Strange Acquisitions: How We Got The Carnegie Building

 Many Oberlin students are aware of Oberlin’s rich history. Some even first heard about Oberlin in their high school history books. However, few students are aware of the captivating stories that Oberlin’s physical buildings themselves hold. 

In a previous Review article, College senior Kameron Dunbar detailed the interesting history behind Langston Hall and urged readers to discover not only the stories of how Oberlin acquired these buildings, but also the reasoning behind the names of certain buildings (“Community Should Reflect Upon History of College Spaces,” March 9, 2018). Another example of a building with a very interesting, yet mostly forgotten history is the Carnegie Building at the corner of West Lorain and North Professor Streets.

 The story begins in Canada, with the birth of Cassie Chadwick — named Elizabeth “Betsy” Bigley at birth — in 1857. Born into a lower-middle-class farming family, she always had dreams of a more luxurious life. She would eventually help inadvertently endow an Oberlin College building through deception in both Canada and Ohio. Bigley’s early experiences in Canada were crucial in leading her to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Citizen’s National Bank of Oberlin in 1905, which left a forgotten but lasting impact on the College. 

Bigley’s first brush with the law occurred when she was just 14. She managed to open a bank account in Woodstock, Ontario, using a fake inheritance check from an unknown uncle in England and a small amount of cash. After leaving the bank, she crossed the street and began using the checks as if she were an actual heiress. Along with the luxury clothes and goods that she purchased, she also picked up business cards from a local printer. They read: “Betsy Bigly: Heiress.”

Betsy spent much of her time attempting to understand the banking system and the ways of the elite. Soon, she grew tired of Canada, and went to live with her previously estranged sister, who had just married a doctor and moved to Cleveland. 

Days after she arrived in Cleveland, Betsy opened a shop down the street from her sister and residence, and then virtually cut all ties with her. She marketed herself as a clairvoyant by the name of Madame Lydia Devrie. During her years of swindling in Canada, Betsy had developed an ability to read other people’s body language, so she was able to form a large clientele of customers from reputable backgrounds and ran a very profitable business. Eventually, she even seduced some of her more affluent widowed clients. From those men she was able to “borrow” money and continue growing her bank account and collection of expensive goods.

Betsy was married three times in this period, the first of which lasted only a few weeks. She changed her name often, but the routine stayed the same. Eventually, she was imprisoned for the first time in 1889 in a Toledo penitentiary, on counts of forgery and fraud. Ultimately, Betsy served only three years and six months of her nine year sentence before being released for good behavior. 

Once released, Betsy realized she needed to be more cunning and careful. She joined a brothel for the second time in her life, climbing the ranks and becoming headmistress. When Mr. Leroy Chadwick — a wealthy man from Euclid Avenue — entered the brothel, she posed as an innocent girl in a tight spot. They were married in 1897. As Betsy began to drain his bank account, she needed a new lie. She began to spread the rumor that she was the illigitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie — a billionaire steel tycoon. This lie reached the community’s wealthy bankers and lawyers.

This scam proved to be her most profitable yet. She convinced a reputable lawyer to sign off on her forged endowment without any contact with Carnegie. She took this note to banks in rural Ohio, her biggest profit coming from the Citizen’s National Bank of Oberlin, where she was able to withdraw $800,000 in 1904. Once the money began to dry out, the bankers began demanding payment, at which point she was promptly arrested and sent to prison. The bank’s president lost all of his money, went bankrupt, and was forced to close the Bank of Oberlin. 

Ultimately, Andrew Carnegie himself was made aware of this scandal in the small town of Oberlin, Ohio. Carnegie had a reputation for supporting higher education with his significant accumulated wealth, and the idea of helping broke college students weighed heavily on his mind. He acted quickly, reimbursing Oberlin students the money they were owed. Furthermore, when Oberlin’s sixth president, Henry Churchill King, traveled to New York to thank Carnegie in person, Carnegie agreed to endow a library to Oberlin. Carnegie Building was completed in May of 1907, and still stands today, 112 years later.

Most institutions cannot claim, as Oberlin can, that the endowment of a large building on their campus came from a string of thefts ending at a small college town bank. Yet, many Oberlin students remain unaware of this history. Every day, Oberlin students file in and out of Carnegie, completely oblivious to the building’s history. Students should be more aware, interested, and appreciative of the rich history that Oberlin and its buildings hold. This is just the history for one building — imagine what future Oberlin students could uncover if they simply looked for it.