The Serge Solovieff mystery --

a WWI variant of the Spanish Prisoner scam

by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com

Reader comments/corrections



The letter began:
Dear Sir,

Although I know you only from good references of your honesty, my sad situation compels me to reveal to you an important affair in which you can procure a modest fortune, saving at the same time that of my darling daughter.

Dated April 3, 1914, the letter was apparently sent by one Serge Solovieff, an embezzler and murderer in prison in Spain, to my great-uncle Charles Seltzer, who was in his late 20s at that time, living in Philadelphia, and just starting his career as an architect.

I found the letter and a related newspaper clipping in a box of Uncle Charlie's' belongings when he died back in 1970. I was intrigued by the mystery implied by the words.

The clipping said that Solovieff, a banker in St. Petersburg, had embezzled over five million rubles, murdered a
compatriot in Spain, been apprehended in London and extradited to Spain. The money was still missing.

There was no date on the clipping, but the item on the reverse side was a review of an issue of the London Quarterly dealing
with the centenary of Tennyson's birth in 1909. It is hard to imagine reviewing a magazine long after it was published, but the
letter was dated 1914 -- five years later.

Why would anyone keep a clipping from an English newspaper for five years in a prison in Spain, and then send it to a total
stranger in the U.S., with a letter asking for help? Was this some sort of hoax that someone tried to play on my great-uncle? What was there to gain?

My research into this mystery led me to discover a completely different story in the London Times of 1913 -- that of Alexander Bulatovich, a Russian cavalryman who became an explorer in Ethiopia and later a monk who led a rebellion by purported heretics at Mount Athos in Greece. I wound up writing a novel about Bulatovich (The Name of Hero, published by Tarcher/Houghton Mifflin)

The Name of Hero by Richard Seltzer. an historical novel based on the life of Alexander Bulatovich, a Russian who was an explorer in Ethiopia, and a cavalry officer during Russia's conquest of Manchuria in 1900. Later, as a monk at Mount Athos, he led a group of "heretics" who challenged the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, asserting the divinity of the Name of God. Hard cover.

and also translated from the Russian two books about his experiences in Ethiopia (published by Africa World Press as Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes).

Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes by Alexander Bulatovich, translated by Richard Seltzer. Unique and detailed first-hand account of Ethiopia in 1896-98 -- at the change of an era -- by a Russian officer with remarkable understanding for the many varied people who lived there and keen insight into their destiny.

But I couldn't uncover anything at all about this Serge Solovieff or any variants of his name. ("Serge" and "Sergei" are the same.  And there are several different ways that the surname could be transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet: Solovieff, Soloviev, and Solovyov are all the same name, the equivalent of Mr. Nightingale.)  There was a famous Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, who died around 1900 (and wrote some very interesting and provocative fiction and poetry as well). He had a nephew named Sergei who was also a poet and who was alive at the time these letters were written. But that Sergei Solovyov was not a banker and did not end up in jail in Spain. Traditional research methods -- scanning through microfilms of old newspapers -- led nowhere.

Then in 1997 I included the text of the letter and of the clipping in an article which I posted at my Web site (From Russia and Ethiopia to the Internet, www.samizdat.com/wesley.html ) The page got included in search engine indexes and people searching for the name Serge Solovieff or phrases in the letter or the clipping found my page and contacted me. This is a random research technique that I call "flypaper" -- setting things up so people find you, bringing you the information you need, when there is no way that you could actively find it yourself. (See related article at www.samizdat.com/fly.html)

Now, five years later, I have been contacted by a total of four people who possess identical or nearly identical letters and clippings that were addressed to their relatives just before or during World War I. And one of them, Sherry Grabinsky has a second letter as well.  Her great-uncle took the bait and sent a cable to Spain back in 1913, and received back an 11-page letter, a masterpiece of persuasive deception, with complete details on how to get to Spain and what to do there to retrieve a fortune.

I told this story to an old friend, Ashley Grayson, the agent who sold my novel The Name of Hero 20 years ago, and he immediately said, "The Spanish Prisoner." Apparently, variations on this scam have been around for a long long time. Ashley pointed me to the movie The Spanish Prisoner, written by David Mamet and starring Campbell Scott, Ben Gazzara, and Steve Martin. That movie, which portrays an elaborate confidence game, includes the following passage, which is the source of its title: "It's an interesting setup, Mr. Ross.  It is the oldest confidence game on the books. The Spanish Prisoner... Fellow says, him and his sister, wealthy refugees, left a fortune in the Home Country, he got out, girl and the money stuck in Spain. Here is her most beautiful portrait. And he needs money to get her and the fortune out. Man who supplies the money gets the fortune and the girl. Oldest con in the world." (See the Web site for the movie at www.spe.sony.com/classics/spanishprisoner)

He also noted that "The current version is 'the Nigerian letter'." That's an Internet-based scam. I receive an average of 2 variants of the Nigerian letter every day (my email inbox seems to be a magnet for such messages). I'll attach a recent copy at the end of this article for the edification of those few people who have not yet seen it. Please check http://home.rica.net/alphae/419coal/  for details on how it works  In brief:

"The Scam operates as follows: the target receives an unsolicited fax, email, or letter concerning Nigeria containing either a money laundering or other illegal proposal OR you may receive a Legal and Legitimate business proposal by normal means. The common variations on the Scam include 'overinvoiced' or 'double invoiced' oil or other supply and service contracts where your Bad Guys want to get the overage out of Nigeria; crude oil and other commodity deals; a 'bequest' left you in a will; and 'money cleaning' where your Bad Guy has a lot of currency that needs to be 'chemically cleaned' before it can be used and he needs the cost of the chemicals. Or the victim will just be stiffed on a legitimate goods or services contract... the variations are very creative and virtually endless."
So you can appreciate the subtlety of the Serge Solovieff scam here is the full text of the letter sent to my Uncle Charlie:
It was handwritten on graph-style paper.
Dear Sir,

Although I know you only from good references of your honesty, my sad situation compels me to reveal to you an important affair in which you can procure a modest fortune, saving at the same time that of my darling daughter.

