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Oscar Hartzell, Part I
Brian Trumbore

This is the story of Oscar Hartzell, one of the world's greatest con men, as well as one of the least discussed. Hartzell plied his trade primarily in the 1920s and 30s and it's estimated he swindled between 70,000-100,000 Midwesterners.

Hartzell's game revolved around the "disputed" estate of the great explorer / pirate, Francis Drake. As I am currently sailing the oceans blue myself these days, it only seems appropriate that I write about Drake, too.

It was back in 1572 that the unsung English seaman of common background made his mark when he led a small expedition to Panama, attacking shipping and coastal settlements along the way. The Spaniards had moved into these parts and Drake ended up hauling off a great deal of treasure, particularly gold.

Well, wouldn't you know that King Philip II of Spain was rather ticked off. He was the world's leading monarch and this was his treasure. On the other hand, England's Queen Elizabeth was ecstatic upon Drake's return so it was decided that Drake would launch a 2nd expedition, which was to be far better financed.

Francis had 4 well-armed ships under his command and it would become one of sailing's epic feats as he was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, passing around Cape Horn, up to what is today northern California, then across the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope and back up to Europe.a journey of two years.

Of course this wasn't merely a pleasure cruise. I did note they were well-armed, after all, and wouldn't you know that along the way Francis attacked and plundered all manner of settlements and ships, including the coast of Peru, where the Spaniards had no defenses because they didn't think anyone would approach from that side.

So imagine how thrilled Queen Elizabeth was when Drake returned in 1579. It was said that investors made 4,700 percent on this voyage. As for the Queen, while publicly she didn't want to gloat, England not being at war with Spain at the time, nor did she want one, Elizabeth took about 100,000 pounds as her share of Drake's loot; close to $1 billion in today's money. The good captain was knighted and the Queen used the 100,000 to lay the groundwork for a foreign investment fortune, as England began to grow into a colonial power. Needless to say, however, King Philip of Spain was calling Drake a mere pirate and a price was placed on his head.

Drake, of course, made a ton of money himself and led a good life, buying up vast chunks of land. But he would die at sea on January 28, 1596. Despite being married twice, though, he had no children, so most of his property and money passed on to his brother and nephews.

Well, it only seemed natural that over time many questioned the validity of the will. Some wanted a big chunk for themselves, others simply wanted to scam the dimwitted. By the 1880s, there had been quite a few schemes, actually, so many that American officials were moved to warn the public.

The invention of the telephone and the telephone directory also contributed in a major way to the swindlers efforts, who sent wires to all the Drakes they could find, informing them that they were legitimate heirs. Then a few days later a second letter would arrive from a firm of London solicitors, confirming their claim but asking for funds to settle the final stages of the litigation.

The media played its part, too. In 1906, for example, the Ohio State Journal was proclaiming that a Columbus man, a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, had received word that a division of the estate was soon to take place. The Bank of England itself was going to be releasing all the jewels and money.

Meanwhile, Oscar Hartzell had been born in the 1880s, an Iowa farm boy. By 1915 he was part of a group that was asking donors to trust him that he could deliver the Drake goods. As time went on, Hartzell became the mastermind of the scam, operating out of London, while employing his agents in America's heartland. By now the estimates for the Drake fortune, Hartzell's, that is, were $100 billion.

We'll continue our story next week.

[Source: "Drake's Fortune" Richard Rayner]

Brian Trumbore


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