Episode 6 - A Walking Human Tambourine of Military Excellence (Con-Men Week)
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Sam's Episode Notes: Gregor MacGregor, history's greatest conman, who scammed thousands out of millions and caused the death of hundreds. MacGregor was born in scotland in 1786. He had an adventurous spirit, joining the army at 16 years old by buying himself an officer position as an ensign or standard bearer. His family paid about £450 for his job, about £35,000 today. You could either buy promotions or earn them in the army, and Gregor was promoted to leftenant within a year, before paying another £70,000 in today's money to buy himself the rank of captain, rather than wait the normal 5-7 years for promotion. He was obsessed with rank and looking smart, wearing medals and showing position, which caused a lot of arguments among his men and other officers and made him very unpopular. He married a very wealthy heiress and pissed about in Gibraltar and the channel islands with his unit, the 57th foot, until the Peninsular war kicked off in Portugal, part of the Neapoleonic wars. Gregor's unit was sent over in 1809 but he quickly fell out with his superior officers and was shipped off to command units of the Portugese army, learning the language and getting a flavour for the lifestyle. However, the arguments with his British superiors got so bad that he sold his officers jobs back in 1810 and returned to Edinburgh with his wife, where he started to claim he had been a colonel, wore lots of Portugese medals he hadn't earned, and swanned about town in a gaudy carriage wearing ridiculous clothes to try and make a bit of a celebrity of himself. It didn't work, and to make matters worse, his wife died in 1811. In a flash, his income was gone. He had two options: To go back to his Scottish clan, which he thought would be well boring, or to rejoin the army. Only it couldn't be the British army, because they hated him and would pretty quickly work out he was faking it as a colonel. So he went to Venezuela to fight in the war of Independence there, which had gathered a lot of attention in London's social circles. He thought it would be an exciting way to make a name for himself. In 1812, he sold everything he owned and headed for South America, announcing him to the Venezuelan nationalist forces as a British colonel with a celebrated battle history – which his unit had actually won long after he'd been sacked. He actually did pretty well, quickly rising to general in the Venezuelan ranks, mostly because they were losing the war really badly and needed experienced officers – and married a local woman. The wars of independence in South America at this time are pretty complicated, but as the tides of war rose and fell he travelled between armies in Venezuela and New Granada, making a name for himself in South American and Caribbean society. He did actually manage some pretty impressive military feats as well, defeating a large Spanish force in Venezuela in 1816 whilst performing a tough rearguard action – a retreating march. In 1817 he committed his first semi-scam, launching an invasion of Florida with US help to distract the Spanish from South America. He recruited hundreds of men and over $160,000 in loans from American investors, with promises of land and cash in the new country, which would ultimately join the US. However, it worked – he initially attacked the pirate cove of Amelia island in northern Florida in Spring 1817 with an advance party of 80 men, and seized it. He declared the tiny island of 3,700 people 'the republic of the Floridas', with himself as the head of state. He paid his men in Florida dollars, which he'd made up and started printing himself. They were worthless. He declared all of the Florida as his domain, despite only controlling one town on a tiny island. Most of the support he'd been promised in terms of troops never arrived, and with a Spanish force being assembled to re-take the islands, in September 1817, he and his wife took the investors cash and fled, sailing away as his soldiers and subjects hurled insults at him. His kingdom had lasted less than six months. No-one had been paid. He sailed to Jamaica, minted himself loads of medals with the Florida flag he'd made up on them, and the words “I came, I saw, I conquered” and “Liberty for Florida under the leadership of MacGregor.” Anyway, the next few years saw him work as a mercenary officer and occasional leader of British expeditions to South America, but his heart wasn't in it and he usually ran away from a fight, abandoning his men to the Spanish and escaping in a ship – he even jumped out of a window on a rope made of bedsheets once to escape a Spanish attack before ordering an entire flotilla of ships under his command to flee, abandoning an entire British force. This rinsed and repeated until 1820, when he found himself in the mosquito coast in Honduras, at the court of King George Frederic Augustus, essentially a local British puppet with no real power or territory. But that didn't stop him from selling MacGregor an area of jungle the size of Wales in exchange for some rum and jewellery. The land was worthless, useless, and disease ridden jungle. He declared himself the Cazique, or chief, of his new country. Poyais. He sailed back to London to start his biggest scam yet.
It was perfect timing. The Napoleonic wars had just ended, the economy was booming, and rich Brits were looking for new opportunities and investments. The newly crowed Cazique of Poyais, upon appearing in London covered in medals and looking, as he always did, incredibly dashing, was enormously exciting. He became the talk of town and invited to every dinner party to talk about his kingdom, which was a democracy, with an army and civil service, agriculture, and which had waved their heroic leader away as he promised to bring back the cream of European society and technology to revolutionise this brave new world and bring it untold riches. He had flags, coats of arms, and uniforms designed for his imaginary country. All bollocks, of course. He had a jungle that was given to him by someone who didn't own it. The Brits loved it though, one lord, Major William John Richardson, even giving him the use of his ancestral hall in London as an embassy. As thanks for which he was made the Poyasian ambassador to London. He opened offices selling land in major cities throughout the UK. Under the pseudonym of one of his supposed officers, he even mass published a 355-page, leather-bound guide to life in the country, including details of its magnificent capital city. London banks flocked to offer him loans in exchange for land and repayments from tax revenues. And potential settlers, promised land which could grow everything under the sun and streams which flowed with gold dust, queued up to buy their sailings, with craftsmen offered free passage. Seven ships were quickly filled, and their crews sent off, pre-payed in Poyasian dollars, which weren't fake – because they'd been minted by the bank of Scotland as a part of a loan.
