Don’t Fall for the ‘Bohemian Oats’ Swindle

March 11, 2011 by  
Filed under Columnists

“Say there, brother, don’t mean to interrupt your threshing. Got a minute? Nice to lean on this fence for a minute after going around the township all day.

“Now, sir, what would you say if I told you that these here seeds in this little vial could get you ten dollars a bushel? I know. Sounds ridiculous. Twenty, thirty cents a bushel for oats is the norm around here. But this here seed is that new strain of oats—maybe you’ve heard of them–Bohemian Oats.

“Now, I ain’t about to sell you no junk. These oats are serious business. Lotta farmers got rich on these. Take a look at these testimonials. Here, take a look at this contract. Got your official notarized gold seal right there. You can see for yourself what it says. I do hereby agree to purchase, next fall, the crop of Bohemian Oats you raise, and pay ten dollars a bushel, minus a 25 per cent service charge. Yes sir, we’re talking ten good American dollars. What do you say? From the looks of your fine farm here, I’m sure you have an extra acre or two to try it. You can’t lose—anything you grow I’ll buy for ten bucks a bushel. OK, sign right here.”

In the 1870s and 1880s, numerous Michigan farmers fell for the Bohemian Oat swindle. Silver-tongued salesmen singled out the area’s leading farmers and approached them to extol the merits of the miraculous oat.

The swindle was elaborate, stretching over two years. After securing a signature on a contract, the salesman gave the farmer a supply of Bohemian oat seeds to plant.

The following fall, the salesman came back to buy, as promised, the farmer’s crop of Bohemian oats at the fabulous price of ten dollars a bushel—minus the salesman’s cut.

Except that by this time, the farmer’s neighbors, perhaps less successful and eyeing the money, clamored to buy the crop as seed for their own lucrative crop of Bohemian oats.

The salesman agreed. A flurry of fancy contracts, signatures, and the entire crop was sold, doled out in small portions to the farmer’s neighbors, who anticipated huge profits when the salesman came back next fall.

The salesman thanked the new farmer-investors, pocketed his bankroll, and hightailed it to the nearest depot, to hop on the next train.

He never came back the following fall.

One of the many Bohemian Oat companies was incorporated in 1884 and headquartered in Ypsilanti. At least, it claimed it was based here. It never had a brick and mortar office downtown. Nor did it advertise in local papers. In fact it appeared to be a rather vaporous concern until its president was arraigned on charges of fraud, as documented in the December 15, 1887 Pinckney Dispatch.

“The first conviction in Michigan of a Bohemian oats agent, for obtaining a signature to a promissory note, under false pretences, occurred in the circuit court, for Genesee county . . .” said the paper. “The case was that of the people vs. Alfred W. Hamner, representing the Bohemian oats and cereal company of Ypsilanti. The complaining witness was Abram Tittsworth, a well-known and well-to-do farmer of Atlas township. The case occupied two days in trial and excited widespread interest . . .”

This Ypsilanti company did not limit itself to fleecing Michigan farmers, but ventured far afield, as far as New York State. “A curious case of speculation has been brought to light here by the arrival in the city of W. H. Clark, a wealthy farmer of Groveland, Mich,” reported the December 1, 1886 edition of The American Florist, reprinting a Rochester, New York newspaper article. “Clark, it appears, was induced to enter with others into a large grain speculation two years ago, buying a large quantity of oats of an agent of a concern calling itself the Bohemian Oat and Cereal company, located at Ypsilanti. The agent sold the grain to Clark for $10 per bushel, and gave him a bond that the company would this year sell for him double the quantity he purchased at the same price per bushel. About a month ago the agent appeared and sold the double quantity to other farmers. The company cleared 33 and 1/3 per cent, profit in cash, and Clark was given notes which he has found to be nearly worthless. Clark pursued the officers of the company to this city, and intends bringing the matter into the criminal court. The same scheme has been worked extensively in western New York, and interesting developments are expected. The company cleared over $100,000 by its scheme in Michigan.”

