April 23, 2002

Great article (not available online, but I'll keep an eye out) by Richard Rayner in this week's New Yorker about Oscar Hartzell, the perpetuator of the Francis Drake inheritance scam in the 1920's. Hartzell stole and expanded a long-running scam based on a legend surrounding Sir Francis Drake's will. Hartzell claimed to have unlocked the secret of Drake's inheritance, making him the sole recipient of Drake's massive fortune, which had become unbelievably massive over the past 300 years (compound interest, ya know). All Hartzell needed was some investment money to cover the legal tangles, of which there were, of course, many. He got upwards of 70,000 individual investors, most of whom believed him for years.

What drew my interest about the scam was just how similar it is to the more-recent, ongoing Omega Trust and Trading bank debenture scam. The same massive fortune locked up in some sort of government entanglement, the same magicians with a convincing story of how they unlocked the mystery, the same large groups of people practically begging to throw money into the growing pit. In both cases (and in hundreds more) the scammed became the most rabid supporters of their crooks, forming clubs, protesting, doing anything possible to keep that appointment with the endlessly delayed money train. A cautionary tale definitely worth checking out.
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