Everything Librarian: Who Was Inmate Lester Ohmart and What Was the Drake Estate Conspiracy?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Who Was Inmate Lester Ohmart and What Was the Drake Estate Conspiracy?

In my examination of the federal inmate files of Leavenworth, Kansas, I stumbled on the inmate record of Lester Ohmart (1888-?). He was received at Leavenworth prison on February 22, 1936 on the charge of "using mails to defraud" in Chicago, Illinois. In further digging through the records I found a small sentence that points to the context behind the mail fraud conviction-- Lester Ohmart was involved in a fraud, scheme, or con known as the Drake Estate. Never heard of it? Me neither. I had to keep reading and researching until I figured out and unraveled this interesting tale. Who was Lester Ohmart? What was the Drake Estate conspiracy?

Some Background on Ohmart

You can find Lester Ohmart in the 1900 US Census. He is living in South Otter Township Nilwood Village in Illinois with his mother and father and his four other siblings. (Bertha, August, Lovey, Ressie) It is fun to look at the original census document to see that there is an Everett Neff living just up the street-- I have to assume this is Lydia Neff Ohmart's father and the namesake of Lester's middle name.

Lester Everett Ohmart was born on October 2, 1888 in Girard, Illinois, the son of Lydia Neff and Marion Ohmart. At age 28, Ohmart is living in Hope, Kansas and fills out the obligatory World War I registration card below. (The card spells his middle name Evertt.)

What Was the Drake Estate Scheme?

By all records and accounts, in his outside personal life Lester Ohmart was a clerk and accountant. There is one summary document within his Leavenworth prison file that tells the story like it is:

"Indictment for the use of the mails to defraud was returned against forty-two persons who were principals and co-workers in the collection of donations to a fund for the settlement of the mythical estate of Sir Francis Drake, the navigator."

So there it is. A charlatan named Oscar Hartzell (see photo above) came up with the idea of the Drake Estate-- an unsettled pot of gold just waiting to be distributed to hundreds of heirs. If you think about it long enough, it's kind of brilliant. The Drake Estate con men preyed upon people with the common last name of Drake and took their money for their own profit. It is also conceivable that Lester Ohmart was just a low level clerk who truly believed in the mythical estate that never delivered the large and promised payout. There is a great article by Rupert Taylor that goes into more detail about the Drake Estate Fraud here.

Legal Summary of the Drake Estate Crimes of Ohmart

Another document within Lester Ohmart's Leavenworth inmate file provides a fascinating summary of the Drake Estate fraud that seems similar to a pyramid scheme or Ponzi scam. It's kind of long but it's worth a read for some context into this fascinating piece of American and British history.

Collections for the settlement of this estate have been made since about 1920. Oscar M. Hartzell, who resided in London, England, for about ten years, but who is a native of Illinois, and was an American citizen alleged that he had discovered the living heir of a son of Sir Francis Drake, and that this living heir had assigned to him title to the estate. Hartzell represented that he was dealing through the Ecclesiastical Courts and the Secret Courts of England, and that the British government had accepted his right to the estate. He further represented, through these defendants and other agents, that settlement would be made within a few months, but this continued throughout the years, and each postponement was explained as being due to the fact that additional funds were necessary to pay the expenses of settlement.

Lester Ohmart was an agent for the Drake Estate a number of years ago in Texas and testified that for the operation of this so-called estate he was arrested twice by the state authorities and once by the United States. A fraud order was issued against him in 1933, after which, the case for which he was arrested by the Government was dismissed. He operated the offices of the Drake Estate swindle in Boone, Iowa, and later in Chicago, Illinois, and for his work received, according to the records of the concern, a small salary.

Psychological Evaluation

It is interesting to note that in the year of Ohmart's incarceration there is a psychological evaluation of every inmate. On the psychological report of Lester Ohmart the psychiatrist has this to say:

This was an office man in the Drake Estate scheme, who says he was employed there for a few years, and was receiving a salary for his work and had no other participation in this enterprise. He is a pleasant frank sincere appearing person, who apparently belives [sic] that the Drake Estate is not a myth.

For his crimes (inadvertent or not) Ohmart is sentenced to one year and a day in the Federal Leavenworth prison in Kansas. At age 46 and a first time offender, Ohmert must have been a somewhat unusual inmate in this environment. Someone at the prison writes to Mrs. Ida Ohmert in Spencer, Iowa, to ask very personal questions about the background of Lester. In answer there is a three-page handwritten letter that speaks well of her husband.

"My husband's attitude to me was always kind and loving and always provided well for his family. Yes he was always a compatible marital companion. No I have never had any cause to suspect him of being unfaithful. He is very reliable. We were acquainted four years before our marriage. We were married 25 years last Thanksgiving Day at hope, Kansas. No, neither of us was previously married. No he has never engaged in any illegal activity before I married him. Yes we have 3 children. His attentions toward his family responsibilities were good, he always supported us well. I have no income now. I am at the mercy of friends. I and the children are living alone. As to plans for our future I cannot say as it was such a shock and so unexpected. I feel the cause of our present difficulty was a victim of circumstance. He was employed as an auditor and book keeper. No I do not feel like anything in his previous life had a bearing in connection with his trouble.

This is an unusual look at the life of those left behind by the incarcerated. Sadly, the story of Ida Ohmart is all too common-- when a provider is locked up many families find themselves in financial dire straits. It would have been especially hard for Ida Ohmart to find a job as someone with no degree or employment experience, especially as a woman in a male-dominated world in 1930's America.

Lester Ohmart: Post Prison

The good news is that Lester Ohmart repays his debt to society by serving his prison sentence and returns to his wife and children. I found him in the 1940 census living in San Antonio, Texas with his wife Ida, his two daughters, and a granddaughter. It is interesting to note that Lester is now employed as a traveling salesman for a candy distributor. And that is where our story ends for Lester Ohmart and his family. As an afterthought: it is weird that I can find the story of Lester Ohmart and his mugshot but I am unable to find the mugshot and prison record for the true mastermind of the Drake Conspiracy, Oscar Hartzell. He certainly would have done time in a Federal prison-- I have to assume his record has not yet been digitized.

Appendix

"United States Census, 1940," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K4WD-GB7 : accessed 18 May 2018), Lester Ohmart, Area D, San Antonio, Justice Precinct 1, Bexar, Texas, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 259-150, sheet 11A, line 9, family 400, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, NARA digital publication T627. Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007, RG 29. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012, roll 4206.

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