Barbara Erni's trunk didn't hold valuables, but it did hold a tiny man or a large child.
Barbara Erni’s trunk didn’t hold valuables, but it did hold a tiny man or a large child. Sarah Ferone

Everyone loves the story of a good grift, from brilliant ruse to inevitable downfall. This week, we’re ushering in the spring of the swindle by highlighting the stories of the greatest con women in history.

Barbara Erni’s secret was that she never had junk in her trunk. According to her, it held a potpourri of precious treasures. In reality, it held a tiny man, or possibly a large child.

Born to homeless parents in 1743 in the town of Feldkirch, Austria, which sits on the border between Switzerland and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, Erni eventually made the best of her impoverished upbringing. Liechtensteinian legend has it that she was quite beautiful, boasting a mop of strawberry blond hair that earned her the nickname the “Golden Boo,” writes Barbara Greene in her book Liechtenstein: Valley of Peace. Erni also possessed what townspeople saw as nearly superhuman strength that allowed her to tramp through the European countryside with an enormous satchel or treasure chest strapped to her back. She walked from inn to inn, where she would spend her nights.

Before turning in for bed, Erni would insist that her chest was far too valuable to leave out unattended in a bedroom with minimal security. Instead, she would demand that the innkeeper store her chest in their best, most secure room, perhaps even one that held valuables of their own. Innkeeper after hapless innkeeper fell for Erni’s tale, squirreling away the hefty trunk into a room that contained their own precious possessions, Greene writes. They would leave the room—which, of course, had no other exits—lock the door from the outside, and go to bed.

The next morning, in unlucky obliviousness, the innkeeper would move to unlock the door and realize several horrible things: that the door was unlocked and that Erni’s trunk had vanished, along with all of the innkeeper’s own valuables.

Erni’s real treasure, of course, was a tiny man or large child who would stow away in the trunk and emerge during the night after he had been locked away in the room full of valuables, writes Dan Davies in Lying for Money: How Legendary Frauds Reveal the Workings of Our World. He would then rifle through whatever seemed worth taking, toss it in the chest, and spirit away into the night with Erni. The man’s identity is lost to history, perhaps an unsurprising omission from a relationship where Erni literally did the heavy lifting.

The ruse was horribly, laughably simple, but Erni kept it up for nearly 15 years. It only fell apart when she became wealthy. In May 1784, the authorities finally apprehended Erni and her short accomplice in the town of Eschen, in northern Liechtenstein, and moved them to a holding cell in the capital city. During a court trial, Erni pled guilty to 17 separate burglaries. The two were sentenced to death by beheading, and on December 7, 1784, Erni lost much more than her goldenrod locks. On that day, she earned the dubious superlative of being the last person to be executed in Liechtenstein until the country abolished its death penalty in 1987.