On the surface, there appear to be few similarities between Sir Francis Drake (c. 1541-1596) and Oscar Hartzell (1876-1943). One was the swashbuckling confidant of Queen Elizabeth, the other a cigar-chomping farmer's son from Illinois. But, as Richard Rayner shows in his new book Drake's Fortune, both men were adventurers with big dreams. Drake realized his dream by plundering and bringing back to England shiploads of riches Spain had extracted from the New World. Hartzell made his fortune by convincing thousands of American dupes most of them in his native Midwest that he held the key to Drake's supposedly vast estate. All one needed to do to share in this multi-billion-dollar booty, Hartzell told his multitude of marks, was to invest in the minimal costs of settling the estate. Of course, this might take some time.
To the con artist, as Rayner proves, the crucial element of business isn't simply that a sucker is born every minute, but that the sucker is likely to remain one, even in the face of the most obvious contradictory evidence. Hartzell, who was initially a victim of the Drake scam, soon turned the tables and took over the game. From 1915 until months after he was convicted of the fraud in 1933 in Sioux City, Iowa, he bilked millions from the credulous. Even during the bleak early days of the Depression, he kept the money flowing in.
Because the mythical Drake fortune resided in England, Hartzell spent most of his productive years in London, putting on airs, taking mistresses and generally living the good life. Periodically, he made progress reports to the folks back home, assuring them that they would soon be rich. His pitch was so persuasive that even when he was deported from England and taken back to America to stand trial, crowds of the very people he had cheated continued to believe him and treated him like royalty. Hartzell went to prison in 1935 and died there of cancer in 1943.
While Rayner's depiction of the roguish Hartzell is fascinating, the book's greater achievement is showing that gullibility is humanity's most common and renewable resource.