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Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artistby Richard Rayner
Synopses & Reviews
The Education of a Con Man
Oscar Merrill Hartzell was a son of the prairie, of the American heartland, of Monmouth, a small city (even today the population is only nine thousand) in western Illinois that Abraham Lincoln visited often during the early years of his legal career. Wyatt Earp was born there in 1848, and it's where Ronald Reagan attended second grade in 1918. Hartzell, whose life would in its own way be as emblematically American, was born there on January 6, 1876.
One of his grandfathers was a steamboat man. His father, John Henry Hartzell, came originally from Tiltensville, Ohio, but moved west when he was eighteen to work as a hired hand for Eliza Jane Shaw, a widow who had a farm outside Monmouth. John Henry Hartzell was quarrelsome and hot-tempered, but a hard worker, a capable farmer, and evidently a man who, even if he allowed one eye to stray in the direction of love, always kept the other fixed firmly on the main chance. On Christmas Day 1874, he married one of Eliza Jane Shaw's daughters, and with his wedding gift he bought his own small holding of twenty acres.
Oscar, their first child, was born just over a year later in the one-room log cabin that John Hartzell had raised with his own hands. A daughter, Pearl May, soon followed, and then Emma Hartzell lost her third pregnancy during childbirth. The next child was yet another boy, Clinton, but here arises a confusion. Some records suggest that he was a natural birth, but Oscar would one day claim that Clinton was adopted. (Of this important divergence, more later.) The family was completed by the birth of Canfield, Oscar's youngest brother, in 1880.
John Hartzell, the patriarch, was stable, steady, strict, a Protestant of German descent who lived a gospel of hard work and grasping thrift. Emma Hartzell was subsequently described as "the sweet, motherly type usually relied upon to guide her offspring in righteous paths." Unlike her husband, she was patient and indulgent, always ready to help Oscar with his homework (he was poor at grammar) or to press a cold cloth to his forehead if he had a headache. As a child he suffered from the usual ailments--measles, mumps, chickenpox--but was otherwise a healthy and robust boy. He was active and intelligent and considered of unusual promise.
John Hartzell added to his land until he had more than four hundred acres and then built a new nine-room house. Oscar's room on the upper story had a view of the prairie. On his entry to the local country school in Cold Creek, his future seemed to be already written--he would follow his father, be a farmer. Oscar milked the cows before breakfast; he learned how to pierce the skin and bring relief to an animal that had eaten clover. When he stole a penknife at school, he was whipped for it. When he gambled, and won from his friends a pint pot full of pennies, he was whipped for it, and made to give back the pennies. When his schoolteacher said he was a born businessman who would be rich some day, his father was very proud and gave him a dollar.
Oscar left school at sixteen to work on the farm. His father taught him how to castrate bulls, fatten them, and sell them as steers--Oscar's first experience of transformation and shape-shifting. His mother gave him a gold watch on his eighteenth birthday, for not chewing tobacco, and when John Hartzell took the rest of the family to the great Chicago World's Fair of 1
<P>His scam was as simple as it was brazen. Before and during the Great Depression, Oscar Hartzell persuaded tens of thousands of Midwesterners to part with millions of dollars to start a legal fund that would see the mythical fortune of Sir Francis Drake restored to his rightful heir. In return for their contributions, donors would get shares in the riches, estimated to be worth $100 billion. The money of course went in the pocket of Hartzell, who transformed himself into a hedonistic English aristocrat even as the folks back home continued to see him as a hero.</P><P>As he recounts this amazing tale, Richard Rayner tells the larger history of cons in America. We have always had a soft spot for the crafty or larger-than-life swindler, and with <I>Drake's Fortune,</I> Rayner offers a delightful portrait of a uniquely American character.</P><HR><P>"Rayner brilliantly tracks Hartzell's evolution from small-time crookery to a humbug of superhuman proportions.... [This] fascinating history amply demonstrates that hope and gullibility spring eternal."<BR> <I>THE OREGONIAN</I></P><P>"Rayner's private insights add another dimension to this biography that help it to transcend more run-of-the-mill true crime.... A fascinating and poignant read."<BR> <I>THE NEWS & OBSERVER</I></P><P>"Rayner's beautifully balanced book... crams a fairly complete history of confidence scams into the story without slowing it down for a second, and breaks your heart by showing again and again how badly these good people wanted to believe in such a ridiculous scheme."<BR> <I>CHICAGO TRIBUNE</I></P><P>"Witty, concise, and thoroughly researched."<BR> <I>AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN</I></P&
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Richard Rayner is the author of several books, including the novel The Cloud Sketcher and The Blue Suit, a memoir of his own life as a thief while a student at Cambridge University. His work appears in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.
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