Before being imprisoned here, I was established as a Banker in Russia as you will see by the enclosed article about me of many English newspapers which have published my arrest in London. I beseech you to help me to obtain a sum of 480.000 dollars I have in America and to come here to raise the seizure of my baggage, paying to the Registrar of the Court the expenses of my
trial, and recover my portmanteau containing a secret pocket where I have hidden the document indispensable to recover the
said sum. As a reward, I will give up to you the third part, viz. 160.000 dollars. I cannot receive your answer in the prison, but
you must send a cablegram to a person of my confidence who will deliver it to me.

Awaiting your cable, to instruct you in all my secret. I am Sir,

Yours truly,

S. Solovieff

First of all answer by cable, not by letter, as follows:

Senor Requejo

Lista Telegrafos

Santander (Spain)

Yes Seltzer

Click here to see a photo image of the original letter.

Note the European style of using a period where Americans use a comma in numbers. That is not a decimal point. The author means $480,000 and $160,000.

Text of the article on yellowed newsprint (undated and no indication of what newspaper it comes from):

ARREST OF A ST. PETERSBURG BANKER
CHARGED WITH FRAUD IN RUSSIA AND MANSLAUGHTER IN SPAIN
INTERVIEW OF THE TWO AMBASSADORS

Some months ago as our readers may remember, we refered [sic] in these columns to the great scandal caused in St. Petersburg, an [sic] in Russia generally, by a noted Banker who absconded leaving a deficit of over five millions of rubles.

The Russian Police sought for him for a long time in vain for it seems he had not left the least trace of his flight and the continued search over Europe and America proved unavailing.

Yesterday, however a Spanish Inspector accompanied by two officers from Scotland Yard and acting under instructions of the Spanish Ambassador, who had previously interviewed the Home Secretary, arrested him on his way from the Hotel where he was staying, to the Steamship office.  It seems that it was his evident intention to take passage for New York. From information received by the Ambassador, he had been in hiding in Spain, where he lived with a woman and with his daughter. A few days before arriving in London he had quarrelled [sic] with another Russian who was mortally wounded by a revolver shot during the scuffle and who only lived long enough to denounce his assailant.

In an interview with the Russian Ambassador it seems that the name he had been using in Spain and which he gave on being arrested was not his real one, Manasseina being simply an alibi, but after comparing the prisoner with photographs in his possession, the Russian Ambassador recognized him as Serge Solovieff the criminal banker who eloped with 5 millions of rubles; he is a native of St. Petersburg, a widower 48 years old, with an only daughter that he left in Spain on escaping from that country.

On being arrested, two of Manasseina's or Serge Solovieff [sic] portmanteaus were seized but although strictly searched nothing but personal effects were found in them, in spite of which the Russian Ambassador declares that the prisoner ought to have several million rubles somewhere.

The Russian and Spanish Ambassadors conferred yesterday evening as to whether the prisoner should be conveyed to Spain or to Russia, and after an interview with the Home Secretary and in accordance with the extradition treaty of England, Russia, and Spain, it was agreed that the prisoner should be conveyed to Spain to stand his trial for manslaughter, and that only after his trial can the Russian Government ask Spain, through diplomatic channels, for his extradition.

Click here to see a photo image of the original clipping.

NB -- the spelling "recognized" is American, not British ("recognised"). Likewise, the British often (always?) use "-our" as the ending of words that in American end "-or". e.g., "ambassador" is American, the English might use "ambassadour" instead.
See http://www.dictionary.com/doctor/faq/b/brsp-amsp.html for differences between British and American spelling.
In the photo reproduction of the clipping, note that the type is somewhat irregular and the spacing unprofessional. For instance the line with the words "great scandal caused in St. Petersburg" has too much space; the word "and" on the following line could easily have fit on that line. And we see the typo "an" instead of "and" on the following line. Also the spacing between lines is distinctly different on this side from the other side. Also the name "Serge Solovieff" on the line "Serge Solovieff portmanteaus were seized" is slightly out of line (like a cut-and-paste job) with too much space between Solovieff and portmanteau, as if one name has been swapped for another.

The capitalization of words like Banker and Inspector feels more German than British or American. (The word "Banker" s also capitalized in the handwritten letter).

The text on the back side of the clipping reads:

way; and the reading might be greatly [illegible] were not for the optimism of the author, who, having created her characters, allows them, while developing naturally, to emerge into healthiness; in short, we find them in difficulties, we leave them happy. The character sketching is subtle and decidedly clever.

NOTES AND REVIEWS
FORTHCOMING BOOKS

 It is rumoured that there are coteries in which the fame of Tennyson is considered as obsolete as Victorian furniture. This will disturb no one who understands literature. Since Aeschulus, at least, it has been the rule for great poets to be proclaimed out-of date by the next generation. Tennyson may have belonged more to the Victorians than some of us could wish, but it is evident to those who have eyes that he did not belong to them alone. Still, we turn with interest to see what a foreign [sic, should be "foreign"] critic of such distinction as M. Faguet has to say of the Tennyson centenary. To suppose that the verdict of foreign readers always anticipates posterity is, indeed a blunder in literary history; but the foreigner often stands far enough off, yet not too far to see a man in his true proportions. And Tennyson, by reason of his fineness of form, his classical lucidity, is in the class upon which foreign judment [sic "judgment"] is fairest.

 M. Faguet's article is to be found in that centenary number of the "Quarterly Review" of which some account has already been given in these columns. He traverses the severe sentence of Taine, and certainly that prophet of disillusion was not the man to sit in judment [sic, same typo for "judgment"] on "In Memoriam". This is no place to deal with the whole of the essay but one sentence, full of suggestion worthy of the great masters of French criticism may be quoted. Tennyson was "comme le rendez vous en un seul homme de tous les genres de poesie qui avaient brille dans la generation precedente." The dictum may be commended to those who insist upon filiation of Tennyson to Keats till the one is

Click here to see a photo image of the original clipping.

