The Tale of Gregor MacGregor, the Fraudster Whose Schemes in 1822 Left 180 Dead

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 4, 2016

The 21st century has certainly produced its share of notorious fraudsters, but scams, shams and flim-flams are, unfortunately, as old as time. While often financially ruinous, though, they rarely get to the level where actual deaths are involved. Not so with 19th century con-man Gregor MacGregor (yes, that was his real name), whose elaborate real estate scam led to the deaths of at least 180 people. Having recently learned about this individual through Mike Duncan's Revolutions podcast, this writer found the scale and scope of the scheme, as well as its consequences, both horrifying and fascinating. 

MacGregor lived a rather interesting life even before his deadly con. He served in both the British Army and, after a heated disagreement with a superior officer, the Portuguese army during the Napoleonic Wars. Upon return to civilian life, he built a reputation among the London elite based on the lies that he was the head of Clan MacGregor and that he was a colonel. After this, he became involved in the Venezuelan struggles for independence, where he not once but twice left his men to die while he fled to safety. The first time he told his men he was going to get to the ship so he could bombard the Spanish royalists with its cannons but instead used it to escape. The second time he said he was escorting a woman and two of her children to a ship so they could be away from the fighting, and once again used that ship to escape. In both cases, his men were either killed in battle, or captured and then executed. Needless to say, Simone Bolivar declared that if MacGregor was ever seen in Venezuela again he was to be hung on sight.  

With this in mind, he then bought a large swath of land in what is now Honduras from a British puppet monarch and sailed to London. While there, he spun tales of a place called Poyais, which he said was a bountiful, verdant country with a democratic government, and all they needed was people to live in it. He began selling land titles to credulous Britons who believed that they could find riches untold if they emigrated there and set up a colony, and on top of that was able to convince a bank to underwrite a 200,000 pound bond issuance to fund the colonization. After all, with such riches in Poyais just ready to be exploited, bondholders reasoned they would make back their money and then some in just a short time. More than 200 people got on two ships in 1822 and set sail for this wonderful, bounteous Eden. 

When they arrived, however, they found a desolate land that was almost impossible to cultivate and had so many mosquitoes that its actual name at the time was, and remains, "Mosquito Coast." The colonists, at first, thought that the navigator had made a mistake but eventually realized that, no, this was it, this was the land this fast-talking Scotsman had sold them. While they were able to survive for a while with the provisions they brought from their ships, soon the rainy season began, and the mosquitoes intensified. One by one they began dying from tropical diseases they'd never encountered in England, like malaria and yellow fever, as well as dysentery from bad water. Also, there was no infrastructure at all, so whatever shelter they had was makeshift. All this combined to create an overall very unsanitary environment, which led to even more disease which led to even more death. As a final indignity upon them, they also discovered that the land titles MacGregor had sold them were shams: he had never been given permission to sell land there and so the settlers were all there illegally and had to leave. By the time the British navy rescued the colonists and either resettled them in other areas or returned them to England, at least 180 of those roughly 200 colonists were dead. By this time, MacGregor had been able to load up five more ships of "colonists" but they were intercepted by the British navy before they could suffer the same fate. 

MacGregor, apparently, didn't care though. When he realized the jig was up, he fled London for Paris where he began the exact same scheme all over again, working to get Parisians excited about the wonderful land of Poyais. At that point, though, word began to get around that this was a scam and before any unfortunate French could set sail, the ships were ordered to remain in port, and MacGregor was arrested. Being the charismatic con man that he was, though, he was able to convince the court that he was innocent on all charges, at which point he fled back to London, where the heat had died down somewhat. There, he tried to enact the scheme again but was stymied not because he had been responsible for the deaths of almost 200 people but because the bondholders didn't make any money the last time he did this, and so no one bought the new bonds issued to fund the latest iteration of the Poyais scheme. When the investors of the original voyage asked for their money, he paid them with yet more worthless certificates and then fled back to Venezuela. 

Yes, seriously. 

Was he, as Bolivar years ago ordered, hung on sight? No. Bolivar was dead at this point, and he was able to get some of his still-living political rivals to vouch for him. He was not only made a citizen but given a pension for his "service" in the country's wars of independence. Infuriatingly, he lived on this pension until the day he died in 1845 of natural causes. 

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