In the late 1800s, several swindlers in England devised a new scam: by publishing advertisements in newspapers, they attracted poor bachelors willing to pay to marry wealthy women. Once they paid, they were put in touch with maids, women who, in turn, had paid to marry rich men.
Marriage ads have always been a goldmine for crooks, being used as a pretext to lure single people into dark corners, where they were robbed or assaulted, or to involve victims in more elaborate and money-making fraud schemes.
In nineteenth-century Britain, there was a group of crooks who flourished for 11 years cheating on women and men looking for rich partners.
According to the historian Angus McLaren, marriage advertisements appeared in the London press from 1884 to 1895, promising to offer "high-class couples." In order to get in touch with potential partners, those interested were asked to contact the staff of the Great Marriage Association.
They were lured by advertisements that gave the impression that they had been written by rich women. When an applicant responded to messages from ads, he received an invitation to join the Association. The new members then received letters describing the women who were looking for partners.
Once the Association brought its victim to this point, the swindlers presented the client with the following option: they could put him in direct contact with a rich woman, to meet face to face, but for that, he would sign a contract obliging him to donate 2.5% of the bride's fortune to the association.
But, to avoid this donation, the customer could pay a fee of 12 pounds (about 1,500 pounds at today's value).
Convinced that they were on the verge of conquering rich heirs, many considered the sum to be a small price to pay. But once the association got the money, the mysterious rich women who had been used as bait suddenly went abroad or stopped answering letters.
In the end, the Association put them in touch with real women: maids or factory workers, who, in turn, had paid fees in the hope that they would marry rich men.
After several years of complaints, the police began to investigate the Great Marriage Association. In the ensuing trial, the organization's leaders didn't bother to prove their innocence.
Instead, they appealed to the social superiority of the judge and the jury, made up exclusively of men, trying to show that the victims were characters from the margins of society, who did not even deserve the protection of the law because they had been so easily fooled. The defence attorney simply mocked the few victims who were brave enough to appear in court.
Finally, the jury sentenced three of the Association's leaders to prison, but not before the lawyer's mockery provoked public laughter and scams from the crooks in the courtroom.