Minister Collier to the Secretary of State.
San Sebastian , July 26, 1905 .
Sir: During the past week information has reached me of the renewal of operations by a band of swindlers located in Madrid, and two instances have come under my observation where Americans [Page 847] have been cruelly victimized. The swindle consists in the dispatch of letters from a person in Spain, who represents himself as the son of a distant relative of the person to whom the letter is sent. While there is an occasional slight variance in the stories, almost invariably the writer represents himself as having acquired an immense fortune, in an honest manner, but to be the victim of persecution by powerful enemies, who have caused his arrest and imprisonment. His property, frequently stated to be as high as $500,000, is always represented as being in securities, which have been hidden by him generally in the secret drawer of a trunk, which has been seized by the police authorities, who, ignorant of the papers hidden in it, will release it upon payment of costs of process. The writer invariably represents himself as having lost his wife and as being left with an only daughter, whom, because of the disgrace attaching to his name, he desires to send to America to be placed under the protection of the “relative” to whom the letter is addressed. He also states that he is in a grievous condition of health, usually caused by wounds received by him while resisting the efforts of the police to capture him. He declares that he has made a will leaving all his property to his child except a portion of it, which he has left to the recipient of the letter, on condition that he accepts the guardianship of the daughter and offers her a home until she reaches her majority or marries. He declares that his possession of the enormous fortune mentioned is unknown to anyone, and that the greatest secrecy must be observed in order that no one should learn of it, otherwise it would be appropriated by the government. He always represents that a worthy priest, the prison chaplain, has taken an interest in him and in the little daughter; that through the priest as intermediary he is able to send the letter, and the writer requests that the answer to his letter be inclosed in an envelope addressed to the priest. This first letter is but the introduction to the swindle. In it no request for money is made. It is a letter calculated merely to arouse the cupidity of the recipient and at the same time to impress upon him the necessity of secrecy. If a reply is received (and the fact that the swindle has now been going on for many years shows that hundreds of replies must be received), others follow, until finally one comes from the alleged priest, written upon stationery with a letter heading with a cross and sometimes with a forged parochial seal, announcing the death in prison of the writer of the first letter and the appointment of the priest as executor of the will, in which the child is named as principal legatee, but in which the American relative, to whom the letter was sent, is named as guardian and as a legatee. There is also invariably inclosed that which appears to be a newspaper clipping telling of the death of the prisoner, also giving some fact which to the reader is corroboratory of the report of vast wealth, and always there is a reference to the orphaned daughter, who is in despair until she can learn whether American relatives will receive her into their homes. In addition a great number of instruments, doubtless all forged, but bearing revenue stamp, notarial seals, court certificates, and court seals, so perfectly executed that they resemble the originals very decidedly, are inclosed. These papers consist of the reputed will of the deceased, letters of guardianship, letters testamentary, etc., all tending to confirm the false statements made in the earlier letters. However little excuse there is for being deceived by the first letters [Page 848] which are received, the subsequent documents are so authentic in appearance that anyone might, without appearing credulous, give full faith to them.
After the party has been convinced of the existence of the property, etc., a request is made for money to pay court expenses or to release the trunk with its valuables from attachment or to pay the traveling expenses of the orphaned child to America or for some other purpose.
That the swindle results in many victims there can be no doubt. Within three days of last week I received a letter from a party in Iowa inclosing a draft for approximately $590 to be turned over to the bogus executor to pay the expenses of “Mary,” the daughter, to America and to settle a few unpaid claims. The same day two young men from Montana came into my office. They had made the journey all the way from that state to Madrid in order to get “Mary” and were prepared to pay several hundred dollars to settle up expenses that had been incurred. The same day I received from a priest in Columbus, Ohio, copies of swindle letters of the same tenor which had been received by a parishioner of his who came to him for advice. The priest had had a similar—an almost identical—attempt of the same band of swindlers brought to his knowledge three years ago by another of his parishioners who was on the point of mortgaging his house to raise the money to send to Madrid. The priest fortunately saved both of his parishioners from being victimized and very kindly sent me all the letters received from the swindlers in the last case, in hopes that I could use them as evidence with which to secure the prosecution and conviction of the swindlers in the Spanish courts.
In May and early in June six or eight letters from different parts of the United States were received by me from persons who had received letters from the swindlers. The writers, of course, were by me promptly informed of the fraudulent character of the scheme, but that there are many victims is shown by the fact that the swindle, which must occupy the time of many persons, has gone on, I am told, for years. I would have reported the matter to you in June had it not been stated in the Madrid press at that time that the gang of swindlers had been raided by the police. The renewal of their efforts convinces me that the only effective way of breaking up the scheme is by giving the widest publicity to its fraudulent character through the press of the United States, and I most urgently recommend that the Department endeavor to do so through the associated press or other proper agencies. I will at once lay the matter before the police authorities and aid them in any way I can, but with the recipients of the letters thousands of miles away it is most difficult to secure evidence sufficient to secure conviction. The extreme “gullibility” of the victims of the swindle does not make the police authorities feel particularly solicitous for their welfare, but the forgery of official seals and signatories and of the signatures of church authorities will, I am sure, be resented by the Spanish Government and the offense be punished.
The vice-consul at Madrid has just informed me that scores, if not hundreds, of letters have been received by him during the last two or three years from persons in the United States who have received these letters, and that a few months before my arrival at my post an American came into his office who had come to Madrid to obtain [Page 849] custody of the orphaned daughter, and that this man informed him that to obtain the funds to make the trip he had mortgaged his home.
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I have, etc.,