The text has the acute accents in the right places in the French quote. The spelling on this side of the clipping is decidedly British ("rumoured", "Aeschulus" instead of "Aeschylus").

Another of the letters was dated December 5, 1914 and sent from Madrid to a William Kepple in Los Angeles. His great granddaughter, Lisa Weston contacted me. The wording is very close to identical, but the handwriting is different and there are a few minor differences (e.g., this letter uses the dollar sign for "$480.000" while the Seltzer one writes out the word "dollars"). The address to reply to is very different:

Soma-General Alvaro Castro 5 tienda decrecha
Madrid (Spain)
Explanation: Kepple
Click here to see a photo image of the original letter.

The associated clipping appears identical, but we only see the front side.

Click here to see a photo image of the original clipping.

Lee Sheingold, a volunteer at a thrift shop in Oregon wrote to me about a letter and clipping that she stumbled upon at work tucked in an old book. Dated October 20, 1911, this letter was sent to someone named Pfeifle and like the others was handwritten on graph-style paper. The handwriting is different from the Seltzer and Kepple letters and it is signed Sadrowsky, instead of Solovieff. The cablegram response was supposed to go to:

Romon Guerra
Calle Santander 10
Valladolid (Spain)
Mande detalles
Pfeifle
Click here to see a photo image of the original letter.

The wording of the clipping is identical, except that the name Alexander Sadrowsky is substituted for that of Serge Solovieff.
Also the type and format of the headline is different. The Seltzer and Kepple clippings have the headlines in all caps; this one has the headline caps/lower-case. Typos and grammatical mistakes are the same, likewise the strange spacing of words.

The switch of names makes it clear that the perpetrators had the ability to doctor the clippings (which wouldn't have been easy in the days before photocopying and photo offset printing.) The doctoring probably accounts for the instances of irregular spacing.

Click here to see a photo image of the original clipping.

It's with the second letter, in the possession of Sherry Grabinsky that it becomes clear that this is a scam. The target is supposed to travel to Spain immediately and will bring money -- $2000, preferably in cash, in US dollars.

Her first letter, dated April 4, 1913, is identical to the Seltzer letter, including the underlines and the S. Solovieff signature, but without the information about how to send the cable response.

Click here to see a photo image of the original letter.

In this case, there are two newspaper clippings. The one in English is identical to the one sent to Seltzer. The other in Spanish was roughly translated (presumably by "Solovieff") above. On the reverse side of the English clipping is the exact same text as was on the back of the Seltzer one.

Click here to see the front of the clippings. (A very large file -- that was the only way I could make it readable.)
Click here to see the back of the clippings. (Another very large file.)

The second letter is from Madrid dated April 23, 1913:
 

Dear Sir,
With great pleasure I have received your cablegram and I pass to explain you my circumstances so briefly as possible.

Before all I must say you, as you will herein after see, that the person aiding us in the matter is a gaoler of the prison who is a good man at all whose confidence I have obtained. The person to whom you have cabled is his brother in law but without begin sure about having yourself received my first letter I have not deemed convenient to inform you about the name and quality of said good man, that is to say, the gaoler.

The matter is the following:
I have established as a Banker in St.-Petersburg (Russia) and after some unfortunate speculations which would take too long to explain, I was about to be arrested for fraudulent bankruptcy when I resolved to fly for shelter to another country. My downfall was mainly caused by the prolonged political revolutions in Russia which caused me tremendous losses in the Exchange and as I was seriously implicated for an enormous deficit and unable to pay interest to my depositors, I realized all what I still had in cash, 1.200.000 rubles ($600,000) and left Russia secretly so as to assure my only daughter a fortune and to save a part of the fortune for which I had worked so many years.

I must not omit to mention that some 15 days before my flight I had sent my daughter to Spain accompanied by a young lady with whom I had had intimate relations.

Thereafter I embarked for America under a false name and well disguised. I landed in New York and proceeded to Chicago where through the medium of the London-Mexico Bank I deposited in an important Bank the amount of $480.000 in gold and obtained for same a check payable to bearer. Keeping 600.000 francs in ready money for my private expenses afterwards. I hid said check in the bottom of a secret pocket of a portmanteau made for that purpose and embarked for Europe to meet my dear daughter and her companion in Madrid.

Having arrived to Madrid, under my assumed name I lived in a Hotel, but one day a serious thing happened. I had always trusted the young lady refered to with regard to money matters but one day having myself gone out with my daughter for a walk, on my return I found said young lady absent and also 500.000 francs which I had left in the room. Fortunately, she was not aware of the check in the portmanteau.

After having been searching for her all over the city, to my great surprise I encountered a brother of her who had arrived form Russia and on my asking for his sister telling him what she had done, he told me that he himself had advised his sister to rob me and that should I denounce her he would on his turn denounce me to the authorities as an embezzler. From this point we came to words and blows and during the struggle I drew my revolver and shot him fatally.

Beside myself with grief, I hastened to the Hotel tooking [sic] my portmanteau and 12 hours later I had crossed the French frontier on my way to London (England). I need scarcely say that I did not have even the time to see my daughter.

I arrived safely to London and stayed in a Hotel awaiting a steamer to go to New York, but two days after I was arrested by a Spanish detective sent for the purpose in cooperation with the english [sic] police and put at the Spanish Ambassador's disposal.

When the extradition formalities where [sic] finished I was told that I ws to be taken to Spain to stand my trial for manslaughter and that afterwards the Russian Government would claim me to be tried for fraudulent bankruptcy. Therefore I was brought from London to Madrid where I have since been closely imprisoned, being [sic] my baggage seized by the court. Such baggage consists of two portmanteaus, one of which contains a cleverly disguised secret pocket inside of which is the check for $480.000 payable to bearer at Chicago.

My poor daughter, 15 years old, was placed in a State orphan's asylum on the outskirts of Valladolid.

