As you know, the Nigerian 419 fraud and the Nigerian horse scam and the Nigerian red breast scam are descendants of the Spanish prisoner swindle, described here by the FBI man in David Mamet’s 1997 The Spanish Prisoner:
It’s an interesting setup, Mr. Ross. It is the oldest confidence game on the books. The Spanish Prisoner. Fellow says him and his sister, wealthy refugees, left a fortune in the home country. He got out, girl and the money stuck in Spain. Here is her most beautiful portrait. And he needs money to get her and the fortune out. Man who supplies the money gets the fortune and the girl. Oldest con in the world.
What rapid but insecure means to opulence might facilitate immediate purchase?
A private wireless telegraph which would transmit by dot and dash system the result of a national equine handicap (flat or steeplechase) of 1 or more miles and furlongs won by an outsider at odds of 50 to 1 at 3hr 8m p.m. at Ascot (Greenwich time), the message being received and available for betting purposes in Dublin at 2.59 p.m. (Dunsink time). The unexpected discovery of an object of great monetary value (precious stone, valuable adhesive or impressed postage stamps (7 schilling, mauve, imperforate, Hamburg, 1866: 4 pence, rose, blue paper, perforate, Great Britain, 1855: 1 franc, stone, official, rouletted, diagonal surcharge, Luxemburg, 1878), antique dynastical ring, unique relic) in unusual repositories or by unusual means: from the air (dropped by an eagle in flight), by fire (amid the carbonised remains of an incendiated edifice), in the sea (amid flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict), on earth (in the gizzard of a comestible fowl). A Spanish prisoner’s donation of a distant treasure of valuables or specie or bullion lodged with a solvent banking corporation 100 years previously at 5% compound interest of the collective worth of £5,000,000 stg (five million pounds sterling). A contract with an inconsiderate contractee for the delivery of 32 consignments of some given commodity in consideration of cash payment on delivery per delivery at the initial rate of 1/4d to be increased constantly in the geometrical progression of 2 (1/4d, 1/2d, 1d, 2d, 4d, 8d, 1s 4d, 2s 8d to 32 terms). A prepared scheme based on a study of the laws of probability to break the bank at Monte Carlo. A solution of the secular problem of the quadrature of the circle, government premium £1,000,000 sterling.
Wikipedia suggests–without evidence–that it may date back to at least the 17th century, but here’s the oldest example a brief trawl has delivered me, taken from Penny Illustrated for 30 December 1911 (source: Collect Britain):
The ancient “Spanish prisoner” swindle has taken on a new form. It is about time. After having done duty for many generations of swindlers and swindled, back almost to the days of Columbus, it has remained for a clever “steerer” of to-day to connect it with high finance.
Formerly the intended victim received a letter telling of a buried treasure trunk under the dovecote in the courtyard of the dear old castle on the Guadalquivir River, the secret of which the rightful owner (at the moment a victim of Spain’s inquisitorial justice and hence in jail) would disclose for a few paltry thousands, cash, strictly in advance–the inducement being a third of the treasure, balance to be delivered to prisoner’s beautiful daughter (see inclosed tin-type) and faithful old servant.
Now, however, according to letters received by tentative victims, the prisoner was a banker in the Canaries who bolted with a faithful servant and his creditors’ money. An unlucky mishap caused a ship on which he was bound for Marseilles to put into Barcelona, and he was arrested. But the money had been put in safety, and two drafts for it on a London bank, one for £20,000, the other for £10,000, he placed in a secret drawer in that same old valise. They are still there. But the valise is to be sold with all his effects to pay a fine which has been imposed upon him, in addition to five years’ imprisonment.
Meanwhile a fellow prison, an Englishman (or American) of good family, has obliged him with the name of the gentleman to whom the letter is being written, who might be willing to advance the sum. He invites this gentleman to come to Madrid and meet the faithful old servant, who, with the connivance of the prison clerks, will show him the drafts. He can then wire to London for confirmation of their value, and when he is convinced he is to pay £400 to the prison clerk, who will hand the documents to him. Then the faithful old servant will accompany him to London to cash the drafts, and he is to receive £12,400 for his services.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the deep dark origins of this lie in bloodthirsty bandits offering to show townsfolk the way to treasures left under dragons in Spanish mountains by the Moors, but if there is any substance to 16th/17th usage, I wonder whether it might not derive from contacts between the Elizabethan era’s most notorious writer of begging letters, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, and Reconnaissance loon, Walter Raleigh.
In 1581 the Spanish authorities sent Sarmiento de Gamboa with a large expedition to South America to build a fort on the Magellan Straits that would prevent Francis Drake and his mates from doing any more circumnavigation. Over the next 30 months he lost just about everything and everyone, and wrote a series of letters to the king, asking for help. The king ignored him, and in mid-1584, on his way back home, he was captured by English privateers, who took him to London. There Queen Elizabeth released him with a safe conduct pass to Spain via France, where he was captured by Huguenots and only ransomed after almost four years in captivity. His fate on returning to Spain, crippled by his cell spell, is unknown.
The interesting bit is that the English fleet that captured Sarmiento de Gamboa was led by Walter Raleigh, and it was the latter who negotiated his release with Elizabeth. Sarmiento de Gamboa was–apart from one of the unluckiest men around–a scholar and fantasist, author of Historia Indica. Raleigh looked after him in England and was enchanted by his stories of Manoa–el Dorado to the Spanish–the city allegedly founded by the Peruvian emperor, Guaynacapa, after the Spanish invasion (Richard Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries). In Raleigh’s Discoverie, Manoa became “a Guianan kingdom of golden warriors ‘al shining from the foote to the head'” (Hugh Raffles, In Amazonia: A Natural History).
It seems to me that Sarmiento de Gamboa fulfils the basic conditions for a Spanish prisoner conman: a genuine Spanish prisoner (OK, that’s unusual), he produces documents suggesting that Raleigh may attain inconceivable wealth if Raleigh will only do him a small service–let him go; as a result of this Raleigh is ruined. It will not alarm me unduly, however, should you feel differently.
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