By Richard Rayner
Doubleday -- 224pp -- $22.95
In 1572, British seaman Sir Francis Drake led a successful attack on Spanish settlements along the coast of Panama, hauling off a fortune in gold coins. When he died 24 years later, he left no direct heir, and a legend spread that his will was tied up in probate court. This paved the way for one of the world's great scams. For centuries after Drake's death, con artists would cajole dupes into helping pay "legal fees" that would unravel the estate problems and get Drake's riches to the rightful heir. In return, the suckers were promised a portion of the gold.
Richard Rayner's engaging new book, Drake's Fortune, recounts the life of arguably the greatest Drake scamster, Oscar Hartzell. A poor farmer's son, Hartzell bilked some 100,000 Iowans and other Midwest residents out of millions during the 1920s and '30s. He played upon the hopes and fears of his Depression-era victims: As any faith they may have held in Wall Street or the banks collapsed, their love of Hartzell, who was of yeoman stock like themselves, grew to the point where the Drake scam became a religion. Many mortgaged their houses to invest.
That Hartzell was able to work a 300-year-old con so successfully comes as no surprise to Rayner. "Confidence tricks are born, but they never die," he writes. "They flourish, fade, and then spring back to life in new clothes." Rayner should know. He claims to have been a second-generation con man in his youth--"thieving and forging checks."
Indeed, some of the most interesting sections in this surprisingly personal biography describe parallels between Hartzell and Rayner's father. Both men were "rakish" and "funny" and grew up in poverty--Hartzell in Monmouth, Ill., Jack Rayner in northern England. Yet beneath the jovial exterior was a loneliness native to anyone whose entire personality is an orchestration of lies. "My husband has many acquaintances, but no friends," remarked Hartzell's ex-wife. Papa Rayner was the same way, abandoning his family, then assuming a fake identity.
Because of the pressure to constantly perform, eventually the con artist cracks. He may slip up, perhaps intentionally, and get caught. Or he may go mad, believing in his own lies. The latter was Hartzell's fate. After being convicted of fraud for the second time, in 1936, he lived out his days at the Hospital for Defective Delinquents in Springfield, Mo. His delusions of grandeur had progressed to the point where he not only believed he was entitled to Drake's riches, he felt he was secretly the ruler of the world.
While it may seem hard to accept that anyone would fall for this particular scam today, Rayner draws parallels to the 1990s dot-com mania, which fed upon the American public's hunger to be rich regardless of how overblown the means. "The con man's will to deceive is matched and enabled by his suckers' urge to believe," he writes. To pull the wool over his victims' eyes, all the scamster needs is their trust and a confidence in his ability to deliver the goods. In a country that gave birth to Horatio Alger and Enron, such trust is never in short supply. By Lewis Braham