History Nebraska Blog

A Spainish Fortune for Kearney - Maybe

Photographer Solomon D. Butcher depicted a street in Kearney in 1910

Modern attempts to defraud the unwary via the internet by offering cash rewards in exchange for helping someone recover funds (with the helper required to make an upfront payment for "minor expenses" or to prove good faith) are nothing new.

The Kearney Daily Hub on March 29, 1933, reported that several Kearney residents had been offered the chance to earn $120,000 in return for sending a cablegram and a few twenty dollar bills to Spain. The Hub said: "At least a number of the residents of this city have received through the mails a mysterious letter, promising a third share in a $360,000 fortune. The catch in the scheme, a version of a confidence game worked successfully for decades, is this --the seekers of the 'fortune' must aid the writers of the letters by advancing a 'certain sum' to pay minor expenses." 

Here is a copy of the anonymous letter received by several Kearneyites:

Dear Sir: Being imprisoned here by bankruptcy I beseech you to help me to obtain a sum of $360,000 I have in America, being necessary to come here to raise the seizure of my baggage, paying to the Register of the Court the expenses of my trial, and recover my portmanteau containing a secret packet where I have hidden two checks payable to bearer for that sum. As a reward, I will give up to you the third part $120,000.' I cannot receive your answer in the prison, but you can send a cablegram to a person of my confidence who will deliver it to me.

The letter furnished a Spanish address to which communications should be sent and promised to reveal "all my secret" after receipt of the cablegram. It was signed "S."

According to the Hub, all of the messages that Kearnyites received had evidently been written by mimeograph or otherwise mechanically authored. This was proven when two people who received the letters compared them and found them to be identical. 

"Just why a man would offer $120,000 to anyone in this country, to pay expenses of a bankruptcy trial, the letter did not say," wrote the Hub. "Despite the almost admitted out and out 'con game' there will probably be many persons over the state and country who will dig down in their pockets and send to Spain a good share of their savings. All letters received in Kearney from 'Mr. S.,' the mysterious Spaniard -- or maybe a plain American swindler stranded in Spain -- bore Spanish stamps but postmarks were undecipherable. Strangely enough, none of the letters have 'United States' in their addresses, all of them simply bearing the address 'Kearney' with Nebraska added in parenthesis. Perhaps the letters were mailed in this state, though most of the recipients were agreed that the missives were probably sent from Spain. How much money the perpetrators of the new hoax will collect, from their probable thousand or more similar letters, sent to all parts of this country, no one knows. One interesting and strange feature of the letters addressed to Kearney was that in almost every case, they were addressed to street numbers which the residents had left many years ago. . . . It was thought that the swindler or swindlers had obtained an old city directory, or an old newspaper of many years ago, and copied down a list of addresses from this source."

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