When my arrestation took place, ordered by the Spanish Consul in London my baggage in the Hotel was seized and searched in my presence, but the secret was not discovered. The portmanteaus where [sic] then all sealed and brought to Spain with me and placed in the warehouse of this jail used for such purposes.

My trial has just finished having the jury given me a soft verdict sentencing me to 5 years imprisonment, to pay an indemnity of $2.600 to the family of the deceased, and to pay also the costs of the trial. Now, according to spanish [sic] Laws if the costs of a trial and the indemnity are not paid within 90 days, all prisoner's belongings must be sold by public auction.

It is therefore absolutely necessary that I may recover the portmanteau before the date of the date [sic] auction, as otherwise the bidders by too frequent examination might by chance hit on the secret and then the authorities would enter into possession of the check and after deducting expenses would send the balance to Russia for my creditors, being all lost for me if such should be the case. This would be the greatest misfortune.

Under the circumstances, as you may clearly see, being myself without assistance and without money, I beg of you to come here to pay the costs and expenses and to take charge of the check with part of which I hope to obtain a commutation of my sentence because in Spain all is attained by money.

Your name has been known to me as follows: Same has been given to me by a gentleman subject of your country who is detained in this prison. I don't know his real name, being he registered under a false one because he does not wish that his family may never [sic] know his imprisonment. He says you will recognize him when seeing him as you know him very well.

Doubtless you will be surprised about the confidence I place in you, but if you take into consideration my actual position you will see that I must trust in someone and having myself satisfied with what I have heard about you I wish everything and place myself in your hands. You will thus save me this money and assure the welfare of my daughter, whom I must confide to you during my captivity.

I have no relations and I can not trust in my old Russian friends because knowing my actual position I could expect from them nothing but treachery and deceit. I know no one in Spain, having never been here before, and beside I would not trust a Spaniard as he might denounce me to the authorities.

I am happy to tell you however that I have obtained the confidence of the warder in charge of the warehouse where the baggage is kept, having offered him $10.0000 if he would get me some family papers in one of my portmanteaus, but he refused saying that he would have to break the seals to do so, which would cause him to be perhaps imprisoned and to lose his situation. If he had accepted I should have sent my daughter to you carrying the check with her. This not being possible and not having myself the amount wanted for recovering the portmanteau, I again approached the warder on the subject and he has promised me the following, viz.: That if someone of my friends come and pay the expenses he would agree to do as I asked him, but under the sole and absolute condition that said expenses should be paid as soon as he deliver the papers. Among those papers will be the check so that expenses paid someone can obtain the order for taking out the luggage and although one seal may be broken he will not of course complain. The luggage will then be valueless, as the check will already be in your possession.

Now you know the conditions and I beg of you to come and help me. You will have to pay no money till the check may be in your possession. When the jailer knows you are here he will be convinced you are coming to pay the expenses and to help me and he will then go to the warehouse and acting under my instructions he will find the secret pocket and will deliver you several papers and a sealed envelope containing the check for $480.000. Please immediately open same noting number of check, as I don't exactly remember it, and for your personal satisfaction you may cable the Branch of the Bank at Chicago where said check is payable asking whether check number ___ for $480.000 is payable to bearer at sight and begging an immediate reply to your name at the Hotel where you shall lodge. On receipt of the answer the jailer will definitely deliver to you the envelope and contents and you at your turn will deliver the amount necessary for all expenses due to my trial.

You will then leave immediately with my daughter to Chicago where you will cash said check, keeping yourself for you the third part that is to say $160.000 and depositing the rest in safe Bonds at four percent in my daughter's name. I omitted to say that $10.000 must be sent back with my daughter for the jailer and that interest on the capital must be send to Madrid.

However, I am explain [sic] all this better on your arrival here, as I shall be able to obtain an order from the Judge to permit you to visit me in the visitors' gallery and in our interview you may satisfy yourself about everything.

I send you enclosed a cutting of a newspaper of this city together with an official copy of my sentence, both translated into english [sic] and also the official receipt of my baggage kept under seizure. When coming please bring with you these papers being same required for taking out my baggage.

In the sentence you will see that the expenses are 1.987 pesetas 40 centimes for the law suit and 12.000 pesetas for indemnity, which altogether makes a total of $2.000 U.S. money, that is the amount which must be paid for taking out my baggage, that is to say for recovering the hidden check.

You will also note that the sentence being dated on the 19th last March, the 90 days expire on the 19th next month of June.

I can not tell you to write directly to me because I fear that your letters may be intercepted, being our secret discovered if such should be the case. For such a reason it will be best to cable according to the directions which I give you.

Now you know the extent of my misfortunes and tribulations and and you can understand why I can not trust myself to more than one person, as it would be dangerous for me. So please take everything into consideration, resolve quickly, and energetically and get ready to come as soon as possible. Trusting so I can assure you that my gratitude will recompense your services to which will be added the everlasting gratitude of my dear daughter and greatly contributing to her happiness.

Trusting you will faithfully carry out my instructions and hoping to see you soon.

Believe me.

Your ever sincerely

Serge Solovieff

Translation of newspaper cutting [continuation in the same handwriting]

Law Courts

The ex-Banker of St. Petersburg, Serge Solovieff, as it is known was arrested in London for the death of a countryman of him in this City.

He was brought to Madrid and yesterday appeared before the Judge appointed for the case to answer for his crime and in spite of the brilliant defence made by his lawyer Bejarano, he has been declared guilty by the Jury, who commended him to the mercy of the Court, the Judge sentencing him to 5 years imprisonment, indemnity to the dead man's family, and to pay cots.

According to information received from St. Petersburg, Solovieff has had a Banking house in St. Petersburg and eloped [sic] from that city with his daughter 15 years old, leaving debits [sic] amounting to 5 millions of rubles.

From the evidence produced in Court, it seems that the motive of the crime was that a sister of the deceased who accompanied prisoner [sic] robbed him 500.000 francs [sic], and that deceased on arriving in Spain being sent for by his sister, met prisoner and in the altercation which ensured deceased was shot.

