The 20th-Century Con Man Who Made Millions Off Sir Francis Drake

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, February 6, 2016
1590_or_later_Marcus_Gheeraerts,_Sir_Francis_Drake_Buckland_Abbey,_Devon
“The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them.” —Theodor Adorno

In A Nutshell

By the time Oscar Hartzell died, he had conned around 80,000 people out of untold millions of dollars, and he did it by claiming that the true heir to the estate of Sir Francis Drake had made him the recipient. He only needed the money to settle the estate, so he sold shares to investors, saying they would reap the rewards later if they helped him out. The rewards never did come, of course, but people continued to send him money even after he was convicted of mail fraud and deemed mentally incompetent.

The Whole Bushel

People have been trying to con other people out of their hard-earned money for as long as we’ve had money to steal, and in the first years of the 20th century, Oscar Hartzell stumbled on a scheme that would earn him millions—all with the help of Sir Francis Drake.

Drake was, of course, the 16th-century explorer who scoured the Americas for lost treasure and reported on the strange, naked, and happy giants he saw along the way.

Expedition after expedition, his standards got looser and looser, and Drake eventually amassed a huge fortune. By the time he died in 1596, there were all sorts of rumors that part of his fortune got left to an illegitimate son. He had a wife but no legitimate heirs. It isn’t surprising that a lot of people were coming out of the woodwork to claim they were part of the family.

Fast-forward a few hundred years, and as the story goes, the fortune had been held in trust by the British government until an heir could be found. (It really wasn’t, it had been willed to Drake’s widow and his brother, but that’s beside the point.) By the 1830s, the story was starting to show up on American soil, repeated by earnest-looking men whose hearts were in the right places. They were only trying to find some of Drake’s descendants so they could hand over this fortune to its rightful owners.

Enter two cons, who approached Oscar Hartzell with the claim that they were looking for Drake’s descendants. Hartzell had a run of bad luck, with his attempts at starting his own realty business going failing, his ranch going under, and his campaign for sheriff ending in defeat. When Sudie Whiteaker and Milo Lewis showed up claiming to be selling shares of the inheritance, Hartzell’s mother believed the story and gave the cons her life savings: $6,500.

Hartzell figured out pretty quickly it was a scam, so he tracked the pair down. He wanted in on the con. They formed the Sir Francis Drake Association and switched up the scam a little bit. Until then, the whole thing had concentrated on people with the surname of Drake, for obvious reasons. Hartzell decided that since anyone’s name could have been changed through marriage, everyone was a fair target.

They started finding “contributors,” who were all signing up for a piece of the fortune once the case was settled. Hartzell headed off to England, named himself the Duke of Buckland, and lived the high life with money that kept rolling in.

By 1919, the government was on to them, and Hartzell did what any good con would do: He turned on his partners and claimed that he had been hoodwinked just like the contributors and that he was darn well going to find out the truth of the matter. Whiteaker had been claiming her cousin was the Drake heir, and now, he said, he had figured out that she was lying.

Since he got away with this, Hartzell kept going. While he was in England, he claimed, he had tracked down the son of Sir Francis Drake from a third marriage. This Colonel Drexel Drake had transferred all rights to his inheritance to Hartzell, all he needed to do was raise the money to settle with the government. Hartzell started collecting money, supposedly all needed to secure the inheritance.

This literally went on for years, and it wasn’t until 1927 and the financial crisis that investors started getting worried about a return on their investment. Hartzell insisted that he had the inheritance, but moving the money into the States was the problem. There was just so much money that it would crash the country’s economy, and the powers that were wouldn’t let him do that.

By 1928, government officials were actively trying to stop him, and Hartzell was elevated to the status of a working-class hero fighting the good fight against an oppressive government. Now, even more people were sending him money to fight his legal case. In the last half of 1931, he got more than $250,000 via American Express alone.

In January 1933, the US government had the evidence they needed to extradite Hartzell and bring him back from England. His trial resulted in a 10-year sentence and a $2,000 fine on a conviction of mail fraud.

You might think that would be enough to stop the whole thing. But many of his contributors believed that he was still the real deal, and Hartzell began ranting about an international conspiracy to keep the Drake fortune out of the hands of its rightful owners.

By the time he died in 1943—ruled mentally incompetent—he had swindled around 80,000 people out of millions.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Handbook of Frauds, Scams, and Swindles: Failures of Ethics in Leadership, edited by Serge Matulich, David M. Currie
Encyclopedia of Deception, edited by Timothy R. Levine
The Milwaukee Journal: “21 Are Freed in Drake Trial”