Sir Francis Drake Association – The Hoax of Oscar Merrill Hartzell


Connect a con to a dashing explorer knighted by Queen Elizabeth and you have the Sir Francis Drake Association.

Most scam artist will tell you that if you can attach a famous name to your con then you will find people trust it much quicker. Connect that con to a dashing explorer knighted by Queen Elizabeth and you have the Sir Francis Drake Association.

Sir Francis Drake and the Queen

Sir Francis Drake was a Vice Admiral in Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Navy. Drake was knighted by the Queen in 1581. He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. While tales of Drake’s high seas adventures were applauded through out England and made him a hero to the Spanish he was a pirate. Sir Francis Drake later died of dysentery after unsuccessfully attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1596.

Descendents of Drake

In 1913 thousands of people with the last name Drake received a letter from the “Sir Francis Drake Association,” an organization founded for the purpose of settling the estate of the legendary British buccaneer who had died 300 years earlier. The letter claimed that the estate was still tied up in probate court, and that since Drake’s death in 1596 the value had grown to an estimated $22 billion. Any Drake descendant who wanted a share of the estate was ‘Yelcome-all they had to do was contribute toward the $2,500-a-week “legal expenses” needed to pursue the case. When the estate was settled, each contributor would be entitled to a proportional share. There was no time to waste-the fight was underway and any Drake descendant who hesitated risked being cut out entirely.

Oscar Merrill Hartzell and the Fraud

The Sir Francis Drake Association was the work of Iowa farmer-turned-conman Oscar Merrill Hartzell. But he didn’t invent the hoax-the first of hundreds of similar swindles took “­place within months of Drake’s death in 1596. Hartzell got the idea for his version after his mother was conned out of several thousand dollars in another Drake estate scam. When he tracked down the crooks that had swindled her and realized how much money they were making, Hartzell decided that rather than call the police, he would keep quiet … and launch his own scam. Using the money he’d recovered for his mother, Hartzell promptly sent out letters to more than 20,000 Drakes. Thousands took the bait. Hartzell eventually expanded the scam to target people who weren’t even named Drake.

By the time the feds caught up with him 20 years later, Hartzell had swindled an estimated 70,000 people out of more than $2 million. Rather than admit they’d been duped, many of the victims donated an additional $350,000 toward his legal defense. Hartzell was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison; a few years later he was transferred to a mental institution, where he died in 1943.


  1. Rayner, Richard. Drake’s Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World’s Greatest Confidence Artist. Knopf Publishing Group; 2003.