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A Question of Conscience: The Real-Life Inspiration for Maryka Biaggio’s Parlor Games

It’s not uncommon for authors to draw inspiration from the real world—after all, the truth is often stranger than fiction. But what sets the best stories apart is a rare combination of fascinating subject matter and unique writer’s perspective. Maryka Biaggo’s captivating historical novel, Parlor Games is the perfect example. What drew Biaggio to write about the infamous con artist once dubbed America’s “Most Dangerous Woman”? Find out in the exclusive essay that follows, and then check out the Parlor Games Pinterest board for behind-the-scenes photos and documents!

What happens when a psychologist decides to take up creative writing? And what if she stumbles upon the tale of a woman who conned her way through the Gilded Age? Well, that story was too much to resist for this psychologist-turned-writer. My novel, Parlor Games, is based on the true story of May Dugas, once dubbed “the most dangerous woman in the world” by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

May Dugas was born in 1869 to a poor family in a small Midwestern town. By the time she’d grown into a beautiful young lady, her ambitions were set: She would see the world, meet wealthy men, and live the high life. Where did such strivings originate? Perhaps she envied the stylishness of the well-to-do women for whom her mother sewed gowns. Her first beau most certainly flaunted his influential family’s nicely appointed home. But possessing the knowledge of a rich and cultured life and finding a way to live it are two different things. How, I wondered, did she manage to find her way into high society—and defraud and swindle those she met along the way?

According to the 1880 census, May’s father was a saloonkeeper. Managing a backwoods saloon was not a lucrative undertaking; but considering the prejudices of the day and that Eugene Dugas and his wife were also poor French-Canadian immigrants, it was no small accomplishment. That—combined with the curious circumstances surrounding Eugene’s death at a relatively young age—led me to suspect May’s father lived on the fringes of the law. Perhaps he taught May how to charm and con. Yes, that made sense. Fathers often have a soft spot for their daughters, especially only daughters. And given that May’s two brothers never took much initiative to better themselves, Eugene Dugas may well have doted on May; she, in turn, likely emulated his ways.

But what of May’s own “psychology”? Did she set out to wrest tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy men, or did desperate circumstances drive her to blackmail and extortion? I considered many possible motives for May. Some evidence suggests she wished to support her needy family: Once she was flush with cash she bought a new home for her mother, funded one brother’s education, and financed another’s automobile business. But this could not have been her sole, or even primary, motive; for she personally indulged in all manner of luxuries: expensive hotel rooms, exquisite jewelry, and trips to exotic locales. No, she herself had a taste for the finer things in life. And these things required a steady supply of money. Clearly, money—and lots of it—motivated her to invent all manner of ploys. May apparently clawed her way out of poverty by means of beguiling beauty, risk-taking bravado, irresistible charm, and quick wits.

Still, I wondered if May was completely devoid of conscience. Did she perhaps believe that those whom she relieved of portions of their fortune had plenty to spare? There was only one way for me to explore this—to write May’s story in the first person and make her tell the story and explain her motives. That way, the reader and I could enjoy the journey as we explored her inner world. Not surprisingly, May proved quite adept at justifying her actions. But as for the question of her conscience: That is for the reader to decide!