Two ships had sailed for the made up country before the market crashed due to instability in South America (partly due to a two million pound loan to Macgregor made by the Colombian government's ambassador in London). MacGregor cut and run. When the ships arrived on the mosquito coast, they found nothing but jungle and the ruins of an old settlement abandoned for decades. They set up camp, and the ships sailed off to look for help, thinking they'd maybe just landed in the wrong place. The settlers started to die. Some were eventually rescued by passing British officials and taken to Belize in British Honduras. In the cramped conditions, and already ill, many more died. Some of the survivors stayed in Belize and some emigrated to the US, but of the 250 who'd actually sailed to Poyais, only about 40 made it back to the UK. In the meantime, MacGregor had fled to France, where he ran the same scam again, insisting that the colonists hadn't been duped by him, but by the British noblemen he'd given titles and land to in exchange for support. About 30 French colonists were about to sail when the scam came crashing down. MacGregor and several other Frenchmen and Englishmen were indicted in 1825 for selling land they didn't own and fraud. After three months of hiding in the French countryside, MacGregor was captured and jailed, but the case collapsed after he claimed that it was his agents, citizens and unscrupulous business partners in Britain and France who had been defrauding people. There wasn't enough evidence to say he wasn't a king, so he got away with it! He returned to London and, incredibly, launched the same scam again – with some limited success, managing to raise another £300,000. But the game was up, and in 1838, shortly after his wife died, he fled to Venezuela, where he was welcomed as a hero thanks to his military service during the war of independence over 20 years beforehand.
He died in 1845 a celebrated Venezuelan war hero with a generals pension. And no mention of his dark secret, his massive, multi-million fraud, or the countless dead in his wake.
Tom's notes: Carlos Kaiser
· Carlos Henrique Raposo
· Brazilian; played through the 1980s
o 1958 to 1970; Brazil won 3 of 4 World Cups (not again until 1994)
· ‘Kaiser’ after Franz Beckenbauer
· Good looking, charismatic and frequently in the newspapers and on television
o Beautiful mullet
· First contract at the age of 16 in Mexico
· Played for the 2 major Rio De Janiero clubs
o Vasco De Gama
o Gazélec Ajaccio; French second division
o El Paso Sixshooters; Texas
o Puebla; Mexico
Except, he didn’t really play for any of them… he wanted to be a footballer, without playing football.
Difficult to comprehend his career
· Chronic liar, during and after career
o ‘Melandro’; street smart hustler
· It seems he jumped from club to club without ever playing a match
· 13 years!
He had various ruses
· Feign injury
o Impress in pre-season fitness training
o Towards end of career, trying to get contract with Palmerias, offers a defender a payment if he injures him!
o Con started from first club; Puebla
· Network of journalist friends
o Article about when in Puebla, he was offered Mexican citizenship to play for Mexico
o After a short period in France, article portraying him as the club’s top scorer for 8 years
· Befriended footballers
o Carlos Alberto Torres; 1970 Brazil captain
o Ricardo Rocha; 1990 and 1994 world cup
o Renato Gaucho; 41 caps for Brazil
§ Tried to get into a Rio club at 3am, told he was a liar because he was already in the club
§ Slept with girls pretending to be Renato; got Renato in trouble with his wife
o Trial with Vasco De Gama courtesy of Bebeto
§ These friends gave him opportunities and he mingled with other important figures in football
§ Stuck chasing ball incident
§ Also caught out by coach of Fluminense; Santana; coach Brazil for 2 World Cups
o Fabio Barros got him a trial with Ajaccio
o Leveraging these people?
§ Captain of Ajaccio and prostitutes
§ They have something to lose, he doesn’t
· Pretended to be famous footballers
o Carlos Enrique
§ Argentine member of the Independiate
· 1984 Copa Libertadores winner
· 1984 Intercontinental Cup against Liverpool
§ Brazil under 21 player
· Had press cuttings and video footage
o Carlos Eduardo (black man!)
§ Beauty contest next to 2 other famous footballers
· Other tricks
§ Club owner demanded he be played as substitute
§ When warming up, started fight with crowd!
§ Presentation ceremony
§ Kicked all the balls into the crowd so that the trainer could not do a session with him
o Bribed crown to chant his name
Not unusual to have ‘characters’ at clubs
· Team moral
· Social engagements
· I stumbled across this story
· 2018 film and book
· He would struggle to succeed with modern media
· The writers of the film spoke to an Oxbridge psychologist and he said that this was a top level con artist, up there with Frank Abagnale Jr. (Catch me if you can)