The biggest swindlers: Oscar Hartzell

Sir Francis Drake, Oscar Hartzell

Sir Francis Drake, The story I am about to tell you is surprising and leaves stunned. The victims of the scam in effect will continue, even after the scam has been discovered and the convicted fraudster, to believe in the good cause of their con man and they are taking it against the injustice of the courts.

Thousands of petty bourgeois and pensioners from the State of Iowa will indeed be convinced that they can multiply by one hundred their signatures sent to Oscar Hartzell, a great and brilliant cheat, who claims to be the heir to the fabulous fortune accumulated by most famous corsair in history: Sir Francis Drake.

Oscar assures to be the only and legitimate heir of the great corsair and asks for a financial contribution to sue the British government to recover the sums and interests (of three hundred years!) That in reality have never been paid to the legatees of Drake. He, Oscar Hartzell, is not a direct descendant of Drake, but Colonel Drexel Drake (fictitious character) has formally sold him all rights. It is therefore only a matter of waiting for the conclusion of the judicial procedures initiated and at the end Oscar will finally be able to get hold of what is due to him: an incredible fortune.

Hartzell himself writes to his followers:

The total sum that will come from the sale of Drake's assets will be greater than the debt of Great Britain to the United States, exceeding four million pounds, or about twenty billion dollars, a figure worth fighting, working and waiting for.

At that time, investors and supporters, for every dollar invested, will get back at least 500! Of course, a very attractive proposal, but incredibly without guarantees. Yet it will work!

The idea of the fraud arises in the mind of Oscar Hartzell (1876-1943), a simple farmer from Madison County (Iowa), when himself is about to be the victim of a couple of cheaters who bring out the story of the legacy of Drake.

He retires in time, but the scam likes, he likes it so much that he decides to improve it and apply it to his advantage. And to make the initiative more attractive, contact hundreds of people in the state who have as surname "Drake". He persuades them that they are all distant descendants of Sir Francis informing them that he has discovered that the inheritance of the great corsair, in fact, has never happened and that the time has come to recover it.

They have a moral right, even though he is the only legitimate heir, Oscar Hartzell, who then proposes a sort of "pact". All those who will help him financially to get to the bottom of the intricate affair (to pay lawyers, experts, legal fees, etc.) will receive a benefit on the sums invested from 1 to 500. For each advance dollar, that is, will be paid 500 dollars. The stratagem has complete success.

Soon they begin to rain, through the agents that Hartzell unleashes throughout the State, substantial contributions. An avalanche of dollars, even by those not named Drake. The mirage of the "legacy" and the fabulous yield of the sums invested stuns an increasing number of people.

The deal's get tricky, it becomes a significant financial operation. And to follow more closely the developments of the situation, the great impostor in 1924 thinks well to move to London, where he buys a luxurious house in the most residential district of the city, attends the best restaurants and gets accepted in qualified urban environments.

All of course in the interests of its underwriters who expect anxious news in Iowa and the meantime pay (unaware) the subsistence expenses of their benefactor.

To keep at bay the anxiety of his supporters, Oscar sends reassuring news from time to time.

So, for example, to dispel any doubt about it, he informs his fellow countrymen of Iowa that his "hereditary rights" have been confirmed by the prestigious official body King and Crown Commission that is a figment of Oscar's imagination. The news reassures and results in the inflow of further subscriptions.

Hartzell later tries to exploit any news or circumstances useful for the purpose. One day he learns that the king of England is seriously ill. Take advantage of the opportunity to send to the signatories, through its agents in the US, a circular letter to clarify that the definition of the succession is destined to be prolonged since the king himself was dealing with the transfer of property titles to the "heir" of Francis Drake. As soon as the sovereign has re-established, all the procedures will be reactivated. How to doubt a substantially "credible" information?

He then has the nerve to involve even the unwitting John Maynard Keynes in his scam. How?

In an article of August 1930, the great economist binds the birth of England as a great power to the political know-how of Elizabeth I and to her wise use of real finances. Keynes refers to the investments made by the queen for the good of the country in the companies of Drake, investments by fabulous returns if you think that every pound invested by Elizabeth in foreign trade today – specifies Keynes – is worth a hundred thousand.

Naturally, the British economist uses the reference to Elizabeth and Drake to boast the merits of deficit spending and the returns on state investments. But to Hartzell, it does not seem true to send a copy of the article to all its signatories in the USA. It is not, in fact, what he is saying for years about the incredible amount of interests accumulated over three hundred years and due to Drake's heirs? Another demonstration of the credibility of his initiative.

Hartzell's "claims" on Drake's inheritance do not remain naturally unknown to Scoltland Yard (and the FBI) who, although convinced of the deception, can not frame Oscar as, at least for the time being, has not committed any crime in Great Britain. In fact, on one hand, the signatures take place in US territory and on the other hand they are completely voluntary "donations".

The 1929 crisis makes Hartzell's followers even more desperate and, paradoxically, grows their illusion, their faith in the miracle. Instead of asking back the money invested, they sign further sums in the absurd hope of finally receiving part of the inheritance. At this point, the deception becomes more and more evident. Someone must also intervene. It will be a US postal inspector named John Spark, collecting sufficient evidence and documentation to have him extradite from the United Kingdom and for getting him arrested by the FBI upon his arrival in the United States.

In Sioux City, in 1933, the fraud trial began (since there is no Drake legacy as officially confirmed by the British Ministry of the Interior) against Oscar Hartzell. And, extraordinary, the scammers immediately show hostile to the court, and they give full support, instead, to their scammer! A real media campaign is unleashed in favour of the one who is considered a potential "benefactor" unjustly arrested and who now finds himself unable to carry out his project to recover the mythical heritage of Drake!

Insensitive to all these demonstrations of support, the court recognised Hartzell guilty of aggravated fraud and sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment. Released on bail (paid of course by his followers) in view of the appeal process, the signatures start to flow again, and the fraud continues to be perpetrated between the first instance judgment and the appeal. The sentence, however, as was foreseeable, is soon confirmed in the appeal and by the Supreme Court itself.

Hartzell in prison ends up identifying himself totally with the character he had created until he lost his mind and died for his mental illness in 1943.

Is the big scam over? Not entirely. The signatories of Hartzell (but it would be better to call them "victims"), from 70,000 to 100,000 people, will continue to believe in his good faith throughout their lives.

In short, they will never believe in the justice of the courts, convinced that the judges wanted to condemn Drake's heir because of jealousy, for not being able to enter the business of the century that promised to multiply the invested money by five hundred!


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