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Gregor MacGregor the Masterful Con Man

Updated on June 7, 2016

The land of Poyais was a magical place. It was so fertile that it produced three harvests a year. Its pure and refreshing water could quench any thirst. Trees were laden with exotic fruits and wild game practically pleaded with hunters to be shot. Oh, and lumps of gold lay in riverbeds waiting to be picked up.

This was the picture of paradise painted by Gregor MacGregor for his property larger than Wales in Honduras. And, he would know about this because he was, he said, the “Cazique” or Prince of this enchanted nation.

The mythical land of Poyais.
The mythical land of Poyais. | Source

Invitation to Investors

To those enduring the windswept and damp climate of Scotland MacGregor’s sales pitch had huge appeal. Who wouldn’t swap the bleak, heather-covered moors for the swaying fronds of palm trees above white sandy beaches kissed by the clear blue Caribbean Sea?

Gregor MacGregor.
Gregor MacGregor. | Source

Writing for the BBC Maria Konnikova, outlined MacGregor’s use of two persuasion techniques. The first is to make whatever is being sold look appealing. The second is to overcome resistance to taking action. “He published interviews in national papers, for instance, touting the perks that would come from investing or settling in Poyais. He highlighted the bravery and fortitude that such a gesture would demonstrate: you wouldn’t just be smart; you would be a real man.”

Among those that study these things it’s known as the approach-avoidance model. (It’s said that a certain candidate for the U.S. presidency in 2016 has presented a master-class on this technique).

Investing in Poyais would be a challenge and a gift to the adventurous Scottish spirit.

Those who might still have doubts were pointed in the direction of the book Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais, by Captain Thomas Strangeways. It told the story of English settlers establishing the town of St. Joseph in the 1730s and prospering. There was a bank, a government, an army, and plenty of natives eager to work. The author is described as “Captain 1st Poyer Regiment, and Aid-de-Camp to His Highness Gregor Cazique of Poyais,” but he had another identity, that of Gregor MacGregor himself. It must have been an innocent oversight that the connection between Strangeways and MacGregor was not mentioned in the prospectus.

Investors Rich and Poor

Touring the salons of London, MacGregor pedalled bonds to the wealthy. He turned to Scotland for his settlers and sold them land at four shillings an acre; that was about the wages for a day’s work at the time, so it was a pretty good deal.

Jobs were also for sale. An Edinburgh cobbler bought himself the title of Official Shoemaker in Poyais. Others bought commissions in the military. Poyais currency that could be used on arrival was sold.

The sales pitch worked a treat. MacGregor raised the equivalent of about $5.2 billion in today’s money and filled seven ships with settlers. The first two left late in 1822 with the other five to follow later.

The currency of Poyais sold to gullible investors.
The currency of Poyais sold to gullible investors. | Source

Shattered Dreams

It’s not hard to imagine the disappointment that must have swept over those people when they got their first glimpse of their Shangri-la in early 1823. The Poyais of MacGregor’s extravagant imagination was a wasteland. It didn’t even exist as a country.

There was no town or roads, so the first inclination was that they had been put ashore in the wrong place. But, as MacGregor was counting his winnings back in Britain, it began to dawn on the settlers they were in trouble. Children started to die and adults squabbled over food. Then yellow fever and malaria took their toll. The Official Shoemaker shot himself. A passing ship rescued the survivors and took them to Belize, but two thirds of the original colonists died.

When news of the dire conditions in Poyais reached the home country, the five other shiploads of hopefuls were intercepted by the Royal Navy and turned back.

Gregor MacGregor in his military finery.
Gregor MacGregor in his military finery. | Source

MacGregor Soldiers on

MacGregor decided it might be a good time to visit France. He tried to run his Poyais scheme there and soon had another bunch of settlers ready to go. When these eager colonists applied for passports the French government got suspicious, especially when they could find no reference to this heaven on earth actually existing.

Gregor MacGregor was arrested and put in prison. He was tried and acquitted and went to Edinburgh. However, there were a few Scots who wanted their money back and MacGregor deemed it prudent to head off for South America. He died in Venezuela in 1845 aged 58.

The Mind of a Con Man

Several people have put Gregor MacGregor on the psychiatrist’s couch posthumously. Some have concluded the man may have come to believe his own fabrication was real.

The Economist notes that “MacGregor had some very dangerous personality traits. He was a dreamer, convinced that he was descended from an Inca Princess. This made his plan to lead a country feel quite normal, even a birthright.”

He was a narcissist, fond of bestowing grand titles, medals, and decorations on himself.

Tamar Frankel of Boston University has studied him and says his grandiosity made him seem credible to those he was swindling.

But, why would he send shiploads of people off to uninhabitable jungle knowing they would blow his whole scheme sky high? To him they were not his problem; they were simply objects that provided him with money. Self-obsessed narcissists cannot empathize with the people they ruin.

His biographer, David Sinclair (The Land that Never Was, 2004), describes MacGregor as a man who never “let a good idea wither away because of a few technical difficulties.” Such were his persuasive abilities that he managed to convince several of the people that he conned that he himself was the victim of a monstrous fraud.

A contemporary report in The Guardian described MacGregor as “a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think …”

A romanticized portrait of the young fraudster.
A romanticized portrait of the young fraudster. | Source

Bonus Factoids

Before pulling off his scams, Gregor MacGregor was a soldier, described as a military adventurer with all the murky overtones that such a characterization suggests. In June 1812, he led a military invasion of Amelia Island off the coast of Florida. He raised money for a full-scale invasion of Florida, which was then under Spanish control. But, the money went on MacGregor’s creature comforts before he took off for other adventures.

Gregor MacGregor was related to Robert Roy MacGregor, better known as Rob Roy, who was called the Scottish Robin Hood.

Source

“The Conman who Pulled off History’s most Audacious Scam.” Maria Konnikova, BBC, January 28, 2016.

“The King of Con-Men.” The Economist, December 22, 2012.

“Sketch of the Mosquito Coast.” Captain Thomas Strangeways, 1822.

“The Fraud of the Prince of Poyais.” Dr. Bryan Taylor, The Big Picture, July 11, 2013.

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