The Swindle

A desperate man from Madrid, Enrique de Fonseca, wrote begging for help. Enrique is sick, imprisoned for treason and worried about his beautiful, teenage daughter alone in the world. Despite all his misfortune, Enrique has wealth secured in England but he needs help recovering his fortune.

One of Enrique’s letters reached the licensee of the Tara Hotel in 1921, offering a generous reward for help. It was all a lie.

A photograph supplied with scam letters, supposedly Enrique de Fonseca’s daughter, page 82; 1898 – 1934; ITM318962

While it was fictional, it was not the plot for a movie, but an international scam.

This wasn’t the only letter Enrique sent, nor was 1921 the only year in which the swindle was perpetrated. Police records from 1898, 1912 and 1934 show similar correspondence was received across the state, from Cairns to Brisbane and as far west as Longreach. The different years saw variations to the story, handwriting or signatory, but the intent was the same: to obtain money by deceit.

In his letter to the Tara licensee, Enrique asked only for confirmation that his long-lost relative would help him in his quest. Anyone responding would subsequently be asked to send money for one purpose or another. Other swindlers were bolder, asking outright for amounts between £100 and £1,000 to pay for trial expenses, fines, or to retrieve luggage – usually held by the court – in which a secret compartment allegedly concealed the bank cheque or other document required to recover the fortune.

Despite numerous newspaper articles alerting the public to the scam, people kept falling for it. In 1921, Mr H.S. Cribb of Brisbane sent the sum of £300 (over AU$20,000 in today’s money) to a Senor Jorge Pena before realising it was a fraud. In December of the same year, a gentleman from Yungaburra provided police with the correspondence he’d received and advised them he’d heard another man had received a similar batch of documents and was going to forward the amount requested ‘in good faith’.

Letter from the Inspector of Police, Toowoomba regarding 'Spanish Swindle' letter received by the Licensee of the Tara Hotel
Letter from Inspector of Police Toowoomba regarding the Swindle, page 45; 1898 – 1934; ITM318962

A newspaper article speculated the names of those targeted were acquired through a business directory. Constable Sweeney of the Cairns Police District suggested: ‘It is quite evident these swindlers have a number of local Agents who supply them with the name and address of likely victims’. The idea that the swindlers had assistance from someone in Queensland may be substantiated by an observation made by another officer, who wrote: ‘These letters appear to be postmarked in Madrid and sent to Australia where they are addressed … [a] portion of the address is clearly written over the post mark …’

It’s unknown how truly successful the swindle was, or the fate of Enrique and his counterparts. Did they live long prosperous lives off their ill-gotten gains, or were they arrested by the Spanish authorities, imprisoned, their fortune secretly hidden away until they could write to a distant relative seeking help? Nobody knows.

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