How charismatic swindler, Gregor MacGregor, robbed half of the world without punishment

A Brigadier General of the Venezuelan Army named Gregor MacGregor can safely claim the laurels of Ostap Bender. This charismatic swindler devised a sensational scheme at the time to steal money from the gullible rich.

Luring ‘investors’ with tales of a new Eden, the swindler managed to make a fabulous fortune. Gregor McGregor robbed half the world and avoided fair retribution for his crimes. How he did it?

A prince, not the son of a banker

Gregor MacGregor declared that he was not just the son of a Scottish banker but the cacique of a certain country called Poyais. On the banks of the Black River in Honduras are fabulously fertile lands, yielding three crops a year. The plentiful clear rivers there are simply teeming with fish, and the forests are teeming with all kinds of game. Many trees bend under the weight of a variety of alluringly succulent fruits. Gold nuggets roll right under your feet… This beautiful land is just waiting for brave daredevil men to show up and take it all.

The picture the swindler had painted was like a mythical El Dorado or a lost Eden. It contrasted so favorably with Scotland’s dull, rainy, twilight, with its stony, bleak scenery. The resourceful crook offered to gullible citizens could be described as a pretentious ‘infrastructure project’.

Gregor McGregor
Gregor McGregor ©painting by George Watson,1804/Photo by National Galleries of Scotland/Getty Images

MacGregor prepared a colorful advertising manual. The company’s shares sold like hotcakes. The inventive Scotsman’s fortune reached an obscene amount in a short period. He became a billionaire overnight by today’s standards. There was no shortage of people wishing to go to the country where “the rivers were lined with gold nuggets”.

Reality vs. Promises

Scotland never had its colonies. In this light, Poyaise was an incredibly tasty piece of the colonial pie for the ambitious Scottish Highlanders. Which, moreover, simply floated into their hands. How could one not be tempted by such enticing prospects?

Gregor MacGregor did his job perfectly. He masterfully advertised his product, so much so that a large number of people believed him. Gullible citizens, who took the bait, boarded the ships en masse and sailed to the dreamland. A country that was supposed to give them no less fabulous wealth. The harsh reality shattered all dreams on the shores of captivating Poyais. What awaited everyone there was not a beautiful utopia but only remorse.

Time passed, the “colonists” continued to arrive in the promised “paradise”. Coming ashore, they found only the endless jungle, the beggars of the locals, as well as the exhausted and starving passengers of previous flights.

How did he manage to deceive people for so many years?

The talented swindler had a very calculated approach to the realization of his plan. On the one hand, MacGregor drew for people enticingly delightful idyllic images. On the other hand, he convinced them that only their laziness prevented them from taking that simple step toward wealth and prosperity. It’s a familiar scheme, isn’t it? A win-win at all times.

This tactic is familiar to modern psychologists. It even has its names. The first, the so-called alpha tactic, aims to demonstrate the increased attractiveness of something. The second, omega tactics, aims to downplay possible obstacles to the desired goal.

Poyais Bank, ‘dollar’ printed in Scotland
Poyais Bank, ‘dollar’ printed in Scotland – ©National Museum of American History

You are told an incredibly attractive story and convinced that you are the perfect person to realize this beautiful idea. Everything is presented as if it were elementary. Nothing much is required, you have nothing to lose. It’s hard to disagree.

McGregor’s ingenious combination combined these two tactics and thus became just a rattlesnake. It was paying off. It helped that you couldn’t check with Google Maps. People had to rely on what they were told. Close their eyes to common sense and go where the gold was lying underfoot. There were queues lined up for the stock.

Gregor McGregor, Hero of Scotland and Prince of Poyais

What made the con man himself so convincing and charismatic? He was a stately, handsome, and charming young man. A dapper aristocrat, a war hero who had served the Crown in many ways. How could such a handsome man with an impeccable pedigree not be believed? He skillfully played on his identity, ripping off his countrymen and others.

McGregor skillfully used the entire arsenal of manipulative psychological techniques. He convinced the Scots that only the bravest and toughest deserved the reward. Who else but them? You have to hurry to get what you want.

For those who doubted, the rogue advised them to read a book about Poyais, written by one Thomas Strangeways. Under this pseudonym was McGregor himself. Advertising pamphlets were full of catchy slogans not to miss out on unique opportunities.

In 1811, Gregor McGregor was married to the daughter of a wealthy admiral and was living in London. He called himself sir, except that the title of nobility was not a real one. A tragic event marked McGregor’s time in England: his wife, Maria Bauter, died there. This prompted the con man to travel to a warm land, where he came up with the idea for an ingenious scam.

Maria Bauter, the late wife of Gregor McGregor
Maria Bauter, the late wife of Gregor McGregor – ©wikimedia.org

The dark side of paradise

McGregor’s story is an elaborate fraudulent scheme. He managed to evade justice for a very long time. Even when he once appeared in court, he got off with, so to say, a light scare. The tale of Poyais bore abundant fruit for the swindler between 1821 and 1837.

What is less colorful is that those he deceived are mostly dead. They paid a very high price for the fruit of McGregor’s rich imagination. He lured his investors and settlers into the desert part of Honduras. It was almost impossible to survive there, and the gullible Scots died there en masse. Only a third survived. The hapless colonists were rescued by sailors who sailed by.

When the survivors, deceived by the Scotsman, arrived in their homeland, McGregor began to be pursued. He had to flee to France.

The same game in France

Did Gregor MacGregor feel remorse? Hardly! Here he picked up where he left off, launching a new advertising campaign for Poyais on the spot. Quite quickly, a group was assembled wanting to go overseas.

The French treated the papers more carefully. When they were confronted with such a huge number of applications to go to a country no one had ever heard of before, an investigation was immediately launched.

Is the fairy tale over?

As a result of the investigation by the French authorities, McGregor ended up in prison. He didn’t stay there long, and when he got out, he went to Edinburgh. From there, he had to flee again to avoid being caught up in the wrath of the first bondholders of Poyais.

MacGregor died in Caracas in 1845. The wonderful land he called Poyais remains to this day a barren wasteland. This land serves as a veritable monument to the fraudulent gift of his self-appointed Scottish “prince”, and it is a pivotal case in history. Gregor MacGregor may be the greatest swindler in the history of humanity.

As the years go by, people continue to fall for crooks of all stripes. What makes them do it? Of course, everyone wants to live in a beautiful place of calm and serenity, enjoying wealth and prosperity. All this can be obtained in a much simpler way.

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