Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist
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Over the course of twenty years, from 1914 to 1933, Oscar Hartzell conned millions of dollars from tens of thousands of trusting, innocent people. And when he was caught, they gave him more.
There are no folk heroes more all-American than con artists. Though we may openly condemn them, deep down we admire their brazen bravado, their cleverness, their shrewd understanding of how to rouse ambition and greed in their hapless victims. They offer the American dream on the quick, and, after all, don’t suckers get what they deserve?
Oscar Hartzell was born in 1876, on the Illinois prairie. Rising from humble origins, he worked hard as a farmer and then as a rancher on the grand scale in Iowa and Texas. But his flair for business didn’t match his ambition, and his dream of success foundered. A bankrupt, he was in his late thirties when in 1915 he met a couple who promised to turn his mother’s six thousand dollars into six million by delivering to her a share of the long-lost fortune of Sir Francis Drake. Hartzell joined their operation, apparently believing in it, before realizing it was a fraud and then boldly stealing it from under their noses and turning it into an enterprise that netted him millions.
Hartzell moved to London, out of the reach of frustrated American lawmen, restyling himself as an English aristocrat. While living a life of hedonistic grandeur, he played the hayseed for the folks back home, selling as many as a hundred thousand Midwesterners on a get-rich-quick scheme that seemed every bit as reasonable as the wildly speculative investments being touted on Wall Street. The year 1929 came, the stock market crashed — and then his life began to get very strange. His victims turned him into a messiah.
The extraordinary story of Oscar Hartzell has been all but forgotten and never told in full until now. Richard Rayner employs a wealth of original research and previously unseen documents to re-create a saga that stands out both for the sheer longevity and outrageousness of Hartzell’s con and for what its amazing twists and turns tell us about the tens of thousands of solid American citizens who, crushed by the Depression, believed to death in the most outrageous of frauds.
couldn’t be either. Thus all the subcontracts that had been sold were worthless, and Whittaker and Lewis had known this since 1916. “Go from the bottom. If Ernest Drake is not the heir—I will know who is,” he wrote. Meanwhile he asked his Des Moines allies to pass the word that all the Drake investors had better look matters square in the face. They’d lost everything they’d put in and could only conclude that Whittaker and Lewis were not competent to handle this delicate affair. He even
letter to Nixon and for threatening and slandering Milo Lewis. The papers were served at American Express. “They thought they had my grave all dug for me,” Hartzell said. But Whittaker, Lewis, and their legal adviser Judge Graves had made a miscalculation: Hartzell, the hayseed, knew his way around a courtroom. “He enjoyed being in court and was good at it,” Daisy Hartzell said later. “It was like theater for him, and he was the leading player.” All those years of lawsuits in Iowa now paid
Shepard good and proper,” he wrote. “They have a fine chance, haven’t they? The whole bunch of crooks will sneak off like dogs. &” Alma Shepard was no match for Hartzell in this area. Her life was destroyed: her merchant tailor husband, once proud, was hit so hard by their disgrace that he had to be committed to the Iowa state asylum at Clarinda, and died soon after. “Hartzell reduced me to poverty, drove my husband insane, and here I am, a widow, with just a few dollars left me by my sister,
assumed character in proportion to the amount of attention he is able to gain from it.” Oscar Hartzell was getting a lot of attention. He belabored and promised and defamed. He mixed belligerent imputation with rhapsodic promises. When he went into the offices of American Express on the Haymarket he was like a cyclonic disturbance, and his communications from this time give a powerful sense of the intoxication with which they were written. The whiff of mania was in his nostrils. “I have a chain
prison stuff. It was like opening a pirate’s chest. The file revealed that Hartzell arrived at Leavenworth on January 16, 1935, and was given the inmate number 46137-L. His profession was listed as “financier.” He looked ten years younger than his age, then fifty-nine. The file revealed that Hartzell adjusted to prison life quickly. He was described as “Neat in personal appearance, affable, quick, and eager in response. He is apparently frank, but with some reservations pertaining to secrets of