Double Your Money – Part Thirty Three

Oscar Hartzell (1876 – 1943) and the Sir Francis Drake Association

One of life’s many mysteries is what happened to Francis Drake’s loot. After all, he was an indefatigable pirate. But when he died of dysentery in 1596 without heirs, his not inconsiderable fortune seemed to vanish into thin air. From time to time bounty hunters would emerge, claiming direct descent to the English adventurer, but were unable to prove their claim. Where there is a pot of gold to be had, there is ample opportunity for a spot of financial skullduggery.

Around 1919 a couple of minor fraudsters persuaded an Iowan woman out of $6,000 by selling her shares in a scheme to retrieve Drake’s fortune. The unfortunate woman happened to be the mother of Oscar Hartzell. Rather than feel sympathy for his mother’s plight, Oscar was more intrigued by the con, cut himself into the action and moved it on to an industrial scale.

Thousands of individuals who shared Sir Francis’ surname began to receive letters ostensibly from the Sir Francis Drake Association, a cod society set up by Hartzell. The contents of the letter were stunning. Drake’s fortune, estimated at being between $22 and $400 billion – Hartzell gave full rein to his fancy here – was tied up in the English probate system. In order to cut the legal Gaudian knot, funds of around $2,500 a week were required. For every dollar invested a return 500 times the amount would be guaranteed, once the money had been prised from the lawyers.

Odds of 500 to 1 were too good to miss and thousands took the bait. Indeed, so successful was the mailshot that Hartzell opened the scheme to others who did not share the pirate’s surname. In all Hartzell had around 70,000 subscribers. To keep the momentum going, he recruited agents who toured the country recruiting subscribers and issued newsletters giving updates on how his negotiations with the British authorities were going.

Rather unsportingly the British revealed in 1922 that there wasn’t any money while the FBI, after extensive investigations, revealed that what money Drake had probably went to his second wife, Elizabeth. But odds of 500 to 1 were too good to ignore and anyway Hartzell was a man on a mission, wasn’t he?

In around 1924 Hartzell moved to England to be closer to the action or so he claimed. In reality, he was living the life of old Riley at the expense of his subscribers. When funds were running short, he would tap his subscribers for more cash. And generally they coughed up, his scam lasting an incredible 15 years and generating around $2 million of funds.

But all good things must come to an end. In 1933 Hartzell was deported back to the US and was up before the beak on charges of mail fraud. Incredibly, so convinced that Hartzell was the man to make them rich were his subscribers – bear in mind it was the Depression era when people were desperate for a lucky break – that they raised a further $350,000 to fund his defence costs.

They may have had faith in Hartzell but the court didn’t, finding him guilty and sentencing him to 10 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary in north-east Kansas. He never left, dying in jail in 1943, by which time Hartzell actually believed that he was Francis Drake. In the year that he was being tried Hartzell’s agents collected a further $500,000 in subscriptions and some of his investors believed to their dying day that they were in for a share of Drake’s billions.

But as the wise always say, if it looks too good to be true, it is.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


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