In spite of all what the Russian Consul has done to help the police in finding out what had been done by prisoner with the money he is known to have left Russia with, nothing has been found on him although his baggage and person were strictly searched when being arrested in London.

It is possible that after having served his sentence here Solovieff may be sent to Russia to stand his trial for embezzlement.

Translation of Sentence [also a continuation in the same handwriting]

Applying to the article 411 and 412, etc... etc...

We must condemn and we order Serge Solovieff, ex-Banker, 48 years of age, widower, born in St. Petersburg (Russia), to the penalty of 5 years imprisonment and an indemnity of 15.000 pesetas for the manslaughter of Nicholas Moravief, jeweler, married, 58 years old, born in Odessa (Russia).

We must condemn him also to pay the Courts and the costs of the proceedings amounting to 1.987 pesetas 40 centimes, which together with the 13.000 pesetas of indemnity in favour of the family of the deceased makes a total amount of:  Fourteen thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven pesetas and forty centimes.

(14.987 pesetas 40 centimes) (gold value)

And if in the installment of 90 days counting form the date of this sentence he has not had satisfaction of the aforesaid amount, all the objects of his property will be sold by public auction.

etc... etc...

Madrid, 19th March 1913

Instructions for your voyage [continuation in the same handwriting]

Please observe these instructions minutely so as not to meet with any mishap.

As soon as you receive this letter get ready to start.

From your town you will go to New York where you will take a steamer to France or to England, as you like and when reaching Europe your itinerary must be the following: Paris Yrun [?] (Spanish frontier) Valladolid, in which town I desire that you stop for carrying my daughter, and Madrid.

At Paris (Quai d'Orsay station) please take the Rapid train that leaves at 7 h. 40 pm obtaining your ticket directly to Valladolid being Valladolid in the route from Madrid.  I desire from you to stay at Valladolid in order to take my daughter from the Orphan's house, coming her with you [sic] to Madrid, because I desire that she may be present when doing the operations for giving her all instructions and recommendations before you.

For giving you facilities I will send the gaoler to Valladolid with a letter from mine [sic] containing instructions and he will go with you to the Orphans' house in order to carry out my daughter.

When leaving New York please cable to the gaoler whose address you will see hereunder, saying the line you take for coming and the name of the steamer in order that I amy calculate when you can arrive and thus the gaoler will know when he must demand the chief of the prison for a permission of 24 hours for having liberty when you may arrive, in order to go to Valladolid to await you and carry my daughter out.

Independently of said cablegram I beg you very particularly that as soon as you arrive Paris please send the gaoler a second telegram  saying if you take the Rapid train, in order that we may have certainty about your arrival to Valladolid.

I say you to take said train not only for being the most rapid and comfortable but also because doing so you can arrive Valladolid at 5 h. 30 pm. which is an hour very convenient for taking my daughter out of the Orphanage and going afterwards to Madrid in the same day.

When reaching Valladolid please lodge in Victoria Hotel to which end you will see at the railway station the omnibus and the interpreter of said Hotel. To this Hotel will go the gaoler to meet you giving you a letter from mine [sic] and resting entirely at your disposal. Thereafter you will come to Madrid with my dear daughter in order to do the operation.

I beg to recommend you again the utmost reserve in regard to this affair, as my trial drew a great deal of public attraction and the least word you might drop might prove compromising.  If anybody on your journey should ask you why you come to Spain tell them it is for family affairs.

Please remark the following important advise about the manner of bringing your money.

As our matter must be finished at once because as I have said you [sic] it is necessary at all to do the payment for leaving free the seizure the same day of your arrival, that is to say, the same day that gaoler will do the operation you know, it shall be the most convenient for you to bring all your money in U.S. banknotes and not in a check nor any other banking paper, because in Spain when cashing a foreign check or the like is required as a guarantee the signature of a local trading firm. Obviously that neither I in my actual situation nor the gaoler owing to the delicateness of the matter can procure you [sic] such a warranty signature and the best for avoiding all kind of troubles and losses of time will be to bring the amount in American Banknotes and in such a way you will not be troubled when cashing.

Notwithstanding, if for precaution should you prefer crossing the sea carrying with you your money in a check, you can do so bringing a check cashable at London or at Paris, but of course for the above reasons same must be cashed by you at London or at Paris before taking the train crossing to Spain.

American, English or French banknotes are immediately accepted and exchanged in Spain without any troubles at all.  Please bear in mind such an important advise [sic].

I beg you not to forget the sending of both telegrams, begging you also to follow carefully my instructions for avoiding losses of time, because all must be done here as I have explained you being the matter finished the same day of your arrival.

Awaiting anxiously the most [word illegible] your business,

I am, dear friend,

Your truly,

Solovieff

Address of the gaoler where you must send the two telegrams:

Canoles

Calle Almirante Quadruplicado tercero izquierda Madrid

Or course you must have understood how easy is the matter for you because the only necessary is to come and to pay the $2.000 departing immediately with my daughter to cash the check. Nothing more easy.

Please write the address very legibly for avoiding any mislead [sic].

See photo images of the original second letter: So we have five instances, with almost identical introductory articles and clippings but with different handwriting on all of them and with two different names for the sender. These letters range in dates from 1911 to 1914. They are sent to individuals from Maryland to Washington State, who apparently had nothing in common and apparently had no previous connections with Spain. We have no clues as to how the victims were chosen or how the senders got their addresses.

My best guess is that hundreds, if not thousands of these letters were sent to random recipients (like modern email spam), and that enough of these recipients took the bait and enriched the perpetrators to make this a very profitable venture -- one to be tried again and again and to be passed along from one schemer to another. Impediments to trans-Atlantic travel brought on by World War I may have brought it to an end. In any case, it is probable that the perpetrators were never caught.

If you too have such a letter or have any further information regarding this mystery, please let me know, and I'll update this article accordingly.

