Guest post by Elaine Thornton – ‘The Mysterious Mrs Rudd’

As always, it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome back guests to All Things Georgian, and today, we have the lovely Elaine Thornton who is going to tell us the fascinating story of ‘The Mysterious Mrs Rudd‘.

One of the most spectacular scandals of the 1770s was a forgery trial involving identical twin brothers of French Huguenot descent and a femme fatale with a murky past and a flair for publicity. The story unfolded in a series of twists and turns that gripped the public for nearly a year.

The three people involved in the fraud were the twins Robert and Daniel Perreau, respectively an apothecary and a stock jobber, and Daniel’s mistress, Margaret Caroline Rudd, known as Caroline, who lived with him and passed as his wife. Robert Perreau was the quieter of the brothers, happily married and hard-working. Daniel was more flamboyant: a gambler, with a taste for the high life. Despite their different characters, the twins were devoted to each other.

Margaret Caroline Rudd nee Youngson and Daniel Perreau. NPG

Caroline Rudd was an enigmatic figure: Irish by birth, she claimed to be descended from nobility. She had an enormous amount of charm, and always appeared elegantly and fashionably dressed. In fact, her father was an apothecary, and she was a former prostitute who had left her husband, a half-pay lieutenant, and lived on her wits on the fringes of society.

The Perreaus and Mrs Rudd were accused of forging bonds. It was common for money to be lent to borrowers on the strength of a bond, which was basically a guarantee, signed by a third party, who the lender knew to be wealthy enough repay the loan if the borrower defaulted. Forging bonds was a capital offence, as it undermined the basis of trust that the credit system was built on.

The scam carried out by the trio appeared to be a dazzlingly simple way to make money out of a series of forged bonds. The scheme involved borrowing an initial amount of money on a bond with a faked guarantor signature, and then borrowing enough money on a second forged bond both to pay off the first debt, and to make a profit. The chain of bonds could be extended indefinitely. Of course, the scheme relied on no one checking personally with the guarantor.

Around April 1774, the Perreau brothers began taking out loans on bonds supposedly guaranteed by William Adair, a wealthy army agent, for sums of up to £6,000. Adair’s name was probably chosen because Caroline Rudd knew his cousin, James Adair. The scheme ran successfully for nearly a year, until Robert Perreau took a bond for £7,500 to Drummonds bank on 7 March 1775. The Drummond brothers, who knew Adair, suspected the bond was a fake. Adair confirmed that the signature was not his, and denied knowing any of the three people involved.

The fraud unravelled quickly. By 12 March, Robert, Daniel and Caroline had all been arrested. They promptly turned on one another. Robert and Daniel both blamed Caroline, claiming that she had tricked them into believing that both William and James Adair were old family friends of hers. The brothers insisted that they had thought the bonds were genuine.

Caroline claimed that the twins were the instigators: she admitted faking the signature on the final bond, but said she had only done so out of fear of Daniel, who had forced her to sign at knife-point. She painted a pathetic scenario of virtuous female helplessness in the face of male violence and threats.

The initial hearing at Bow Street on 15 March had to be moved to the Guildhall because of the crowds: the papers reported that ‘every coach in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden was taken, and the street lined on both sides’. The case fascinated the public, with its heady mix of social ambition, sex and crime lurking beneath apparent respectability.

Portrait of Margaret Caroline Rudd; half-length, standing at the Bar of the Old Bailey in profile to right, her hands clasped and resting on desk; wearing ornate headdress over highly-dressed hair, shawl and gloves; in an oval; portrait copied from a larger image of the same scene by Bartolozzi. 1776. British Museum

At the hearing, Caroline gave a superb performance of bewildered innocence. She was so convincing that she was permitted to turn King’s evidence against the Perreaus, giving her immunity from prosecution. She was set free, while the twins were committed to prison.

The newspapers quickly took sides. The Morning Chronicle vilified Caroline as the ringleader, and depicted the Perreau brothers as her dupes. The Morning Post championed Caroline, and serialised her ‘case’ before any trial had taken place. Caroline had an instinctive understanding of PR, and seized the opportunity to present her version of the story to a wide public.

Readers were divided in their opinions. Some accepted her depiction of herself as a woman of high birth and good breeding, who found herself in unfortunate circumstances through no fault of her own. Others disbelieved her account; one correspondent, who appeared to know a good deal about her past, accused her of a history of prostitution and extortion, provoking a series of angry exchanges in print between her supporters and detractors.

The trial of the Perreau brothers opened on 1 June in a blaze of publicity. Caroline attended, expecting to be called as a Crown witness. On the first day, the presiding judge made a dramatic announcement: in his view, the magistrates at the initial hearing had no legal right to offer Mrs Rudd immunity in exchange for evidence. This was a stunning blow for Caroline. She was taken straight from the court to Newgate prison and committed for trial.

Robert Perreau and Daniel Perreau. NPG

Despite their insistence that they were Caroline’s victims, and the confusion caused among witnesses by their strong resemblance to one another, the Perreau twins were found not guilty of forging the bonds, but guilty of attempting to cash the bonds knowing they were false. Knowingly passing forged bonds was a capital crime, and four days later, the brothers were sentenced to death. However, their sentences would not be carried out until after Caroline’s trial.

Another woman in Caroline’s place might have despaired at this point, but she was a survivor. She threw herself into another sustained PR campaign through the pages of the Morning Post, proclaiming her own innocence, and the treachery of the Perreaus.

Caroline’s trial was delayed several times, but finally took place in December 1775. By that time, the Perreaus had been in prison under sentence of death for six months. Despite a strong case against her as the forger of the bonds, the jury sensationally acquitted her – although, as Horace Walpole commented drily, ‘nobody questions her guilt’.

The Perreau twins were hanged on 17 January 1776, protesting their innocence to the last. Touchingly, they held hands as they stood on the scaffold. Caroline lay low for a while, but her ambiguous reputation for glamour and danger remained. James Boswell visited her several times shortly after the trial, and was intrigued by her, but drew back, wary of the woman he compared to ‘that snake which fascinates with its eyes’ – although he did have a brief affair with her years later.

Caroline Rudd spent time in prison for debt in the 1780s, and died in obscurity, probably around 1800.

Northampton Mercury 11 February 1797

To this day, the truth behind her involvement in one of the most sensational criminal trials of the Georgian era has never been established.


Morning Chronicle

Morning Post

The Trials of Robert and Daniel Perreau, London 1775

James Boswell, The Ominous Years 1774-1776

Further Reading

Donna T. Andrew and Randall McGowen, The Perreaus & Mrs Rudd, University of California Press, 2001

Sarah Bakewell, The Smart, Vintage, 2001

Featured Image

Bow Street Court 1808. Microcosm. Wikimedia



2 thoughts on “Guest post by Elaine Thornton – ‘The Mysterious Mrs Rudd’

  1. mistyfan

    Transportation for a multitude of offences, many of them very petty crimes by today’s standards, was not only harsh but in time overwhelmed the countries receiving the convicts as well. Inevitably, they reached the point where they would not take any more convicts. Ironically, the very harshness of transportation for even the most trivial offences eventually helped to lead to its abolition in 1868, exactly 80 years after it started.

    Harsh though transportation was, I’m not sorry these fraudsters got it. Theirs was a more serious offence.

    Liked by 1 person

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