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POSTAL INSPECTORS: THE SILENT SERVICE
An Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum
 
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
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A FALSE INHERITANCE





Portrait of Sir Francis Drake painted in 1581 by the limner Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619)




Image: Portrait of Sir Francis Drake painted in 1581 by the limner Nicholas Hilliard (15471619)
 

Long after his death in 1596, vague information about the fortune supposedly left behind by Sir Francis Drake led to claims that the funds lay untouched and available in England. All one needed to do to receive his or her share was to contribute money towards defraying the cost of the litigation involved in freeing the estate. In the mid-1930s, two hundred fifty thousand people, many of whom having the last name “Drake,” or with relatives or ancestors with that surname, sent in two million dollars in order to ensure their share of the estate, estimated at anywhere from five hundred million to twenty two billion dollars.

After inquiring in England, postal inspectors found that in the 340 years since Drake’s death, the inheritance had long since disappeared. Oscar Hartzell, the mastermind of the scheme, was arrested and found guilty of mail fraud on January 31, 1936. Even after being sent to prison, many Americans continued to believe in Hartzell’s promise of a large payout from the Drake estate, and would have continued to donate more money to the fund for legal fees to pursue the inheritance.

 
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Acknowledgements

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