Monday, February 22, 2010

Inheritance Scams Now and Then

Many of us have received at least one email message over the last several years that claims we have inherited money or some variation of the scam. Typically the amount is one million dollars. I suspect that $1 million is an amount that the victim can believe as credible and would love to be able to claim.
The small processing fee that the sender requests seems reasonable in view of the amount you will receive. Unfortunately, anyone who falls for the scam is out the processing fee sent to the perpetrator and will never see $1 million.
Sadly, this scam is not new, only the use of email to contact the victims is new. A hundred years ago, con artists employed newspapers and postal services. Since the target was a group of victims, the amount of the inheritance was much larger, tens of millions and hundreds of millions in currency. Also, the victim's investment was a dollar or two.
As a direct descendant of Anneke Jans through her daughter Sarah Roelofs, I had heard about the Bogardus lawsuit against the Trinity Church in New York City. I also heard the story that Anneke Jans was the daughter of Prince Wolfert, who was angered at her marriage to a commoner, left her inheritance in trust for her 7th generation of descendants. In other accounts, she was the daughter of William, Prince of Orange.
I spent years researching my family history that included learning naming traditions and studying local histories and documents. The lawsuit and the stories about Anneke Jans being a princess made no sense to me. Yet I was intrigued by the lawsuits. I found articles in various newspapers in the United States about the lawsuit.
To my surprise, I found similar lawsuits initiated by the descendants and alleged heirs of other notable European figures claiming that vast sums were due these heirs. At this same time, there seemed to be a plethora of claims by families to valuable properties on the Atlantic coast from Georgia to Newfoundland. The theme was the same...title to the property was unlawfully transferred to another.
The sad part of what I found in my research is that a handful of individuals made money from these lawsuits at the expense of the gullible and greedy. So many Americans had sent letters to the Dutch government laying claim to the fortune left to the 7th generation descendants of Anneke Jans that the Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie generated a form letter to respond to these people and implied that these were all greedy Americans.
I found an article an Ogden, Utah newspaper printed on November 6, 1880, about the Bogardus vs. Trinity Church lawsuit being revived by a John A. Anderson of Brooklyn. The article says that he is to collect $50 each from 500 heirs to pursue the lawsuit and that the Trinity Church "will be compelled to give each of them a fortune of $2,000,000." The article further states that he will accept $50 only from proven heirs of Anneke Jans.
Before the last of the Trinity Church lawsuits was ended, an attorney, Willis T. Gridley, managed to bilk Anneke Jans descendants of more than a million dollars. Yet when he was sentenced in 1928, many members of the Bogardus descendants living in Michigan continued to support him. In 1930, Gridley published a book entitled, "Trinity! Break Ye My Commandments?"
A little over a year ago, I distant relative invited me to see a book that he had inherited from his grandfather. It was Gridley's book. Until I read an article by Jeffrey G. Raphelson in The Court Legacy (Vol. XIV, No., 1, February 2007) concerning the Anneke Jans descendants and their lawsuit, I did not connect the book to the lawsuit.
The relative is from a branch of the family that settled in Michigan. The Gridley trial was held in Michigan. The Court Legacy is a publication of the Historical Society for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
I was amazed to learn that support by the victims for the perpetrator was not unique. The same article mentioned the Heirs of Sir Francis Drake scam. I also found a mention of the Drake "heirs" in a 1927 New York Times article regarding the Anneke Jans lawsuit.
Oscar Hartzell trumped Gridley in the amount that he was able to scam the Drake "heirs". Not only did he collect $2 million before he was brought to trial, but he managed to get some of his victims to contribute $68,000 for his defense and his agents collected $500,000 from Drake "heirs" the year after he was convicted.
Richard Rayner wrote a book about Oscar Hartzell who conned almost 70,000 people out of over $2 million. The book is "Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist."

1 comment:

  1. There were a number of lawsuits brought by lawyers representing Bogardus heirs. Gridley in his book does make a pretty good case in his defense. I know of two other lawyers that participated in lawsuits, whether they were together on one lawsuit or it was two seperazte suits I've yet to determine. Frank A. Traver and Gardner P. Spencer, both of Troy, NY were lawyers who started proceedings. My library has sets of papers from both lawyers that we are transcribing to the web. It's a big project in each lawyer represented hundreds of heirs. In Travers case it is hundreds of affidavits showing lines of descent, and in Spencers case it is notebooks showing descent of heirs, as well as court documents showing he filed suit in Albany, NY.
    As we progress in this project we'll see if they are representing the same people or not.