Therese Humbert case. How the scam of the century was matured by a woman, near Toulouse

02/12/2022 By acomputer 403 Views

Therese Humbert case. How the scam of the century was matured by a woman, near Toulouse

By Laurent DernePublished on
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Our series on major criminal and judicial cases in Occitania

Until Sunday, we bring you to the heart of major criminal and judicial cases in Occitania. Here is the first part of this series, devoted to the Thérèse Humbert affair, the scam of the century which was matured by a woman, near Toulouse. This Thursday, we will tell you about the Martin Guerre affair which took place in Ariège. Good reading !Thérèse Humbert case. How the scam of the century was matured by a woman, near Toulouse Thérèse Humbert case. How the scam of the century was matured by a woman, near Toulouse

Doubtless never has the opening of a trunk been so watched. One would swear the birth of a queen to perpetuate the line of the Bourbons under the oblique and scrutinizing gaze of the courtiers of the first circle.

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All eyes riveted on a safe

On May 2, 1902, it wasn't just a few pairs of zealous paralegals' eyes that focused on the thick armored door, but indeed the whole of France.

Because if its owner slipped away before the police arrived, Thérèse Humbert’s reputation and fame have made her a recognized figure in Tout Paris. And like Arsène Lupin, the gentleman burglar still in the making under the pen of Maurice Leblanc, his myth will only grow with time.

"The biggest scam of all time"

How did this woman with a slight pronunciation defect – a lisp… seductive – seduce her son? The future Keeper of the Seals Gustave Humbert struggles to conceive it. Eccentricity. The charm of his fabrications, no doubt. And perhaps also this "rich godfather" that she praises all the time. He is still unaware that this unconventional daughter-in-law will irreparably taint his dear surname, delivering it to posterity under the heading "biggest scam of all time".

In 1883, five years after her marriage in Beauzelle (Haute-Garonne) and her introduction into good society, Thérèse Humbert experienced her father's precepts for the first time. "When we don't have our own money, we tear it out of the pockets of the wealthy." Even if it means freeing oneself from any rule of ethics. Even the penal code.

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Robert Crawford, the imaginary millionaire

This is how she began to spread a rumor in the circle of her wealthy friends: a man named Robert Crawford, an American millionaire by trade, the has designated universal legatee of his property. A huge fortune. But as another will mentions the magnate's two nephews, justice was seized. Thérèse displays unfailing confidence: the law designates her and she will soon receive the sum of 100 million gold francs in bearer bonds. The equivalent of 480 million current euros! The American dream in solid gold.

Needless to say, the said Crawford exists only in Thérèse’s fertile imagination. But his wealthy friends, lured by the association of such a powerful heiress - you never know, it can always come in handy - willingly agree to lend him enough to cover his lavish expenses. Because the adventurer's genius idea is to authenticate the existence of the Crawford nephews - in reality, her own brothers, Emile and Romain! – through a (fake) legal battle. And this, for almost twenty years.

Country house(s), yacht, luxury clothes

Thérèse Humbert case. How the scam of the century was matured by a woman, near Toulouse

In total, the Humbert couple – whose husband converted to his wife’s shenanigans – borrowed 50 million francs. And invest without counting. Country house(s) (Paris, Toulon, Tunisia…), castle in Seine-et-Marne, yacht, designer clothes… Nothing is too good to consolidate its place within the elite.

The dinners served in the private mansion on the avenue de la Grande-Armée bring together all that the capital has to offer from public figures, politicians, magistrates, senior officials from the triumphant 3th Republic . The promise of inheritance dazzles creditors. Until it blinds them.

Then Thérèse went into business. She creates a savings company, “La rente vieagère”, which promises miraculous returns to all savers wishing to make their savings grow. The Panama scandal where thousands of small carriers were fleeced during the drilling of the famous canal is not so far away. But the greed is a powerful narcoleptic. And Thérèse rides him like the (fake) uncle of America would ride a mustang from the plains of Idaho.

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A perfect cavalry scheme

Thirty years before it passed on to posterity as the "Ponzi scheme", it developed the perfect cavalry scheme. Raising ever more funds, and offering interest to the oldest investors with the capital drawn from the most recent. As long as new gogos bite the bait, the system (admittedly eminently wobbly) continues. But one day or another, the pyramid ends up collapsing.

L'Assiette au Beurre mocks justice (and the trial)

Caricaturists took up the Humbert affair, which in their eyes symbolized the excesses of an era . Those of unbridled capitalism. Close to libertarian circles, the satirical weekly L'Assiette au Beurre devoted several front pages - even entire issues - to the trial of Grande Thérèse and her fraternal accomplices. To better mock justice. Witness this dialogue as tasty as it is surreal (but perhaps not that much) between the presiding judge and the defendant, in the edition of August 15, 1903: The president: Tell us about the safe. Mrs. Humbert: I eat an egg every night. The President: Very well; now tell us about the Crawfords. Mrs. Humbert: I only sleep an hour a night. The President: Very well; let's talk about the Life Annuity. Mrs. Humbert: I'm so nervous. The President: Fine! Finally, are you going to be able to repay the millions? Mrs. Humbert: I can no longer hear...

Twenty years after having sprung from his mind, the lie of the made-in-USA heritage seems durably anchored in the speculative domain. And the grain of sand appears. A journalist from Le Matin, François Mouthon, suggests aloud what has been going on behind the scenes for some time: scam.

The French authorities are conducting an investigation. Justice orders the opening of the Humbert safe, supposed to contain the Crawford will, to dispel all doubts.

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The cartoonists go wild with their rabbit

Return to the initial scene. The chubby little Bourbon with the long-awaited aquiline profile reveals himself as a skinny mongrel with coarse features. When the door finally opens, the safe reveals, according to legend, only a brick and a halfpenny coin. More likely it is empty. The greatest caricaturists will seize this mythical moment by adding a… rabbit. Symbol of the scam of the century.

The Humberts fled to Spain before the Berezina. They were finally arrested in Madrid in December 1902, betrayed by a neighbor who recognized them. Thérèse's brothers are part of the dragnet. The very people who gave credibility to his fable by playing the famous Crawford nephews lying on the second testament. The great art of showing off.

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She becomes "the Great Thérèse"

The widely circulated press seizes on the affair and will turn it into a lucrative legal soap opera. With her eloquence, her cheek, and her propensity to have plucked people not really in need, the kid from Toulouse earned a popular nickname (almost laudatory) that the tsarists would not deny: the Great Therese.

During the trial, his lawyer was that of Dreyfus, the famous Semitic captain of the French army, wrongly convicted of high treason and bound hand and foot to the horrors of the Guiana prison. Me Labori obtains for the couple a judgement, let's say, lenient: 5 years of imprisonment. After embezzling the equivalent of 480 million euros? Thérèse (Daurignac) Humbert's ultimate scam. Perhaps the most unlikely.

When and where did the crook of the century die? His name appears in dictionaries and encyclopedias. In 1983, the immense Simone Signoret, Cesarean and Oscar-winning actress, lent her features in a biopic. The mystery that surrounds the end of the Great Thérèse is revealed at the height of her exceptional destiny. According to some sources, she emigrated to the United States at the end of her sentence and died in Chicago in 1918. An investigation published in Detective magazine in 1930, by Jean France, assured her still alive: " Thérèse Humbert still lives small, in Paris. She lost her miraculous vitality. What setbacks has the golden past left him with? She is a rather humble old woman, who never speaks.

Sources: The greatest gangsters and criminals (Prisma Médias), Wikipedia, Detective, Le Petit Journal Illustré…

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