The Crazy True Story Of The Great Buchanan Inheritance Hoax

In times of desperation, people are more likely to cling to long shot possibilities than they would in other situations. And as one harebrained scheme during the Great Depression proved, desperate people will continue to grab at phantom possibilities even after they have been to be a scam. As the Library of Congress tells us, the Great Buchanan Inheritance hoax had people all across the country checking their family trees — or even creating fake ones — in hopes of getting a piece of a gigantic fortune that never existed.

One of the more bizarre things that happened during the Great Depression, it all started in 1931, when Lorenzo D. Buchanan, a grocer from Texas, started a rumor that a super-rich old guy named William Buchanan had died and left an estate valued at $850,000,000. A ridiculous fortune even today, it was an unimaginable amount of money at a time of such economic hopelessness as the Great Depression. There was just one catch. The money was all tied up in several 99-year land leases that had recently expired. Any heirs would have to prove their relation to get their cut of the cash. Newspapers across the country printed stories of supposed heirs awaiting their hefty inheritances. But no one ever saw a penny of Uncle Buchanan’s fortune.

People just wouldn't believe the Great Buchanan Inheritance hoax was a hoax

As the frenzy for the money spread, the rumor morphed into its own living existence. The real estate ended up being the most coveted plots of land in the country: prime spots in Manhattan. Sometimes the dead Buchanan had a different first name. He even ended up related to James Buchanan, U.S. president from 1857 to 1861. Such an illustrious relative lent an air of believability to the crackpot idea, despite the fact that President Buchanan didn’t have any children.

Even in the face of a complete debunking of the rumor, the desperate people of the nation continued to believe. Buchanans both real and invented flooded the Library of Congress and the New York courts with claims of relations to the nonexistent person. Judges in New York ruled that no such estate had ever existed. Still, people believed. Then Lorenzo Buchanan announced that he had “ceased all operations in connection with the supposed estate” and returned the thousands of letters sent to him to the U.S. Postal Inspector unopened. Still, they believed. The hoax duped people and gave government bureaucrats headaches for five long years. Years later, their grandchildren found the documents they’d forged in dusty boxes up in the attic and they got sucked into the scam, as well. The hoax went down as one of the greatest of the 20th century. For his part, Lorenzo Buchanan never made public his reason for starting the rumor.

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