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Books: Drake's Fortune

I first heard tell of Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist in the virtual pages of Salon, which reviewed two books dedicated to the art of the scam. And as I have a soft spot in my heart for hucksters, I picked up the (reportedly) better written of the two.

Zowie, whatta great book! Which is to say: what amazing subject matter. Drake's Fortune is well-written, and author Richard Rayner has the good sense to avoid two problems which seem to plague biographies: he stays focused on the subject matter and he keeps it brief (200 pages). This makes for a riveting work, one that that I plowed through in two days and would have read cover-to-cover had I started it early on a weekend.

Despite the title, the protagonist ('antagonist,' really) is Oscar Merrill Hartzell. The titular "Drake" refers to Sir Francis Drake, a British admiral from the 1500's who plundered the Spanish Armada and returned to England with a bounty of gold. After the Queen took her share from the The ill-begotten trove, the rest sat in probate awaiting a heir to claim the remains. And there the untold riches sat, for hundreds of years, as the legal questions surrounding the gold's rightful owner grew ever more complex. Anyone who could sort out the genealogical riddle stood to make a killing: they would receive the entire fortune, plus centuries' worth of interest. This is the task Hartzell undertook, but he knew it wasn't going to be easy or cheap. Indeed, no one man could possibly afford all the legal fees required to untangle this legal morass. So Hartzell asked ordinary citizens for donations, and promised that, once the estate was his, he would return their investment 1000%.

It would have been a win-win situation for everyone involved, if not for one troublesome detail: there was no Drake estate. Yes, Sir Francis Drake had returned to the motherland with a boatload of booty, but every doubloon had been distributed -- nothing remained to be claimed by anyone. But this didn't stop Hartzell from selling "stakes" in the estate all the same. In fact, from 1920 to 1933, he bilked thousands and thousands of people out of millions and millions of dollars -- this despite the fact that the nation was in the midst of a Great Depression! And what's even more astounding is how little effort it took him: Hartzell rarely even bothered to pretend like he was really pursuing an estate, instead running the entire scheme off of his winning charisma and his superhuman ability to lie like a rug.

Drake's Fortune is an unnerving book. But the scariest moment, for me, came when I realized why I get so much spam email. Who could possibly believe that a Nigerian official wants to transfer billions of dollars into their bank account? Who could possibly believe that they could lose 30 pounds in seven days? Who could possibly believe that there's a pill that will increase the length of your penis overnight? You read Drake's Fortune and you begin to understand that the world is filled with people who can be made to believe anything, and these dupes would go right on believing even if The Truth came over to their house and slept on their sofa for a week. I am not overly concerned by the idea that there are con men in the world, but when I think about the hoards of suckers these guys prey upon, I can't help but shudder.

Read this book. It's great.

Posted on July 10, 2002 to Books