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The "Spanish Prisoner" Mail Scam

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Long before the infamous Nigerian prince e-mail scam, there was the “Spanish prisoner” mail scam. Usually, the scam would consist of a letter from someone claiming to be a prisoner in Madrid. The letter would say a large sum of money was available for helping the prisoner. In 1906, The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican reported that a man in Grand Forks received one of these scams – and he almost gave in.

The Grand Forks letter took a slightly different approach. Instead of claiming to be a prisoner, the scammer claimed to be a young girl who had a wealthy Spanish father, a partner of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who prompted the construction of the Panama Canal. The letter said the wealthy Spaniard was imprisoned for conspiring against the Spanish government and was shot dead while trying to escape. His fortune was inherited by the daughter, who stored it in a safe in England. All the reader had to do to secure most of this fortune was to pay the cost of transportation for the girl to come to North Dakota.

The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican reported that the Grand Forks resident almost fell for this “Spanish fake,” but he wrote to the American consul in Madrid and learned that the letter was a common scam that had been going on for more than 30 years. The American representative in Madrid predicted that if the Grand Forks man replied, the scammer would try to prove the claims by providing forgeries of official documents. The consul gave examples of people across the country who gave in to the scam. Some sent $590 via the consulate, supposedly for the girl's transportation. Others went to Madrid themselves to pick up the girl. According to a priest in Columbus, Ohio, some of his parishioners even mortgaged their farms to pay the “swindlers,” as the paper called them. The word “scam” would not be used until 1963.

As the scheme was ongoing, the best recourse was to expose it and bring it to public attention -- as was done on this date in 1906 by The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican.

Dakota Datebook by Jacob Dalland


The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. 1906, April 13. Page 9

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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