106. The Heiress

THE RECENT PASSING AT the age of 98 of Mrs Ethel Owen of Des Moines, Iowa, didn't rate a mention in the international press. Nevertheless, her death - caused, according to a coroner's report, by an intestinal infection related to undiagnosed diverticulitis - marks the end of one of the most fascinating chapters in the obscure history of compound interest. Although fondly remembered as the matriarch of a large Presbyterian family, and despite 42 years' uninterrupted service as a bank clerk at the Jackson Street branch of the First Savings & Loan, Mrs Owen's chief claim to fame was that she was the last known surviving claimant to the fortune of Sir Francis Drake. My sources within the family tell me that she took her lifelong grudge against the British crown with her to the grave. Mrs Owen was born Ethel Drake outside of Harper's Ferry, Iowa, sometime in late August, 1909 (throughout her life, she maintained that the date of birth recorded on her birth certificate was out by three days). At the age of five, Ethel's mother abandoned her husband and daughter and would eventually settle in Hawaii, where she would illegally marry a Japanese shopkeeper. The shock seems to have affected Ethel and her father in a curious way. In the spring of 1921, Leonard Drake, received a letter from Oscar Hartzell, the famous con artist. The letter informed Leonard that the British government was holding the unclaimed fortune of the privateer Sir Francis Drake in trust, and that with compound interest the fortune was now valued at approximately US$100 billion. Hartzell's letter invited those Iowans with the surname Drake to invest in a scheme whereby he would sue the British crown for a share of the inheritance. He assured investors a return of $500 for every dollar invested. Hartzell is believed to have netted several million dollars over 15 years through a scam he hadn't even invented, but had simply pinched from other con men. He eventually established a network of agents in Iowa and some other states, some of whom believed his story, who collected funds and sent them through to England, where he had established himself, ostensibly to launch his litigation but in fact to live the high life outside of the reach of American authorities. Leonard Drake initially invested $25 in the scheme - the equivalent of a week's salary for a factory worker in 1921 - and as the years passed and the litigation dragged on he continued to send more money. According to Ethel, other changes began to appear in Leonard. For one thing, he became somewhat obsessed with a reproduction of a portrait of Sir Francis Drake he'd come across in an encyclopedia. The reproduction in question is most likely the Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger portrait reproduced, in black and white, in the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia throughout the 1920s. Eventually, he had the reproduction framed and hung on the wall of the living room in the otherwise unadorned Drake family home. With his habit of showing the reproduction to house guests and pointing out what he believed to be a family resemblance between himself and his supposed ancestor, Leonard became something of a figure of fun in the community of Harper's Ferry. Whereas Gheeraerts' Drake has a thin and ovoid face, with an equine nose and a receding hairline, Leonard had a flat, squarish face with a stubby nose and low brow, all traits inherited by his daughter except for the nose – as a teenager, her button nose had been the envy of her high school friends. Leonard was in the habit of reading aloud Shakespeare's plays from a cheap edition of his collected works nightly after dinner, a ritual Ethel remembered with great fondness. Leonard read the plays in an affected British accent that was little more than a figment of his own imagination, as the Drakes didn't have a radio and talking pictures were not yet widespread. Neither Leonard nor anyone else in the family had in fact ever met or heard an English person. Ethel later described the accent as something like an Irish accent (Leonard had worked with Irishmen and presumed that Ireland's proximity to England meant that the accents must be closely related) and the accent of a person deaf from birth (he had a brother who was born deaf). Ethel left home in 1929 to marry her high school sweetheart, her second cousin Henry Owen. Within months, the couple had moved to Indiana. Left to his own devices, Leonard's interest in his presumed ancestor continued to grow. By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Drake had sent Hartzell a total of $290, the price of a new T Model Ford, expecting returns of $145,000. The crash and subsequent depression seems only to have spurred Leonard's fascination with the Renaissance British pirate. At the end of that winter, the family's financial situation worsened when he lost his job as a postal clerk. The newly married Ethel was forced to send money to her parents whenever she could, but the lack of finances didn't stop Leonard from sending whatever he could spare to Oscar Hartzell. The Hartzell operation always replied with letters of effusive gratitude and confidence adorned with a regal crest, letters that only fanned the flame of Leonard's fantasies. Leonard's psychological state seems to have worsened when he received news his wife, to whom he was still legally married, was to be charged in Hawaii with bigamy. It was at about this time that he adopted his affected Shakespearean accent for all his speech and, by dint of his affectation, became a recluse. At this time, he and his daughter would speak weekly on the public telephone at the post office where Leonard had so recently been employed. Despite her protestations, he spoke in his faux English accent with Ethel too. Nevertheless, Ethel never failed to call her increasingly eccentric father. Soon after the onset of the Great Depression in late 1929, the Hartzell scam was revealed by some of Hartzell's agents under pressure from the United States Postal Service, although Hartzell himself protested his innocence. Leonard Drake committed suicide in 1933 after, it was said, learning that Oscar Hartzell had appeared in a court in Sioux City, Iowa, on fraud charges. My research suggests the suicide preceded the court appearance by at least a fortnight. According to Ethel, the week before his death, Leonard had seen the famous 1933 film version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Cary Grant. Ethel believed that Cary Grant killed her father, as it was the first time he'd ever heard an authentic English accent. Ironically, the authenticity of Cary Grant's accent is, as is well known, itself suspect. Leonard Drake left debts totalling $856. The framed encyclopedia reproduction of the Drake portrait went to Ethel who, by then mother of four of what would eventually be nine children, took up her father's case with an enthusiasm undiminished by the social humiliations of her father's affectations. Despite the rigors of raising a large sharecropper’s family, Ethel continued to send money in support of Hartzell's case up until Hartzell's death in a prison hospital in 1943 at the age of 67. She never stopped believing that Hartzell had been betrayed by a British government that, with the assistance of its friends in Washington, was determined to hold on to the vast Drake fortune.