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Drake's Fortune

The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist

Drake's Fortune by Richard Rayner
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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.

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 Drake’s Fortune, Rayner offers a delightful portrait of a uniquely American character.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; October 2003
ISBN 9781400075904
Download in secure EPUB
Title: Drake's Fortune
Author: Richard Rayner

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 1893, Oscar opted instead to stay at home and look after the farm. As reward for this sacrifice he received a new buggy and a new riding harness; the buggy alone cost $80. "I think no one could have been more proud than I was. I went hell-for-leather over sense, riding that buggy like a madman twixt the farm and Monmouth," he wrote in his autobiography.

This typical Western childhood even had its archetypal feud: the hard-nosed John Hartzell brought lawsuits against members of his wife's family to secure her share of her grandfather's will. "There was bitter feeling and father was never without his six shooter for years. Sometimes they would set his barns on fire and I would stay out all night with my father watching the grain stacks until the threshing was done," Oscar wrote. "They were jealous of father's success. Father always made money and they did not know how to make money."

It was a time in America when success was a magic word. Every small town had its story of the boy who rose from humble origins to achieve wealth and power. Such life ascents were already starting to be known as Horatio Alger stories, after the writer whose books embodied this ethos and were achieving huge popularity just at the time Oscar was growing up. His father had done very well for himself; the son intended to emulate and surpass him.

His sister, Pearl, later remembered that he was a leader and his leadership qualities were accepted. Further, he was "the outstanding boy of the community who went out with the best girls." For two years, in the quaint terminology of the time, Oscar "kept company" with Daisy Rees, from nearby Gerlaw. Daisy was the daughter of Michael Rees, a man who'd seen action with the 102nd Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War and was one of the most active and prosperous farmers in the area. Daisy was a catch, in other words, and Oscar married her beneath an arch of evergreen and chrysanthemums in the parlor of her parents' house on November 20, 1895. Daisy was lovely, her cream henrietta trimmed with satin and silk. Oscar wore the conventional black frock coat as though he wished he could burst out of it. "The groom is an industrious, energetic young farmer, and the bride a most charming young lady, loved by a large circle of friends," the Monmouth Daily Review reported. The marriage, which started so idyllically, was not to be a happy one.

At first the newlyweds lived in a room at the Hartzell place, but Oscar was now ready to strike out on his own, and he approached the matter as he rode his buggy--going hell for leather, doing business fast. First he rented his father's farm, then bought one, then got another, of two hundred acres, which he soon sold at a profit so that he could purchase 1,080 acres in Iowa, sixteen miles south of Des Moines.

This was a momentous and ultimately disastrous move, though it seemed natural enough; at that time, in that part of the world, any ambitious young man's compass tended to be set west. Real estate was cheap, the law was scarcely applied, you could get lost in the country and live free. Hartzell would always say the names of these places cowboy-fashion, so that Iowa became Ioway, and both s's were pronounced in Des Moines. He and Daisy had their farm in the northeast part of Madison County, where the settlers were mostly, like Hartzell himself, of German-Protestant origin. Everybody knew everybody else in this insular community. Minds were set on hard work, strong values, civic involvement, and always money; a man proved himself by how many hours he toiled in the field and how much hard cash he had in his pocket.

Oscar both fit in and didn't. Within a few years he was one of the biggest shippers of cattle and horses in the region, well known in the banks of Des Moines and around the stockyards in Chicago. Yet he was restless, fretful, and Daisy's memories of these years were unhappy; her husband was a great one for parties and dinners and drinking; he was charming with others but always nervous with her, and overanxious when making love, so their sex life was unsatisfactory. She never expected the truth if she asked a question. Oscar had a terrible temper, cursed a lot, and was rough with horses. He paced the floor of their farmhouse, chewing tobacco (the gold watch being safe in his vest pocket, he went through as much as two ten-cent plugs per day) and speaking of what they would do when they had real money. He was always thinking of the next thing, longing for prestige and success, dreaming of it, already tasting it. He wanted to be the biggest fellow in the country. Later, when asked to name one of her husband's best qualities, Daisy said, "He liked to help poor people." Asked if he was peculiar in any way, she said simply: "Money, money."

On August 30, 1905, Hartzell's father, John Hartzell, went hunting with friends from Monmouth. He was at the back of his buggy reloading his five-chamber .38 Colt when suddenly he exclaimed, "My God, I'm shot." His friends heard the shot and came around from the front of the buggy just as he was falling.

