Oscar Merril Hartzell (1876–1943) was an American con man who convinced many people in North America to join him in a fraudulent lawsuit against the British government. The original idea was not his, but rather was a continuation of a previous scam.
Hartzell was a farmer's son from Madison County, Iowa who worked as a farmer and a deputy sheriff. According to Hartzell, in 1915 he met a couple of con artists who promised to turn his mother's $6000 into $6 million by giving him a share of the held fortune of Sir Francis Drake. When Hartzell realized the deal was a confidence game, he decided to use it to his own advantage.
In 1919, Hartzell contacted many Iowans who had the surname Drake. He claimed that he was a distant relative and had discovered that the estate of Sir Francis Drake had never been paid to his heirs, that it had gathered interest for the last 300 years, and that it was now worth $100 billion. Hartzell invited all these families to invest in his campaign to sue the British government for the money and assured them that everyone would make $500 for every dollar they invested. The inheritance would include the whole city of Plymouth in England.
Tens of thousands of Americans sponsored him—sometimes with all the money they had. Hartzell later expanded his con to people without the surname Drake and outside of Iowa.
Around 1924, Hartzell proceeded to move to London to live in an opulent lifestyle. He told the families who had invested in the "campaign" that he was negotiating with the British government and needed even more money for expenses. His agents in the Midwest—some of whom believed in the scheme themselves—collected the money.
On August 9, 1922, the British Home Office informed the American embassy that there was no unclaimed Sir Francis Drake estate. Hartzell explained that the estate was not unclaimed because it belonged to Drexel Drake (a nonexistent colonel) and therefore to Hartzell.
Unfortunately, Hartzell had not broken any British law, so British police could not arrest him. The FBI investigated and announced that Drake's wife had duly inherited his estate in 1597. That information did not stop the donations. When Ed Smith, Iowa Secretary of State, tried to convince the state legislature to act, the public and Hartzell's supporters protested, saying that they could donate to whomever they wanted; the legislature did nothing.
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and during the Great Depression, Hartzell's followers seemed to become even more desperate and sent him even more money.
On October 11, 1930, John Maynard Keynes was arguing in an article for deficit spending to alleviate the Depression and mentioned that Queen Elizabeth had invested Drake's loot—which Drake had given to the crown—for the benefit of the country. Hartzell seized this as a proof of his claims and his agents in the USA spread copies of the article to his followers.
Eventually United States Postal Service inspector John Sparks, with help from the British police, seized some of the Hartzell's agents and forced them to reveal the scam. At the same time, Scotland Yard arrested some of Hartzell's British associates. Britain deported Hartzell to USA and he was sent to Iowa for trial in 1933.
Hartzell was tried in Sioux City, Iowa in 1933. His followers sent him total of $68,000 for his defence. He was convicted of fraud in 1934, sentenced to ten years in prison and sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary. By that time, he had run his scam for over 15 years. Even after his sentence, some of his agents collected more donations—$500,000 for the next year.
Hartzell died in a prison hospital in 1943. Many of his victims—approximately 70,000–100,000 people—believed in him to the end of their own lives.
- Richard Rayner, Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist (2002, ISBN 0-385-49949-3)
Hartzell and his schemes were also the subject of a play, Scam, produced at London's Riverside Studios in 2000.