The Scot who was dubbed the greatest con man of all time

Gregor MacGregor has been dubbed the "king of conmen" following his audacious emigration scheme to Central America. PIC: Creative Commons.
Gregor MacGregor has been dubbed the "king of conmen" following his audacious emigration scheme to Central America. PIC: Creative Commons.
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A small story printed in The Scotsman almost 200 years ago reveals the human cost of an elaborate emigration scheme to a fictional promised land in Central America that led to the deaths of probably dozens of Scots.

The scheme was mounted by Gregor MacGregor, a soldier and adventurer from The Trossachs whose antics, which included claims he was a Prince of the phoney country of Poyais, have earned him the reputation as the most audacious con man of all time.

MacGregor used this picture to portray the fictional territory of Poyais: PIC: Creative Commons.

MacGregor used this picture to portray the fictional territory of Poyais: PIC: Creative Commons.

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The article, published on October 18 1823, lists a number of people, many from Edinburgh, who died after venturing to so-called Poyais amid claims of friendly locals, a settled community, abundant maize harvests and rivers of pure, clean water that sometimes ran with globules of gold.

It took around 320 investors, the majority of them Scots, to travel for more than two months over thousands of miles to discover that such a country did not actually exist.

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MacGregor hailed from Glengyle at the north end of Loch Katrine and was reportedly a direct descendant of famous outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy. PIC: Creative Commons/Flickr/John McSporran.

MacGregor hailed from Glengyle at the north end of Loch Katrine and was reportedly a direct descendant of famous outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy. PIC: Creative Commons/Flickr/John McSporran.

Instead of a country rich in resources, they discovered miles of dense jungle, a scattering of deserted huts and natives who were, at best, largely ambivalent to the new arrivals.

Although well equipped with medicines and supplies, the conditions on the stretch of coast, which is now split between Nicaragua and Honduras, were to weaken the new arrivals. Diseases, including typhoid and yellow fever, rapidly spread.

The Scotsman story recorded accounts of two young men and a woman recovering in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary after returning to Scotland from Poyais following their rescue by merchants from Belize.

It was one of the first insights into the reality of MacGregor’s scheme which was still being ferociously marketed to potential investors through offices in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh and frequent letters in the press. Even ballads were written to entice new recruits.

A great fanfare surrounded the departure of ships to MacGregor’s Poyais with the Kennersley Castle, which set sail from Leith on January 22 1823, one of seven boats loaded with investors.

But the three survivors in hospital in the Scottish capital shared a list of their fellow passengers who had died after reaching Central America.

They included Thomas Burgess, a boatbuilder from Slateford, Malcolm MacDougall and his wife from The Canongate and Peter Smith, a black smith from Dundee, and his wife.

William Horn, a baker, also died along with Thomas Burgess, a boatbuilder from Slateford.

The story also notes how William Law, a cabinet maker, and George Davis, a labourer, both from Edinburgh, drowned after they hired a large canoe to take them from Poyais to Belize but were thrown overboard by natives. Hugh Fraser, another cabinet maker from the capital, survived this journey.

In total, it is believed that around 180 people died as a result of MacGregor’s scheme.

MacGregor, originally from Glengyle on Loch Katrine, had sold bonds in this new land, roughly the size of Wales, for up to 4 shillings an acre.

MacGregor secured the land through a deal with King George Frederic Augustus, who ruled over the Mosquito Coast, with the Scot then claiming to be Cazique, or type of regal figure of this far flung territory.

As more emigrants shored up on the Mosquito Coast searching for their new paradise, King Augustus was to deny that MacGregor had been given any Prince-like title or had permitted him to sell the land. The land deal was revoked with emigrants told they could only stay if they pledged allegiance to the King.

Meanwhile, MacGregor had raised around £200,000 from the venture with loans secured on the back of the land sales. According to accounts, his bond-market frauds ran to £1.3m - or around £3.6 billion in today’s money.

A later report in The Scotsman on January 17 1824 gives a further graphic account of conditions encountered of Poyais after 14 “unfortunate” emigrants were returned to Blackwall on the River Thames.

They included two widows, six children and an orphan in the “most deplorable state of wretchedness and suffering from the effects of the climate.”

It reported how, after arriving at Poyais, the captain went onshore with several other and was guided by an Indian to San Joseph, which had been described as an “extensive white settlement” to investors.

“To their great surprise the party found nothing but a few miserable huts - the deserted residences of the first emigrants who had been obliged to try this place,” the story said.

The “anguish and disappointment” of the emigrants could not be measured with the party taken to Belize where “the most painful spectacle presented itself to them.”

The survivors of an earlier expedition came to meet them on the shore and “expressed sorrow” that others had been brought into the same situation.

The devastated settlers were described as “sallow, thin and ghastly from the effects of their suffering and they appeared as if from the grave.”

Hospitals were full in Belize with no appetite from the authorities to receive the new arrivals.

However, they were later adopted as settlers of the British Government with a spot of ground at Stern Creek, around 40 miles from Belize, cleared for a new settlement.

As small groups of surviving emigrants started to make their way home, MacGregor disappeared to Paris with his wife.

While in France, he tried to mount another round of investment in Poyais but was arrested on fraud charges with two accomplices. Tried twice, MacGregor had his charges dropped in the first case and was acquitted during the second hearing.

Many of those who had sailed to Poyais had defended MacGregor with the disaster blamed on his agents working in Central America.

But, almost 200 years later, his reputation is still as toxic as ever to some. The Economist described him as the “king of conmen” who pulled off the greatest confidence trick of all time.

Author David Sinclair, who published a biography of MacGregor in 2012, claimed he had been at the helm of “the most audacious fraud in history.”

MacGregor continued to try and sell land until 1837 with warnings spread through the City of London of the “humbug” schemes. He returned to Venezuela, a country where he had previously enjoyed a high ranking military role during the war of independence against Spain, following the death of his wife in Edinburgh in 1838.