Richard Seltzer
seltzer@samizdat.com



New letter uncovered Sept. 20, 2002, in Bucksport, Maine

Having found this article on the Web, Pam Smith sent me photocopies of a similar letter and clipping in her possession.

This letter is from Madrid, and is signed Demidoff, instead of Solovieff, but much of the language is identical to that in the other letters. The envelope is addressed to C.L. Kilborn, Esq., lumber dealer, Maine (Bethel), and has a Spanish stamp. The postmark is unreadable.

Click here to see the image of the envelope.

Madrid the 7-1-1914

Dear Sir,

Although I know you only from good reference of your honesty my sad situation compels me to reaveal you an important affair in which you can prcocure a modest fortune saving at the same time that of my darling daughter.

Before being improsoned here, I was established as a Banker in Russia as you will see by the enclosed article about me of many English newspapers which have published my arrest in London.

I beseech you to help me to obtain a sum of 480.000 dollars I have in America and to come her to raise the seizure of my baggage paying to the Registrar of the Court the expenses of my trial and recover my portmanteau containing a secret  pocket where I have hidden the document indispensible to recover the siad sum.

As a reward I wil give up to you the third part viz: 160.000 dollars.

I cannot receive your answer in the prison but you must send a cablegramme to a person of my confidence who will deliver it to me.

Awaiting your cable to intrust you in all my secret. I am Sir

Yours truly

Demidoff

First of all, answer by cable not by letter, as follows:
Blas Latorre = Juanelo 3 segundo igquicerda = Madrid = All right = Kilborn

Click here to see an image of the original.

The accompanying clipping is the same as the others, except that the name Alexander Demidoff is substituted for Sergei Solovieff, with a few typographical differences (e.g., the typo of "an" for "and" in the first paragraph has been corrected and we see the spelling Petersbourg instead of Petersburg).

Arrest of a St. Petersburg Banker
Charged with Fraud in Russia
and Manslaughter in Sapn
Interview of the two Ambassadors

Some months ago, as our readers may remember, we refered in these columns to the great scandal caused, in St. Petersbourg, and in Russia generally, by a noted Banker who absconded leaving a deficit of over five millions of rubles.

The Russian Police sought for him for a long time in vain for it seems he had not left the least trace of his flight and the continued search over Europe and America proved unavailing.

Yesterday, however a Spanish Inspector accompanied by two officers from Scotland Yard and acting under instructions of the Spanish Ambassador, who had previously interviewed the Home Secretary, arrested him on his way from the Hotel where he was staying, to the Steamship office.  It seems that it was his evident intention to take passage for New York. From information received by the Ambassador, he had been in hiding in Spain, where he lived with a woman and with his daughter. A few days before arriving in London he had quarrelled [sic, as in other versions] with another Russian who was mortally wounded by a revolver shot during the scuffle and who only lived long enough to denounce his assailant.

In an interview with the Russian Ambassador, [comma not in other versions] it seems that the name he had been using in Spain and which he gave on being arrested was not his real one, Manasseina being simply an alibi, but after comparing the prisoner with photographs in his possession, the Russian Ambassador recognized him as Alexander Demidoff [new name] the criminal banker who eloped with 5 millions of rubles; he is a native of St. Petersburg, a widower 48 years old, with an only daughter that he left in Spain on escaping from that country.

On being arrested, two of Manasseina's or Alexander Demidoff [sic, the name is different, but the absence of the 's is the same] portmanteaus were seized but although strictly searched nothing but personal effects were found in them, in spite of which the Russian Ambassador declares that the prisoner ought to have several million rubles somewhere.

The Russian and Spanish Ambassadors conferred yesterday evening as to whether the prisoner should be conveyed to Spain or to Russia, and after an interview with the Home Secretary and in accordance with the extradition treaty of England, Russia, and Spain, it was agreed that the prisoner should be conveyed to Spain to stand his trial for manslaughter, and that only after his trial can the Russian Government ask Spain, through diplomatic channels, for his extradition.

Click here to see an image of the original

What do we learn from this new instance? First that the name Solovieff is not an essential element.  And that the person doing the sending may not have had complete addresses. For a prominent person in a small community, simply the person's name, business, and the name of the town would have sufficed.


Email correspondence with letter owners

from Lisa Weston, res0jvul@verizon.net, 3/10/2002

We were quite surprised to discover a letter very similar to the one you describe on your website, but sent to my Great Grandfather, William Kepple. We found the text of the letter on your website as we were trying to figure out what this intrigue was all about.

Did you know of any other copies of this letter?

--Lisa Weston

from Lee Scheingold, leescheingold@earthlink.net, 8/24/2001

Wow, where can I start?  I have just discovered your From Russia and Ethiopia to the Internet web page, through many hours of searching.  The reason I was looking?  I am a volunteer at a thrift store in Oregon (I actually live in Seattle), and recently a book came to the store, tucked into which was a yellowed newspaper article entitled "Arrest of a St. Petersburg Banker charged with Fraud in Russia".  the article stated that the banker, whose name was given as Alexander Sadrowsky, was using the alias Manasseina, and had been arrested in London under suspicion of murder in Spain.  I was doing some research to find out if the original letter and the article were worth anything.  I would be happy to send them to you if you give me your postal address.  Until I came across your web page (I started searching St. Petersburg banker rather than Sadrowsky), I had few leads as to this story.  Now I wonder about the incredible coincidence, for the wording of the letter, dated October 20, 1911, is EXACTLY the same, even to the "darling daughter" as your Solovieff.  By the way, I do read Russian, so had discovered in finding a website of Russian surnames that Sadrowsky appears to be an east Prussian surname rather than Russian.  AND I found a Maria Manasseina (1843-1903), who could have been his wife, since he says in his letter that he is a widower.  She herself was a renowned enough biochemist to have been recruited to a Viennese lab, and to have had a 1951 biography written about her in Russian.  But this Manasseina angle may all be a red herring.

Is this strange, or what?!  I have not read your web page thoroughly, but am writing to you to see about this incredible coincidence.  Makes the whole thing seem like a hoax to me.  repeated in 1911.  The amounts of money requested are exactly the same.

