One of the most successful and audacious scams of recent history was the Drake Fortune Swindle, the brainchild of brilliant con-man with one superb trick.
Oscar Hartzell was born in 1876, the son of a modestly wealthy farmer from Madison County, Iowa. Sometime in 1915, he ran into couple of grifters who promised him that they could turn $6,000 held by his mother into $6 million by cutting him in on a share of the unclaimed inheritance of the great English maritime explorer Sir Francis Drake.
Hartzell was not taken in at all, and the two cons went on their way. But the idea settled in his mind, and he thought he would try it out himself. Approaching the con in a slightly more scientific manner, he created fake documentation and credentials and set about contacting anyone in Iowa with the surname ‘Drake’, spinning a well research but elaborate story on the same basic lines.
Sir Francis Drake certainly died a very wealthy man. He was, according to the terminology of the time, a ‘privateer’, which was a polite word for pirate. During the Elizabethan Era, private agents were authorized by the crown to attack the Spanish fleet, and loot Spanish ports in the Caribbean, which Drake did with both delight and enormous success. Some of the booty went to Crown, but most remained in his own hands.
Oscar Hartzell claimed that upon Drake’s death in 1596, his estate was never paid to his heirs, with the result that it remained in the Bank of England accruing interest, and was now worth in excess of $100 billion dollars. Everyone bearing the name ‘Drake’ was entitled to a share, assuming his legal campaign to sue the British government for the release of the funds was successful. He invited investment of any sum, promising a return of $500 on every $1 invested. To add a little glitter to the bait, he also stated that the inheritance would include the entire British city of Portsmouth.
Money flooded in, and in the end, tens of thousands of credulous Iowans dipped into their pockets and handed over their savings. Hartzell then expanded the ruse to subscribers outside of Iowa, including many with no connection to the name Drake at all, and still the money flooded in. Realizing that it had probably run its course, Hartzell then took himself to London, ostensibly to attend to legal proceedings, but in reality simply to live well and keep sucking on the pipeline for as long as a little cash trickled through. Periodically he submitted a request for additional funds, which invariably were given. Somehow he managed to keep the whole ship afloat until the Great Depression, and even then a few die-hards continued to support him.
It was not until 1933 that the law finally caught up with him. He was deported from Britain to the United States, where he stood trial for fraud. He died in Leavenworth in 1943, leaving up to 100,000 still waiting for their share of Drakes fortune. Even in prison, donations kept coming through.