The potential for fraud casts a constant shadow on online dating, from deceptive profiles to outright catfishing. But, as historian Angus McLaren writes, fraudulent matchmaking efforts are nothing new. In nineteenth-century Britain, one bold scheme ripped off bachelors for over a decade.
According to McLaren, from 1884 to 1895, the Matrimonial Herald and Fashionable Marriage Gazette promised to provide “HIGH CLASS MATCHES” to U.K. men and women looking for wives and husbands. Prospective spouses could place ads in the paper or work directly with staff of the associated Word’s Great Marriage Association to privately make a connection.
The Association’s clients were mostly, though not all, men. The Herald lured them with advertisements in local papers supposedly placed by wealthy women.
While seeking a wealthy wife might raise eyebrows today, McLaren notes that, for most of the nineteenth century, men of all classes unabashedly tried to use marriage for social advancement. He quotes one young Canadian man who, in a letter to his sister, ended a description of his fiancée with “… and best of all [she] is possessed of property, and has no hangers on.”
When men responded to the Herald’s ads, they received an invitation to join the Association. The new members then received more descriptions of marriageable women and the opportunity to correspond with them. The Association also informed them that, upon marriage, they would owe it 2.5 percent of their bride’s wealth. To avoid this charge, they could pay a £12 fee up front. McLaren writes:
Presumably men convinced they were about to snag an heiress felt the sum was a small price to pay. Once the Association had obtained the men’s available money the mysterious wealthy women who had been used as bait suddenly went abroad or regretfully broke off the correspondence.
The Association did eventually connect them with actual women: Domestic servants or other members of the working class who had themselves paid membership fees in the hopes of marrying wealthy men.
After several years of complaints, police finally raided the Association. In the trial that followed, the organization’s leaders did little to prove their innocence. Instead, McLaren writes, they put their hope “in appealing to the social superiority of the judge and the all-male jury by attacking the complainants as socially marginal characters who, stupidly believing the impossible, did not deserve the protection of the law.”
The defense counselor roundly mocked the few victims who were brave enough to show up in court. He asked one if he “really [thought] that you—22 years of age, earning nothing, and with £40 capital only—could get a wife?” He inquired whether another victim, an older widower, had considered that he was “not a very great catch.”
Ultimately, the jury convicted three of the Association’s principals and sentenced them to prison, but not before the counsel’s mockery had prompted repeated outbursts of laughter from the courtroom speculators. Like victims of modern catfishing schemes, those who were fooled were in some ways judged more harshly than the ones who did the fooling.