So let me know what you think!

Lee Scheingold

from Lee Scheingold 8/26/2001

Hi, Mr. Seltzer.  Thanks for yours.  Okay, I mailed you the xerox of the article and the letter from "Sadrowsky" on Saturday.  Please let me know if your article is identical except for the insertion of Sergei Solov'ev for Alexander Sadrowsky.  I am particularly curious about the "alibi" (alias) mentioned in my article, Mannaseina, and whether that was also there.  Don't
you think it's interesting that Maria Mannaseina was someone who was fairly well known (enough for a Soviet biography) and whose dates would have allowed her to father Sadrowsky's/Solov'ev's child?  Did you make attempts at the time to track down the London newspaper? It sounds as if you did. The newspaper article, if a fake, was quite well done.

Lee Scheingold

from Dianne, lfc26@epix.net, 6/4/2001

I found your e-mail and site by typing in the name Solovieff on a search engine. I too have in my possession a letter written by Serge Solovieff, saying the same things that your letter on the site said. It also has an article of publication from a newspaper. My letter is dated 13-12-13 and was written to my great -great grandfather John Thomas Burkins of Rising Sun, MD. He was a harness maker and an undertaker there, also a member of the Masons should that have anything to do with anything. It amazes me how this Solovieff may have acquired his address. There is no envelope with the letter. This piece of paper survived with only a few photos and cemetery deeds from a family that saved nothing, so it seems odd that this letter even exists except that my grandmother was so afraid to throw it away thinking maybe she needed it if anyone "came about it". It has been a curiosity to us but until now, with me looking on the internet for any possible info, no one has looked into it. My father said he never heard it discussed and too was most curious, as it was in his father's possession.

Knowing nothing else about it, I look forward to your communications, and will want to read your book.

Dianne

from Sherry Grabinsky, seawill@kendra.com, 9/30/1999

I am writing in regards to the letter from Serge Solovieff that you made reference to on your site...about 5 years ago I also came across this same letter in my Great Uncles personal effects.  It was tucked inside the back of an old University of Washington scrapbook. Just yesterday I rescued it from my" things I never find time to do pile" and thought about searching the internet for information. When I typed in Solovieff, much to my surprise, your site topped the list...Did you ever discover
anything more about this event? Do you think it was a hoax or possibly a College prank?

Did your papers also contain the second letter "With great pleasure I have received your cablegram...."?

Have others inquired about this letter? I would be very interested to know what info, if any, you have gathered.  It has been a great springboard for my son and myself to create scenarios, speculate outcomes and discuss just how to investigate this interesting subject. We are planning to present the letters to his middle school class. He has the great fortune of being
placed in an experimental program based on self motivation and challenged learning. I'm sure that the students will find these letters and their application to Language and Social Science very interesting.

Sincerely,
Sherry Grabinsky

P.S. Prior to writing the above I had only read the first initial essay regarding your  discovery of the letter and the direction the search led you.  Investigating again I realize that this is the very tip of a huge iceberg....

October 15, 1999 from Sherry Grabinsky

Posting the letter sounds great. I'm so new at this computer business, I wouldn't know where to begin..
I'm curious to see the response. I'm assuming that you will post your email address also?

Thanks for including me in this flypaper experiment and for taking the time to input the letter.

Here's a interesting little coincidence , my grandparents left Russia in 1912 for Canada, the family stories that we have of life after they left are tragic.  A cousin of mine from Russia came to visit about 9 years ago, although we spoke a different language, we became quite close he was able to convey to me just how lucky I was that my grandparents left.

This letter stirs up those feelings of gratitude and wonder about what life was like for my grandparents and the family they left behind. I've not communicated with Nicolai since..perhaps I should........

Oct. 19, 1999 from Sherry Grabinsky

I received your letter yesterday ....interesting that they appear to be written on the same paper...but with different handwriting and different dates... your letter also has the cablegram instruction with your families last name on it ?????? perhaps its an early 20th century version of a chain letter????? if there was only one letter then it would lead me to believe it was a hoax, but the detail in the second letter is so descriptive, coupled with the newspaper clippings it certainly appears to be a real event ???

Regarding the connection to my family...the letter came from a scrapbook of my husband's great uncle.. no affiliation with my family in Canada.. the only connection is the time period and the country ...(They were from a small village between the Caspian and Black Seas, quite a distance from St.Petersburg.)

A possible answer may be in the connection between the two uncles???you stated your uncle was not involved with a college... was he a writer?? involved in advertising?? any affiliation with the mortgage or banking business?  i guess the possibilities could be endless.... by the way thank you for the details regarding the name, Solovieff.

Oct. 20, 1999 from Richard Seltzer to Sherry Grabinsky

My great-uncle would have been in his twenties in 1914, probably living in Philadelphia and starting out as an architect. I don't believe that he ever went overseas. He might have been active locally in the Lutheran Church. But it's hard to imagine how anyone in Spain would have his address.

I'm still baffled. There doesn't seem to be any connection at all between the only two known
recipients of the letter.

From: Pam Smith, Lawley47@cs.com, September 13, 2002

Hello from Maine,

I am also the holder of such a letter that you call the Spanish Prisoner  scam.  Our letter was found in an old book barn in Maine.  The letter is  addressed to a Mr. Kilborn, Esq. Lumber dealer Bethel, Maine.  Mailed from Madrid Spain, dated 7/1/1911.  Our letter is signed Demidoff.  The article that was sent starts with Arrest of a St. Petersbourg Banker charged with
fraud in Russia and manslaugter in Spain.  They named the person as Alexander Demidoff.  I found your site by typing in Manasseina which was in the newspaper article sent to Mr. Kilborn.  I know nothing of Mr. Kilborn.  We collect old books and this was in one.

If you are still interested I will make a copy of letter, etc., and send
it to you.  Just let me know the address.

This has been very interesting.