John Hartzell was taken to a nearby house, where a doctor operated on him, removing a bullet that had entered above the navel and passed through three intestines before striking the hipbone. While he lay in bed, struggling for life, the Monmouth Daily Review issued bulletins every day, sometimes twice a day, about his progress. At first things looked very bleak indeed; two weeks later, however, John Hartzell was hailed as one case in a thousand--his robust constitution having pulled him through, every sign pointed to complete recovery. Then he had a dream that made him startled and nervous. He woke up, alarmed, and demanded to be taken home. Five minutes later he was dead--the result, apparently, of an embolism in the brain. The end came almost before those present could realize it. Thirty years on, Oscar would still talk of this event with a crack in his voice.

The postmortem, attended by ten doctors, was delayed to await the arrival of a train bringing an investigator from Chicago. John Hartzell was so heavily insured that a question mark lay over his death. Had it been a suicide? At the inquest a jury of local men stuck together and concluded that he "came to his death accidentally by a bullet fired from his own hand."

Oscar, who'd been in Chicago on business, returned to Monmouth in time to help shoulder his father's coffin. John Hartzell was laid in the ground and his estate was valued at $10,000, with the various insurance policies bringing a further $69,000, a massive sum in 1905. Oscar took his share and started thinking about Texas.

He'd met Robert Moody, a tall, dignified millionaire who wore his graying beard trimmed to a point. In his stiff black suits Moody looked like a banker, and indeed he was; but he was also a rancher and a broker who still owned a lumberyard, a meat market, and a hotel in the Texas panhandle town of Canadian in Hemphill County, where he'd worked hard for twenty years and which he'd had a large hand in creating. Earlier in his life, when he'd been starting out, Moody had met P. T. Barnum in New York, was befriended by the showman, and subsequently managed his Dipper Ranch in Colorado. One time he fought off an Apache war party while running the entire bacon stock of Kansas City down to Santa Fe. Moody reminds us that the Wild West was as much a theater for business as for settling and exploration and gunplay. By the time Hartzell encountered him he was something of a legend, living proof that the never-quit spirit would indeed bring fortune. In Canadian he hadn't needed to worry when some of his business propositions erred on the gray side of legality; he'd been the law. Yet this self-made adventurer and entrepreneur had started life as the son of a failed English baker.

Hartzell looked at Moody and was dazzled; or that's not quite right--he looked at him and saw a grander, more expansive role model than his father ever could have been. It didn't occur to him to ask whether he was made of the same stuff as Robert Moody. Instead he simply assumed that a similar success was there for the taking. Whatever Hartzell lacked, it was not confidence. He wore his bulldog manner like a suit, or cocked at the side of his mouth like one of the cigars he had started to smoke because they lent him an air of swagger.

The two men met in Kansas City sometime in 1906, when Hartzell was thirty, and Moody liked him well enough to float a proposition. Over the next year Hartzell made several journeys down to Hemphill County and then used the money from his father's insurance policy to make a down payment on a sixteen-thousand-acre ranch that was priced at $100,000. Moody nodded approval from the sidelines and fixed the mortgage.

Hartzell went into cattle shipping in a big way. In his autobiography he describes how in 1908 he and some of his cowboys were moving 850 steers and almost lost the entire herd while crossing the Canadian River. Frightened and confused by the high banks of the river at the crossing point, the cattle got as far as midstream and refused to budge.

There was one man who was about 65 years old, a very tough looking customer and he was just as tough as he looked. His nickname was River Jack and he had been brought up on the river all his life. As the steers were starting to drown River Jack said, "I will try the last resort." I could not imagine what he was going to do and none of the rest of the boys could either. He put the spurs to his horse and found a steer on the outside of the drove with an extra long tail. He got hold of the steer's tail and took a half-hitch around the saddle horn and started with the steer, dragging him by the tail. The steer started to bawl and make a terrific howl that drew the attention of the rest of the cattle and every steer came out alive. I gave the old man a bonus of $25 when pay day came. He went to town on a spree, got drunk and into trouble, and got into jail, and I had to go bail him out. He was a very difficult character of a man to handle. A real Texas man. A frontier man.

Soon Hartzell had his own reputation. The word was that he was a cattleman on the grand scale. At the end of 1907, he claimed, he could have sold out for $500,000. He declined the offer, believing his success would only get bigger and better. He hosted parties in restaurants and bought a string of racehorses, but his prosperity was more precarious than it looked. Everything was supported by an intricate series of mortgages and loans, one propping up the next. Mark Twain once said that farming is simply a dirtier and more arduous type of gambling, roulette with cow dung. Certainly there are risks attached to the game. Hartzell was about to discover them.

From the Hardcover edition.