon both the conductor, Mr. Perrin, and the lawyer, Mr. Botty, were forced to take legal action to recover the money and services they had invested in the pretend-millionairess. Mr. Botty was the person that Bertha later claimed had informed her that she was an heiress; while Mr. Botty claimed that she was the one that first contacted him.

It was at the onset of this imposture and legal woes that husband number two, John Heyman, left Bertha. As Chief Byrnes mentions, there always seemed to be a shadowy male con man feeding Bertha’s ambitions by providing forged checks and phony bonds offered in security for cash; in New York, this figure had the name of “J. E. Cooms” (aka Coombs, Combs). When the pleas of Mr. Perrin and Mr. Botty were joined by a Mrs. Schlaarbaum of Staten Island, who claimed that Bertha had stolen jewelry from her boarding house, Bertha and Cooms fled to Canada. They were arrested there for perpetrating a fraud and retreated back to New York.

Once again in New York, Bertha took rooms in a boarding house on Staten Island, where she was arrested for stealing a watch from her landlady. She was tried and convicted in October, 1881 for the watch theft, a term she served in the New York Penitentiary. She was freed in June of 1883. Bertha was then put on trial for her earlier swindles in New York, and was returned to prison on August 30, 1883. Finally, the time she owed New York authorities expired in April, 1887.

Within a year, Bertha reappeared in San Francisco as “Bertha Stanley,” accompanied by a young man she introduced as a son, William H. Stanley (who may have been the same person as Dr. J. E. Cooms). In San Francisco, she approached a leader among the Jewish community, Rabbi A. J. Messing, whom she had known as a child in Prussia. She explained to the Rabbi that she had married a gentile, a Mr. Stanley of LaSalle, Illinois, now deceased. Mr. Stanley had left her a fortune, but she now desired to marry within her faith and asked the Rabbi’s help in finding a suitable husband. Messing introduced her to members of the Beth Israel synagogue, including his unmarried brother-in-law, Abraham Gruhn. Gruhn was entranced by Bertha, despite her now-ordinary looks and heavy girth.

Within days, Gruhn and Bertha were heading a lavish engagement party, at which Bertha’s fake son “Willie” asked Gruhn for $500 to overcome his objections to his mother remarrying. Bertha wore a great quantity of diamonds, which were paste; but their display gave “Willie” the opportunity to suggest to several women that he could take their jewelry and reset the stones in the latest fashion, such as those Bertha wore. Gruhn also presented his betrothed with more jewelry. Within days, Bertha and Willie had pawned all the jewelry they had received, along with Gruhn’s cash, and headed south toward Los Angeles. Gruhn and Messing, after a day or two, slowly realized they might have been swindled. They approached the San Francisco police, who showed them Bertha’s picture in Byrnes’ book.

Detectives traced Bertha and Willie to San Antonio, Texas, where the pair was arrested. They were brought back to San Francisco to stand trial for larceny. Gruhn, who still had a soft spot for Bertha, tempered his testimony against her, forcing the prosecution to focus their efforts on Willie Stanley. The court proceedings attracted overflow crowds–a fact not unnoticed by Bertha. In the end, after prevailing in both a civil and criminal suit, she was acquitted; while Stanley was found guilty of obtaining goods under false pretenses, and was sentenced to just six months.

Bertha considered opening another millinery shop, but instead accepted an offer to appear on the stage of a low-brow opera house.  Her act consisted of posing in scenes recreating her scandals in San Francisco; followed by her posing in classical scenes in flesh-colored tights. She attracted larger-than-usual crowds eager to see “Big Bertha.” Over the next year, she took her act on the road throughout the West Coast, sometimes adding an appearance as a collar-and-elbow wrestler, willing to take on any comer. As she traveled, she attracted new admirers who presented her with gifts and offers of marriage.

During this period, reporters tracked down her first husband, Fritz Kerkow, who was now operating a popular cafe in Los Angeles. Bertha went to the cafe to meet him, and later only said that Kerkow had broken down in tears.

By 1893, Big Bertha was not only appearing on stage, but also managed honky-tonk theaters in Spokane, Washington; Bakersfield, California; and Butte, Montana. These dives presented entertainments that are hard to imagine today:


Bertha died in Chicago in May, 1901, while managing a similar type of dive in that city.

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