The two bravest fraudsters in history were Savarpoldi Hammaralt and Albert von Filek. The two successfully conned a bloodthirsty dictator responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
To explain, the two con artists sold Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco incredible formulas. For example, Hammaralt convinced Franco he could create gold with alchemy.
The Caudillo even let Hammaralt use laboratories at the University of Salamanca for his alchemy, historian Paul Preston alleges.* Preston thinks Hammaralt‘s scam inspired Franco to claim Spain had unlimited gold reserves in a 1939 address. Hammaralt’s true identity is hard to ascertain. Preston describes him as Hindu (probably Indian) and possibly a British spy. Notably, India was still a British dominion in 1939.
The next fraudster to scam Franco was an Austrian conman named Albert von Filek. Von Filek convinced Franco he had a formula for synthetic gasoline which required no oil. Spain had no oil reserves and was dependent on the United States for its oil supplies. Franco invested enormous amounts of the Spanish taxpayers’ money in the formula which produced no gasoline.
Franco, his wife Carmen, and his brother-in-law all thought they could get rich by making synthetic gasoline. Instead, complaints by Spanish entrepreneurs exposed von Filek as a fraudster.
However, the urban legend about a secret fascist process for creating synthetic gasoline endured for decades. It even formed the plot of the 1980 movie The Formula, which imagined it was the Nazis, not Franco, who had the secret. I guess Franco doesn’t make a credible Hollywood villain, but Hitler does.
Preston does not mention Filek, and Hammaralt’s fate, but it is easy to imagine. Franco, or somebody in his government, probably had the two killed.
Franco the Sucker
Conning Franco took enormous bravery because Franco oversaw up to 200,000 deaths in the White Terror that followed his victory in the Spanish Civil War. Incredibly, Filek and Hammaralt were conning Franco at the beginning of the White Terror.
The moral of the story is that a clever fraudster can con anybody, even a dictator. However, surviving such a con is improbable. No dictator wants to face the embarrassment of being exposed as a sucker.
Additionally, a dictatorship has a hard time spreading propaganda about Great Leader’s wisdom when his stupidity is on display for all to see. Hence, the con artist who scams a dictator has to die.
Despite his gullibility, Franco survived for 36 years. He was still in power when he died in 1975. In addition, Franco’s family became wealthy and prominent. One of the generalissimo’s great grandsons, Louis Alphonse de Bourbon, is the House of Bourbon’s heir to the French throne.
Everybody needs to remember that anybody can be conned. Hence, we all need to be skeptical of all fantastic claims. However, the story of the fraudsters who conned Franco could make a great movie.
*See A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain by Paul Preston page 338.