Bernie Madoff’s Great-Grandfather (circa 1823, Honduras)

A fool and his money are soon parted.

A sucker is born every minute.

Swamp in Honduras

You can fool all of the people some of the time . . .

In a nonfiction exposé, David Sinclair through masterful research reveals Sir Gregor MacGregor for the confidence trickster that he truly was, pulling off one of the greatest scams of all time, in The Land that Never Was (2003). Reading much like a novel, this work explains how McGregor invented a land, Poyais, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and so thoroughly duped bankers, settlers, and soldiers, that hundreds traveled from England, but more particularly Scotland, to reap profits from a land of milk and honey, portrayed as already having opera houses and theatres! MacGregor created a grandiose scheme, complete with a guidebook A Sketch of the Mosquito Shore authored by Thomas Strangeways, no less (the second edition was by Mr. Goodluck—did no one see the sick humor?), maps, proclamations (addressed to citizens of Poyais—Dear Poyers), military uniforms, and flags.

Each new development seems unbelievable, but the gullible sign on, including investors. The tragedy is that hundreds of the settlers perish when they reach Poyais, finding a swamp, no shelter, and fetid water. The result? Disease and death. MacGregor, who was early in his career in the British Army, had also joined various South American liberation movements and was familiar with General Miranda and Simon Bolivar.

This is a page-turner. Does MacGregor get his just desserts? Or do people believe that he was himself a victim? Until Sinclair research unmasks the scoundrel, MacGregor was actually portrayed in the Dictionary of National Biography more closely to his manufactured persona than to the trickster that swindled a nation (or two). One thing is for sure: MacGregor was a master of creativity, concerned about the design of the braid on the Army of Poyais’ uniforms. The Cazique of Poyais created a mythical nation, indulged in self delusion, and felt no remorse apparently for the hundreds who died as a result.

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