The Baker Hoax:
By Daphne Minks Daly
"The most magnificent swindle of the 20th Century", a Washington correspondent of the Philadelphia Record proclaimed. It was December of 1936, and twenty-eight people had just been indicted in the biggest mail fraud scheme in history. The scam earned fraudsters more than a million dollars, equaling an estimated eighteen million today, and claimed thousands of victims throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba.
The fraud revolved around a supposed millionaire named Jacob Baker, who served in the Continental Army as a surgeon during the American Revolution. The racket masterminds reached out to supposed Baker heirs explaining that the last will and testament of Jacob Baker had recently been uncovered in files of the Philadelphia Orphan's Court. Jacob's massive estate had remained unprobated, the scammers declared. Therefore, anyone with the Baker surname could file a claim to the inheritance. That is, so long as they were a blood relative to Jacob Baker.
According to the phony will, former United States President George Washington gifted Jacob Baker over ten-thousand acres of Pennsylvanian land rich in lead, zinc, and coal, as well as the grave of Benjamin Franklin in appreciation for Baker's heroic military service. Jacob was said to have also owned the property where Center City Philadelphia and the U.S Mint stand today. The estate was supposed to have an estimated worth of over eighty million dollars, which calculates to just over two-billion dollars by today's standards.
Phony organizations claiming to represent the estate collected unimaginable amounts of money from unwittingly Bakers for so-called "legal fees." Whereas, in reality, the wealthy Jacob Baker had not died at all. In fact, no such person nor estate ever existed. Incredibly, an estimated half a million people were taken in by the tricksters. "A faked will, dated December 27, 1830, was the lure which caught thousands of heirs," the Washington correspondent explained.
Advertisements were placed in numerous American publications informing Baker family members of their chance to claim a piece of the inheritance. The ads urged anyone with a Baker in their line to mail-in documents to prove their lineage. Thousands upon thousands of letters flooded post offices throughout the United States and Europe, many of which were flurried exchanges between family members trying to piece together their genealogy.
Hundreds of Bakers hired historians and genealogists to trace their family's roots, hoping to locate Jacob on the family tree. The response was so overwhelming that the fraudsters began setting up branch offices for their various false business entities. The Ontario Baker Heir's Association was one such fake company intended to handle the correspondence.
Many, otherwise level-headed people, spent their life savings on research, attorney fees, and forged documents designed to 'prove' their lineage. The Association claimed that it could help conduct research and create genealogical charts with its own in-house historians for an additional fee. Interestingly, because of the fake documentation, many Bakers family trees were muddied with claims that they were related to the fictitious man, adding another layer to the con's intensity.
The majority of funds sent to the Association were later found to be used on the newspaper ads, the salaries of "board members," and flimflam artists posing as staff historians. Adding to the guise of credibility, the Ontario Baker Heir's Association regularly sent correspondence with official-looking progress reports. The forgeries were so believable that many dependable attorneys and judges' careers were destroyed after the scam was revealed because they believed in the Association.
The scam began to unravel when postal inspectors started to talk, agreeing that the situation was odd. Why would a will with such enormous value remain unprobated for almost 100 years? Suspicion continued to mount until the United States Postmaster General, James Farley, took action. He sent for the will and had it examined, after which he announced, "The alleged will was obtained through court proceedings and submitted to analysis by a chemical engineer and handwriting expert."
The result, post office inspectors discovered, was that the paper the bequest was written on was not manufactured until almost fifty years after the date on the document. Inspectors also determined that the signatures were forged. After a year of investigation, the inspectors concluded that neither the property nor the land grants had ever been owned by Jacob Baker or anyone else named Baker.
An exhaustive and extensive search through the Philadelphia Orphan's Court records revealed that a 'Jacob Baker' had existed at one time. Indeed a Revolutionary War Veteran, Baker passed away in 1847.
The man's estate totaled only six thousand dollars or approximately one-hundred ninety thousand dollars in today's currency, far less than the billions promised. Over forty various organizations were found to be engaged in the large-scale racket, with most of them closing operations before ever being caught.
Few of the con artists ever saw the inside of a jail cell, and if they did, it wasn't for very long. However, even after some arrests were made, many Bakers families still insisted the story was true. On Thursday, August 19, 1937, a Canadian newspaper stated, "Take it finally from the Postmaster General of the U.S.A. There is not now, nor ever was there a Baker Estate in Philadelphia which would be a gold mine to countless heirs!" Farley concluded, "Something that started as a rumor grew into a gigantic fraud. Thousands of people were deceived. They contributed their time and money for many years without any return or possibility of reward."
As consumer-based genealogical websites continue to grow in popularity, a new generation of Bakers will start the journey of researching their ancestry. Undoubtedly, some will find a few relics of the Baker Hoax, such as fake documents mingled in with actual historical records. In fact, every so often, the question of millionaire Jacob Baker's existence will surface again. For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an inquiry in 1974 from someone in Ontario, Canada.
The letter asked, "While in the process of making a family tree, I discovered that my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather was named Jacob Baker, born in 1731. Since then, I have heard that he bequeathed a vast fortune that can still be claimed by his heirs. I have heard that this fortune includes huge pieces of Center City Philadelphia. I have also heard that many Baker heirs have made attempts to claim the fortune and that the whole thing turned out to be a hoax. Could you tell me the facts behind this matter?"
Much like the Nigerian prince scam, also known as a 419 scam, the Baker debacle was not the first nor the last of its kind. Often called "The Great Heir Hoax," it was undoubtedly one of the most widespread cons in history. So, suppose you come across documents indicating you are the heir to hundreds of acres of property in Pennsylvania. In such a case, chances are high your ancestors were either victims or co-conspirators of one of the largest frauds ever.