Pam Smith, Maine


Example of Nigerian scam


The following email was received by me on March 12, 2002.

LAGOS NIGERIA.

ATTN:THE PRESIDENT/CEO.
 

BUSINESS PROPOSAL

Sir,
After due deliberation with my colleagues, I decided to forward to you
this proposal, we want a reliable and trustworthy person who could assist
us to transfer the sum of US$20M (Twenty Million United States Dollars)
only into his account.

This fund resulted from an over-invoiced bill from a contract awarded
by us under the budget, allocated to my ministry and the bill was approved
for payment by the concerned ministries, the contract has been executed,
Commissioned and the contractor been paid his actual cost for the contract.
We are now left with the balance of US$20M as the over-invoiced amount,
which we have deliberately over estimated for our own use. But under
our protocol division, civil servants are forbidden to operate, or own
a foreign account. This is why I contacted you for an assistance. We
have agreed that you will be entitled to 30% of the total sum, 60% for
us while 10% for any expenses incurred on both side while transacting
this business.

As you may rightly want to know I got your address from our Chambers
of Commerce and Industry here in Lagos. I am a top official with the
Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). We the officials involved
in this deal have put in many years of services to our ministries, we
have been exercising patience for this opportunity for so long and to
most of us, this is a life time opportunity we cannot afford to miss.
This transaction is very much free from all sorts of risks.
To enable us get this fund paid into your account, we have to present
an international business outfit and consequent upon your agreement, you
should send to us the followings below to enable us apply formally to
the various government agencies concerned for approvals:

1.your private Tel$Fax numbers.
2.your Bankers name $ address.
3.your Bank Tel$Fax numbers.
4.your Bank account Nos.
5.your Business name and address

You may be required to sign the fund release authority at the Central
Bank of Nigeria( C.B.N.) when all approvals are gotten or alternatively
you may also be required to proceed to any of the the C.B.N.offshore
payment centre in abroad. Thereafter, three officials
will come to your country for our share. All these will only take us
10 working days to get the fund transfered into your Bank account right
from the day we receive the above requirements.
When I received positive response from you I will give you other details.

NOTE: Your discussion regarding to this transaction should be limited,
because we are still in Government service.
Let honest and trust be our watch words throughout this transaction.
Your prompt reply will be highly appreciated.

Best regards.

Femi Felix.
You can as well email: chiengr@onebox.com

For more about the Nigerian scam see "Nigerian fraudsters - let the games begin" by Lester Haines
posted in The Register May 27, 2002 http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/28/25446.html


Reader Comments/Corrections

Date: Tue, 19 Mar 2002 12:04:00 -0800
From: Anton Sherwood <bronto@pobox.com>

> Likewise, the British often (always?) use "-our" as the ending of words that in American end "-or". e.g., "ambassador" is American, the English might use "ambassadour" instead.

That rule applies only to quality-nouns like color, flavor, candor etc -
not agent-nouns like ambassador, lessor, rotor.

On another hand, "quarrelled" may be British, and I might expect a
British paper to say "roubles".

Anton Sherwood, http://www.ogre.nu/

From: "Anton Sherwood" <bronto@pobox.com>
Date: Tuesday, March 19, 2002 4:15 PM

In the Seltzer/Kepple clipping, the subhead `CHARGED WITH FRAUD IN RUSSIA AND MANSLAUGHTER IN SPAIN' is in a typeface commonly used in Russia; I've seen such type in all sorts of English (and Esperanto) material from the USSR and nowhere else.  Contrast the `R's in that line with those elsewhere in the clippings.

(Just remembered where I last saw such type: on boxes of rifle ammo!)

The quotation marks throughout are French!

In context, `that centenary number of the <<Quarterly Review>>' suggests the centenary of the magazine, not that of Tennyson.  Unfortunately the QR apparently was also launched in 1808-9!

The handwriting of the Seltzer and Pfeifle letters looks mostly Anglo-American to me, rather than Continental; but I'm not familiar with Spanish (or Latin American) hands and have no idea what Roman script would have been taught in Russia at the time.

In the Kepple letter, the `a' is curious: I've never seen the like.

Anton Sherwood, http://www.ogre.nu/



Please visit our online store at http://store.yahoo.com/samizdat

To contact the author, send email to seltzer@samizdat.com
"From Russia and Ethiopia to the Internet" article about how the Solovieff mystery led me to discover Alexander Bulatovich and to write the novel The Name of Hero
Complete text of The Name of Hero, a novel
Sample chapters from The Name of Man (sequel to The Name of Hero)
Complete text of From Entotto to the River Baro (a book about Ethiopia by Alexander Bulatovich, translated from the Russian)
Complext text of With the Armies of Menelik II (a book about Ethiopia by Alexander Bulatovich, translated from the Russian)

Africa World Press/Red Sea Press recently published a print edition of this book which you can buy from Amazon.com:

Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes by Alexander Bulatovich, translated by Richard Seltzer. Unique and detailed first-hand account of Ethiopia in 1896-98 -- at the change of an era -- by a Russian officer with remarkable understanding for the many varied people who lived there and keen insight into their destiny.

The full text is also included in the CD book:

The Name of Hero by Richard Seltzer. an historical novel based on the life of Alexander Bulatovich, a Russian who was an explorer in Ethiopia, and a cavalry officer during Russia's conquest of Manchuria in 1900. Later, as a monk at Mount Athos, he led a group of "heretics" who challenged the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, asserting the divinity of the Name of God. Hard cover.
 

Everything But the Internet gathers the complete non-Internet works of Richard Seltzer on CD, in plain text, with software that lets you listen as well as read. It includes: The Name of Hero, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes, The Lizard of Oz, Without a Myth, Spit and Polish, Mercy, Rights Crossing, short stories, articles, book reviews, and poems.

Web Business Boot Camp: Hands-on Internet lessons for manager, entrepreneurs, and professionals by Richard Seltzer (Wiley, 2002). No-nonsense guide targets activities that anyone can perform to achieve online business success. Reviews.

Related materials
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