Talking Blues: Trusting the Magi from Poyais is the height of foolishness

Cassie L. Chadwick, whether you have heard about her or not, is one famous con artist. Born Elizabeth Bigley in Canada, she lived quite a busy life, which I can sum up as follows:
• At age 22, she was arrested for forgery in Ontario. She escaped conviction on the grounds of insanity.
• In 1882, she married Dr Springsteen of Cleveland. After 11 days, her background was revealed, and she was thrown out.
• In 1886 she became a fortune-teller, operating as Lydia Scott.
• In 1887 she assumed the name Madame Lydia DeVere.
• In 1889 she was sentenced to nine and half years for forgery.
• After being paroled by the governor four years later, she returned to Cleveland as Mrs Hoover.
• In 1897 she married Dr Leroy Chadwick, who knew nothing of her criminal activities.
• Between 1897-1905, she borrowed vast sums of money from Cleveland banks, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of millionaire Andrew Carnegie (Carnegie’s net worth was US$475 million) and using US$5 million in securities and certificates forged with Carnegie’s name as security.
• She accumulated over US$1 million in debts and was exposed on 2 November 1904 when someone sued her to recover US$190,800.
She fled to New York, was arrested, stood trial in Cleveland, and on 10 March 1905, was convicted. She was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined US$70,000; she was jailed on 12 January 1906 and died a year later.
This raises the question: how did she pull off all these scams?
Before addressing this question, let’s review yet another scam.
In October 1822, Gregor MacGregor, a Scot, announced that besides being the local banker’s son, he was Cazique (a prince) of the land of Poyais along Honduras’s Black River.
He touted this land as “so fertile it could yield three maize harvests a year. The water so pure and refreshing it could quench any thirst” – and as if that weren’t enough, he added that “chunks of gold lined the riverbeds. The trees overflowed with fruit, and the forest teemed with game.”
His exotic and almost Edenic vision of a new land overseas greatly contrasted Scotland’s rainy darkness and rocky soils.
He concluded that Poyais lacked willing investors and settlers to fully develop and leverage its resources. This was an irresistible proposition and left people wondering why not? What do I have to lose? What if I am left behind?
He even published interviews in national papers touting the perks that would come from investing or settling in Poyais. Exploiting the Scottish’ sentimentalisation of valour, he highlighted the bravery and fortitude that such a gesture would demonstrate.
“You wouldn’t just be smart; you would be a real man!” he suggested.
Knowing that Scottish Highlanders were renowned for their hardiness and adventurous spirit, he wrote, “Poyais would be the ultimate testing ground, a challenge and gift, all in one.”
He referred the doubting Thomases to a book by one Thomas Strangeways. (Unknown to folks, he was the author.)
His masterful promises, the allure of opportunity, appeal to scarcity, and admonitions not to let this perfect prospect pass by won over multitudes.
In fact, he was beyond successful. Not only did he raise GBP£200,000 directly – the bond market value over his life ran to GBP£1.3 million (worth about GBP£3.6 billion today).
He convinced seven ships’ worth of eager settlers to cross the Atlantic. In September 1822 and January 1823, the first two ships left for the mythical land with some 250 passengers.
When the settlers arrived just under two months later, they found the reality contrary to the glamour in MacGregor’s brochures.
In fact, nothing could have been more different!
No ports. No development. They had been duped and dumped on a wasteland. It soon dawned upon them that Poyais was 100% a figment of MacGregor’s imagination!
With the “investors” stranded in the most desolate part of Honduras, they soon started dying. The remainder – only a third survived – were rescued by a passing ship and taken to Belize. The British Navy recalled the five ships still sailing to Poyais before they reached their destination.
MacGregor escaped to France, where not long after his arrival, he launched the Poyais pitch all over again and in a matter of months, he had a new group of settlers and investors ready to go.
Luckily for the French, France was more stringent than England in its passport requirements. When authorities noted a flood of applications to a country no one had heard of, a commission was established to investigate and soon, MacGregor was thrown in jail.
Once released, he returned to Scotland, where he was forced to flee the wrath of the original Poyais bondholders. He died in 1845 in Caracas.
To this day, the land that was Poyais remains a desolate and undeveloped wilderness. It’s a testament to what a determined scammer can do.
Now, permit me to unpack.
• The butchery-cum-fertilizer-dealer who – thanks to some gullible gentlemen in the agriculture ministry – ripped us off?
• The so-called “Chief” who – thanks to the SPC – almost swindled us out of scare forex intended for fuel?
Their methodologies mirror those of Ms Cassie L. Chadwick and Gregor MacGregor.
Cassie L. Chadwick, for example, was banking on the fact that Cleveland bankers would not verify whether she was multi-millionaire Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter. They would be too embarrassed to ask him; she was right.
Con artists know that persuasion must appeal to three very particular aspects of human motivation, i.e. desperate need for something, greed and a willingness to take risks if the price and the prize seem right.
Hence, they increase the appeal for whatever is desired, exaggerate the windfall to be anticipated and increase a willingness to take risks.
For example, the UK Butcher-man and the Naija “Chief” banked on our desperation for cheap fertiliser, fuel, and voracious appetites for kickbacks while simultaneously encouraging their targets to cut corners in total disregard of the law.
Like McGregor’s, their offers came as excellent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities peddled as win-win deals. After thus convincing idiots and eliminating any scepticism, they went for the jugular: they insisted on extreme urgency or fertiliser prices would double, and the fuel deal would fall apart.
In other words: hurry, and pay up without asking questions!
Today, we are toying with yet another deal in the name of a “US$6.8 billion you snooze you lose” deal.
Folks is there such a thing as a free meal under the moon and sun. Since when? Why are the Magi from Poyais so keen to “help” us? What is the Catch-22? The typical con artist will never give you convincing answers to such questions or enough time to get the answers elsewhere.
If you ask me, this deal has all the hallmarks of a well-thought-out confidence act. In the shoes of the authorities, I would quickly walk away lest I wake up one morning to find myself stranded in Poyais.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably………..?

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