Annie Baillie: Aberdeenshire’s extraordinary conwoman
The most notorious female fraudster of the Victorian age was born in 1848 in Peterhead. Her mother, Kate Reid was a household servant at the farm at Wester Barnyards near Clola. The father was the farmer, John Newbond. He denied fathering the child and threw the poor pregnant Kate out to fend for herself.
Later, Newbond fled the country before he could be tried for the brutal rape of another young woman.
Kate worked as a washerwoman, living in the direst poverty. She gave birth to Annie at Maiden Street, though the birth went unrecorded in the parish register. Annie’s mother eventually took up with an itinerant salesman named Sutherland.
Annie grew into a great beauty. She also had a phenomenal memory but no formal education. In her teens, she professed a deep commitment to evangelical Christianity and began to preach and raise money for various Church denominations. Most of the funds raised, she kept. Before long she moved to Dundee and Edinburgh and became a very popular speaker organising charitable events. She frequently obtained goods on credit which she never repaid. Her good looks and charisma helped her to escape unscathed.
As her ambitions grew, she forged introductions from Scottish churchmen which she used to increase her influence. In 1871, she moved to London where she stepped up her fund raising and set up fraudulent bank accounts to finance the luxurious lifestyle she craved. Upon her release, she caught the eye of an immensely wealthy retired naval officer twice her age who provided her with all the money and property she could want. It was not enough for Annie. She compulsively swindled everyone from cab drivers to grocers, no sum was too small for her criminal attentions.
For a time, it appeared that Annie had settled down when she married Knight Aston, a rising star in the world of comic opera. The couple had three children. When Aston became aware of her criminal past, he pursued her with a pistol and the marriage was dissolved.
Annie then became deeply involved in the cause of the crofters being forced off the land on the Isle of Skye in 1884. She took to public speaking on their behalf, raising funds to assist crofters to emigrate to New Zealand and Australia. At the same time, passing herself off as the daughter of the Earl of Moray, she took money from the landowners to clear the crofters off the land. She came within a whisker of being granted many thousands of acres in Australia and New Zealand even without a penny to her name. She failed only due to her inability to renounce petty fraud which tarnished her reputation and resulted in the failure of the schemes.
She continued her career of epic frauds and in 1888 she was sentenced to five years for obtaining money by false pretences. In 1894, she received a 10-year sentence for stealing pictures after which she disappeared to America and obscurity. What became of her children is not known as they had many different names. Annie herself used over 40 aliases during her career. It’s believed that about 80% of her crimes went undiscovered.
If you’d like to know more about Annie’s exploits, Mick Davies and David Lassman have just released The Adventures of a Victorian Con Woman which is published by Pen & Sword. The authors would also be interested in knowing what happened to all four of Annie’s children.