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Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist Hardcover – May 21, 2002


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (May 21, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385499493
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385499491
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,615,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"The confidence man," Rayner suggests in this lively biography of rakish swindler Oscar Hartzell, "might in fact be the great covert, or not so covert, American hero." After stumbling more or less inadvertently onto a scheme involving the allegedly misappropriated fortune of Sir Francis Drake, Iowan Hartzell persuaded some 100,000 Midwesterners to part with millions of dollars mostly during the Great Depression to start a legal fund that would see the fortune restored to its rightful heir. In return for their contributions, donors would get "shares" in the fortune, estimated to be worth $100 billion. In fact, all the money went into Hartzell's pocket. He lived the high life in London for years, until Scotland Yard built enough of a case against him to have him deported back to Sioux City to stand trial for fraud. Despite his speedy conviction, the majority of those he'd fleeced remained convinced he was going to deliver their shares of Drake's fortune and they continued to send him money. Described by prison psychiatrists as of below average intelligence, Hartzell was, Rayner suggests, nevertheless canny enough to exploit American fantasies about instant wealth and glory. Rayner's (The Blue Suit) account of Hartzell's life and times is brisk and breezy, a terrifically entertaining read, and the author's obvious fascination with his subject is infectious. But this is more than just a gripping tale: Rayner also laces his narrative with savvy commentary including insights into the psyches of swindler and victim alike that helps explain why cons like Hartzell occupy such a place in American history.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Review

“This is a completely delicious account of an episode that must be accorded classic status in the history of that great American art: the confidence game. Melville would have loved the theme of dispossession implicit in the lost Drake Estate scam.”
-Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Secret Parts of Fortune and Explaining Hitler

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Schmerguls VINE VOICE on December 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The story of the Drake Estate swindle is legendary around Sioux City and this book purports to tell the story of it. The author says he did lots of research but he carefully declines to give authority for what he says in the book and it is really frustrating since it is clear that at times he exaggerates or is slipshoddy with the story. He tries to make the fantastic story of this gross swindle which led so many dupes to part with their money read like a novel, whereas he would have been far better advised to footnote his assertions and cite where his authority is. He apparently unearthed the trial transcript and why he doesn't tell us where it can be checked I do not know, since he just skims the trial rather than explaining it. The lawyer for Hartzell, Carlos Goltz, is a legend in these parts and still invokes comment, tho he has been dead over 50 years. His role in the trial is not well told. I thought it odd for the author to tell how he himself was a crook at one time and that this led him to be interested in Hartzell. One need not be a crook to be interested in this amazing story and I only wish it were better and more carefully told. I really enjoyed reading the account, but it could have a so much better book. To get a flavor for the trial read the opinion, Hartzell v. U.S., 72 F.2d 569 (CCA 8, 1934). It will make you want to read this book, even tho the book is not as well-composed as it should be.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By D. Bradman on June 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This lovely book succeeds for a number of reasons, which I'll gladly explain as follows: Firstly, not just the relationship of character to plot-- which in my opinion is the key ingredient of any successful nonfiction-- but the evolution of the character as the plot; in the case of "Drake's Fortune," the evolution of Oscar Hartzell, madly and finally, into Sir Francis Drake, the Baron of Buckland. The book twists and turns perfectly with Hartzell's deceptions and permutations. Richard Rayner takes us deep inside Hartzell's head in a way rivalled only by Don Delillo's "Libra" and its tortured and confused Oswald. Secondly, Rayner's explanatory digressions-- the history of the con, the history of the 1930s, the psychology of con artists, as well as his own fascinating family and personal (and criminal) history-- are inserted to maximum effect and pacing. It's just a great read. Thirdly, Rayner breaks new and important historiographical ground. Thanks to his work, the Drake Estate and its "donators" will have to be examined by historians of the Depression midwest as a mass social and quasi-religious social movement. This is a great find, and one for which historians should thank Rayner. Like Simon Winchester's "Professor and the Madman," "Drake's Fortune" is based on records found largely in archives-- American and British. These valuable repositories-- the US National Archives and the (UK)Public Records Office-- are, as Rayner notes, where the stories are. They are indeed, and aspiring writers of all stripes-- historians, journalists, screenwriters, and novelists-- should scramble to these facilities posthaste. And finally, this book succeeds because it falls within the tradition of the "New Yorker" magazine's style of seemingly effortless and fine nonfiction writing. A pleasure to read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Bruce_in_LA on January 7, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The story is clear from the synopsis and other reviews. I'll add that the book is a great read. He's a fine writer, right from the first couple pages you want to keep going. I class this as escapist, interesting, historical, offbeat entertainment. As another reviewer noted, there is relatively little on the "law" of the trial, which is a fairly famous case still occasionally cited (e.g. could he commit fraud by mail from England and be tried in a US court, where the letter arrived?) But that's of little interest except to an attorney, who can look up the case as a supplement to the book. Good reading, and a good offbeat gift book in the nonfiction category. Reyner also wrote two books on California, one light fiction (LA w/o a map) and one on railroad barons & swindles in California history (2008, The Associates).
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By Boyd Hone on September 4, 2013
Format: Paperback
Richard Rayner's DRAKE'S FORTUNE is a rarity: a satisfying book, of which there are few. I thought Ambrose's UNDAUNTED COURAGE, the story of Lewis and Clark, was one until Lewis committed suicide at the end, suddenly sending me into spasms of tears like a kid, two-hundred years after the event. Moehringere's THE TENDER BAR is a satisfying book, and Lefcourt's THE DREYFUS AFFAIR is the most perfectly satisfying book I've ever read. Rayner keeps inviting himself into his narrative, as when he writes: `'I was drawn to Hartzell's story because it was so enchanting, containing elements of the comic, the bizarre, the tragic, the almost incredible.'' Hartzell, a literally world-class con man, was, indeed, all of these things. His assertion that Drake (of Queen Elizabeth fame) had left a will that had just been uncovered, thanks to which, due to the accumulated interest, would ruin the world's economy, was swallowed by thousands. Even in 1929 and the Depression, Harzell raked in $2.5 million in just one year, making people believe, even, that the Great Depression had been caused by world governments who knew they would be obliged to pay Drake's heirs. The author's insertion into his narrative takes on added meaning when we learn that his own father had been a con man (and had at times beaten Rayner, which is not satisfying at all), and that Rayner himself had turned to petty crime at one point in his life. (As Katherine Hepburn, playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in A LION IN WINTER, says concerning her husband who had biblically known girls, boys and sheep, and was the constant target of his sons' attempts to overthrow him: What family doesn't have its ups and downs.) So read the book and have an amusing few hours (and then read, if you haven't already, Moehringere, Lefcourt and Ambrose--and if you still have a little extra time, my own books, on Amazon, under Michael Hone).
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