History has been no stranger to scams and con-artists. From the earliest civilizations to our modern times, grifters and swindlers have taken advantage of unsuspecting prey. Occasionally, a hustle comes along so elaborate and auspicious that it defies belief. Frauds such as the infamous Nigerian princesses scam survive in our collective conscience long after they end.
But no legendary con-job has had the longevity of con-man Gregor MacGregor's story. What occurred in the early 1800s was on such a world-wide scale that history will never be able to completely forget it. He and his hustle would become a fable for the ages.
Born on December 24, 1786, Gregor MacGregor was the son of Ann and Daniel MacGregor, a sea captain in the East India Company. As a Clan MacGregor member, Gregor was a distant nephew of the Scottish outlaw and folk hero, Rob Roy. Sadly, Daniel died when Gregor was just eight years old, leaving his mother to raise him alone.
Ann had some connections to high society in Edinburgh, and for his entire life, Gregor longed to be a part of that fame and prestige. He would often boast of his attendance at the University of Edinburgh between 1802 and 1803. MacGregor never earned a degree, and no record of his admission to the university exists. Many believe Gregor's quest for notoriety and fortune began when he joined the British Army at 16 years old.
The MacGregor family purchased a commission for young Gregor as an ensign in 1803, and in 1804 when he married Maria Bowater, he became part of a family with wealth and societal connections. Gregor MacGregor fought in the Peninsular War and eventually obtained the rank of Major. Leaving the army in 1810, Gregor's wife died just a year later. When she did, his connection to money and high society died as well.
The same year Gregor's wife died, Venezuela declared its independence from Spain, starting the Venezuelan War of Independence. With few prospects for him in England, Gregor decided to travel to Venezuela, his hopes set on returning to London as a war hero.
To the Venezuelan rebels' leader, General Francisco de Miranda, MacGregor, a former British Army officer, was a welcomed sight. MacGregor was quickly promoted to brigadier general. Although the rebellion was unsuccessful, Gregor returned to England as a high-ranking military officer, setting the stage for his reinvention and historic scam.
Photo Courtesy of Emilio Jacinto Mauri
General Francisco de Miranda
Artist Rendering of Poyais
Once in England, Gregor claimed to be the Cazique of Poyais. Using the title of Cazique was essentially the same as proclaiming oneself a prince. MacGregor claimed the country of Poyais was hailed as one of the most beautiful countries in Central America. He detailed that the waters were pure enough to quench any thirst, and the rivers were lined with gold.
In reality, his title and the country of Poyais were a complete fabrication. To further portray his phony royal status, he married a prominent Venezualan Caracas family's daughter and represented his wife as a princess.
Europe had recently ended a series of wars, including the Napoleonic Wars. With the conflicts over, all levels of society were seeking opportunities to grow their fortunes. Investors were obtaining high returns from government bonds and land purchases across the Atlantic. At the time, England gave a 3% return on bonds, while South Americans offered up to 6% in returns.
MacGregor carefully orchestrated an illusion of authenticity by designing fraudulent land certificates and fake paper money from the supposed Bank of Poyais. Marketing materials and an official flag were produced for Poyais, as well as a coat of arms. Gregor even took the time to design military uniforms for the Poyaisian armed forces.
From 1821 to 1837, MacGregor scammed hundreds into purchasing phony securities that were, in fact, actually traded on the London Stock Exchange. He convinced the masses to acquire land, military titles, and offices in his fake government. He offered investors bonds valued at £100, and at least 2,000 were sold. Adjusted for inflation, that would be worth around $35 million in 2021.
Between 1822 and 1823, MacGregor executed what is arguably his most greedy move. After convincing 250 people to leave Europe and move to Poyais, a place they believed was already established, the poor immigrants arrived at nothing but a dense undeveloped jungle. Ill-prepared for the harsh landscape and with no access to the expected amenities standard in Europe at the time, 125 people died before they could return home.
Poyais Land Deed
After returning from the bogus country, the settlers began to tell everyone the truth about Gregor MacGregor and his lies. Gregor fled London and headed for France, only to eventually be caught and tried for fraud. In 1826, MacGregor was somehow miraculously acquitted. He returned to England and ran smaller versions of the Poyais scheme until 1838 when his second wife died.
Upon her passing, the con-man MacGregor left for Venezuela. The rebels had finally gained their independence from Spain a few years earlier. Gregor lived out the rest of his years there until he died on December 4, 1845. Considered a hero for his support of the revolution, he was buried with full military honors. His remains can still be visited in Caracas, Venezuela.
None of the people MacGregor defrauded were ever made whole again. His elaborate con will be remembered as one of the most brazen hustles of all time. The scam could be considered by some to have been successful.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that society bought and learned valuable lessons from MacGregor about giving away trust too freely and the importance of fact-checking.