There are many kinds of tricksters. Some are like P.T Barnum, they try to trick people so that they find them entertaining. But there are confidence men like Oscar Hartzell, who sought to rip people off with their schemes. Hartzell is one of history’s greatest con artists.
In the early 20th century, he convinced over a hundred thousand fellow Midwesterners to invest millions with the promise of enormous profits from the imaginary real estate of the famous British buccaneer Sir Francis Drake. He was so convincing, that even after his arrest, his followers made him into a hero.
Hartzell did not conceive of this idea, he was first conned by two hucksters who convinced him that the Drake real estate was legitimate. Hartzell worked for them, earnest in his belief that was gaining shares in the estate, until he wised up and realized where the real value was. He stole the scheme from under them and made it his own.
The idea was that Drake made a fortune by robbing Spanish ships of their treasure and left a vast estate of property, gold, and other valuable assets when he died in 1596. But there was an irregularity with his will, and this is where Hartzell’s ingenuity shone through. Other hucksters convinced people that they were potential beneficiaries of the Drake estate, but the hucksters said that they needed money to secure the assets.
Hartzell claimed that he was the sole heir.
He travelled to England, and while he was there, money poured in. He wrote letters that told his investors that since such an estate required going through centuries of paperwork, it be time consuming and expensive. When his excuses were running out, he would get more inventive.
While the King of England was sick, Hartzell pounced on the opportunity, telling his investors that the King was about to transfer the titles to him right before he caught the illness. He even pushed his luck further, arguing that because of this development, he would require even more money ($6000) by the end of the month. And amazingly, the money came in.
Hartzell’s scheme worked for several reasons, one of which was timing. After the great depression, Americans, particularly Midwesterners had grown distrustful of Wall Street and were looking for alternative forms of investment. They had enough of an appetite because America embodied an optimistic view of itself and of life’s possibilities. The spirit of the times helped. Many outrageous schemes existed then, and Americans were receptive to them.
But with Hartzell, he had managed to inflame a passion in his investors that took on a religious fervour. One church even fired its preacher for opposing a contribution. No one at the time thought that they had made a bad investment, and they all had nothing but great things to say about Hartzell.
But eventually, an inspector for the U.S Postal Service named John Sparks managed to prosecute him, by collecting enough evidence of mail fraud. When Hartzell was deported from Britain to the U.S, he was arrested, and later went insane, apparently really convinced that he was really the Baron of Buckland and worth billions.
In the meantime, his agents continued to solicit funds from the faithful.