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Home / Book Reviews / Drake's Fortune
Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist
by Richard Rayner
ISBN: 0385499493
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Year: 2002
Publisher Price: $22.95
Cover Type: hardcover

Author Richard Rayner, whose own father was a convicted con man, explains the nature of the relationship between con man and victim:

The con man’s will to deceive is matched and enabled by his sucker’s urge to believe. Their relationship is codependent, and it’s also symbiotic. Information and emotion travel both ways, from the con man to the sucker, from sucker to con man, living off each other, and the con man must have a strong will and a very clear head if he’s to remain untouched by the cupidity of his victims. Insincerity is hard to keep up for a day, let alone for years, for decades.

Indeed, in the context of explaining the remarkable success of Oscar Hartzell, the con man messiah who ripped off thousands of credulous so-called “investors” during the Roaring ‘20’s and then thousands more during the Great Depression, Rayner’s brilliant insight into the mutually parasitic relationship between Hartzell and his deluded followers surpasses all expectations.

This exhaustively-researched, tersely-written little book is absolutely bursting at the binding seams with colorful criminal biographies, vastly entertaining cultural folklore and historical anecdotes, and riveting investigative journalism.

Rayner’s account of the fervor and unwavering devotion of Hartzell’s victims is at once highly entertaining and deeply disturbing.

For two decades, people were killed, or their lives threatened with violence or imprisonment, or their careers destroyed—if they dared question or investigate the promises made by Hartzell to distribute the seemingly inestimable wealth left behind by Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer, privateer, freebooter, who, according to the mechanics of the “Drake Fortune” con, died intestate and without discernible heirs. Rayner’s work reveals an ugliness to the Hartzell scheme that cannot be obscured by the black comedy of it all: a fascism of fraud that seems to be a recurring nightmare that interrupts the American Dream at least once in every generation.

Drake’s Fortune says more about our culture than much bigger books devoted to critical historical, sociological, or psychological analyses. Even H.L. Mencken could not have created such a pithy study of the virulent religiosity that characterizes our fellow American’s need to inflate money-making scams into moral crusades—and, by logical extension, to subsequently worship corrupt leaders who embark on moral crusades in order to create more money-making scams.

© Copyright 2002 by KNS Maré.