“The farmer is induced to buy ten bushels of the oats for one hundred dollars, by the hope of selling twenty bushels for two hundred dollars,” reported the March, 1886 issue of the American Agriculturalist magazine, “and he thinks that this is guaranteed to him by a ‘bond,’ given him by the seller. This ‘Bond,” in spite of its abundance of green and red inks, its very broad seal (intended to look like gold, but is only Dutch metal), and the bold signature of a secretary, this ‘bond,’ so-called, has no more binding effect than a mere memorandum.”

Coverage of the Bohemian Oat swindle began surfacing in numerous other agricultural journals in the late 1880s, with exhortations to area farmers to eschew the golden promise of the miraculous oat and its accompanying fancy contracts and gilded promises.

Bohemian Oats even surfaced in Michigan Supreme Court proceedings in 1890. The complicated case centered on the issue of fraud surrounding the issue of notes, the then-equivalent of checks. Boiled down into a nutshell for the sake of sparing the kind reader the dizzying particulars, the whole Bohemian Oats scheme failed the smell test, and the lucrative scam died away.

By the turn of the century, the Bohemian Oats scam was extinct. Plenty a smooth-talking sharper had made his pile and disappeared, and plenty a greedy farmer had fallen for the swindle. But what was true in the 1880s is no less true today—there’s no free lunch. Reader, if some honey-tongued salesman leans over your fence and promises you an exorbitant return with a miracle seed, and flaunts some fancy-looking contracts with gleaming golden seals, you’d be best off sending that con man down the road on his merry way.

Don’t fall for those old Bohemian Oats.

Comments

2 Comments on "Don’t Fall for the ‘Bohemian Oats’ Swindle"

  1. greg schmid on Mon, 28th Mar 2011 1:19 pm 

    I love this article. I have studied this obscure subject, and other 19th century american swindles. I was overjoyed that anyone else in the world had ever even heard of this, let alone thought to write about it.

    The Mich Supreme Court case the author was referring to was from Davis v Seeley 71 Mich 213, where Justice Thomas M. Cooley (yes, the law school is named after him), stated as follows:

    “The law takes note of the ignorant, the credulous, and the unwary, and will make their ignorance and want of cunning their innocence, and protect them. Do do otherwise would put a premium on villainy, if such villainy but reach its end by an appeal to the hope of gain, which animates ius all, so plausibly and cunningly worded as to make the worse appear the better to one not skilled in the ways of the world.”

    That is a great quote, but good cases make bad law. This was the dawn of the consumerism revolution.

    Thanks for the great article.
    Further reading on this topic is fascinating. All by Earl Hayter

    The troubled farmer, 1850-1900: Rural adjustment to industrialism by Earl W Hayter (Paperback – 1973)
    Currently unavailable

    2.
    The patent system and agrarian discontent: 1875-1888 by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1947)
    Currently unavailable

    3.
    Livestock-fencing conflicts in rural America by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1963)
    Currently unavailable

    4.
    Seed humbuggery among the western farmers, 1850-1888 by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1949)
    Currently unavailable

    5.
    The fencing of western railways by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1945)
    Currently unavailable

    6.
    The western farmers and the drivewell patent controversy by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1942)
    Currently unavailable

    7.
    [Research studies in Western American frontier and agricultural history (1800-1900)] by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1932)
    Currently unavailable

    8.
    Sources of early Illinois culture by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1936)
    Currently unavailable

    9.
    Barbed wire fencing – a prairie invention: Its rise and influence in the western states by Earl W Hayter (Unknown Binding – 1939)
    Currently unavailable

  2. Naked and susceptible to smut — but not new - FarmIQ on Wed, 26th Oct 2011 8:37 am 

    […] Bohemian oats scandal is an absolutely beautiful con, beautifully explained by Laura Bien at Ypsinews.com. It could never happen […]

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