Madame Rachel was a London con artist and criminal during the late 19th century. Wealthy women paid shocking amounts of money for her outrageous products.
Born into a Jewish acting family in London about 1814, her cousin was the musician Henry Russell. She was wed to a chemist, Jacob Moses, in 1844. He abandoned her in 1846 and later died when he drowned when the Royal Charter sank in 1859.
Many people assume the Victorians were straight-laced, sexually suppressed people preoccupied with manners and elegance. Though a typecast founded in truth, lots of Victorians didn’t play by the rules. Some of the British who lived in the 19th century was the maddest of all. In 1863, Madame Rachel opened a shop in Bond Street, London, with the words ‘Beautiful for Ever’ adorned above the doorway. Using her shop as a front, she blackmailed many prominent and well-off members of London’s elite through the 1860s. Amongst her embellished and dishonest claims, she offered her clients around sixty formulations.
People have always considered different ways to fight off old age. In the Victorian age, women who were unhappy with their looks turned to Madame Rachel and her Arabian Preparations. But Madame Rachel’s makeup was nothing more than fiction.
Rachel complimented her pay by trading in second-hand clothes. It was also said she worked as a procuress for a brothel proprietor. She fell ill and her beautiful dark hair fell out. She was frantic to save her locks and saw many doctors hoping to find something that would reinstate her hair to its previous lustre. Finally, one tonic worked, and she set up a business selling restoratives. Regrettably, she had no standing in the field, so she decided the best way to establish herself and gain a respectable reputation.
She was born Sarah Rachel Russell. Madame Rachel began her working life as a cook and fortune teller. But she soon hit on a plan. It was a scheme that would get her out of Whitechapel in the East End of London and put her in an upmarket home in Blackheath. She took advantage of the women of London, assuring everlasting beauty with mind-blowing makeup.
Madame Rachel’s products were made of useless ingredients like fuller’s earth and chemicals like hydrochloric acid. Even so, women herded to her beauty salon in Mayfair, anyway. Fuller’s earth is a clay material that can decolourise fluids without the use of severe chemical usage. Contemporary uses of fuller’s earth involve absorbents for grease, oil, and cat litter.
Rachel’s reputation came from her outrageous claims. For instance, she told people she was much older than she really was, hoodwinking people into believing her goods were responsible for her young appearance. She was so convincing with her claims that she counselled Queen Victoria on cosmetics. As a result, wealthy women paid shocking amounts of money for her outrageous products. One such product she peddled was ‘rock water dew’ from the Sahara Desert. Basically, it was bran mixed with water. Rachel’s most popular care was ‘enamelling,’ a procedure in which she poured white gloop into wrinkly cracks and then whacked on plenty of powder and rouge. And the cost? Over £2,000 in today’s money.
One lady realised she was being deceived, there wasn’t much Rachel could do about it. Back in the Victorian age, makeup was a no-no, suitable only for prostitutes and actresses. If a woman’s spouse found out she was wearing make-up, it was grounds for divorce. Therefore, besides cheating her clients, Rachel also blackmailed them. Sometimes she would take money from creepy perverts to observe her customers bathing in the rear of her premises.
However, all decent cons must come to an end. When a well-off widow with nothing to lose took Madam Rachel to court. The fake businesswoman ended up in prison for ten years. You’d think she would have learned her lesson, but when she was released, she was detained again for deception. But this time, she died behind bars on 12th October 1880, aged 66.
Rachel’s daughter, Helene Crossmond-Turner, was an opera singer who overcame the disgrace related to ‘Madame Rachel’ and sang successfully in England, America and Italy.
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