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A tale of the Bohemian Oat Swindle

By Henry Timman • Jul 19, 2019 at 12:00 PM

A few years after the American Civil War, a scam was devised in the eastern United States and it eventually spread westward, looking for new victims.

This scam was known as the Bohemian Oat Swindle. Here’s how it worked: an agent would show up in a community and convince a farmer to buy 10 bushels of Bohemian Oat seed (or sometimes Redline Wheat seed) for $10 per bushel. Then next year the agent would return and pay the farmer $10 per bushel for the Bohemian Oats he raised … minus a 25 percent fee to the agent.

When the agent would return the next year, he’d buy the oat crop all right and the lucky farmer’s neighbors would show up to buy some seed from the agent to plant that year and receive a big payment next year. At that time, oats generally sold for 20 or 30 cents per bushel. The agent was more than happy to sell the oats he’d bought and soon disposed of the oats on hand. What happened next year when the latest oats were harvested? Nothing. The agent was nowhere to be seen and was not heard from again.

This scam started in Pennsylvania or New York and soon spread across Ohio and at least as far west as Missouri and perhaps even farther west. Some Michigan farmers were especially hard hit in this swindle and pursued the matter in court. By 1900 the swindle had died and the swindlers moved off to new schemes.

Here in northern Ohio, there were a number of these oat swindles in the area of Sulphur Springs, southwest of New Washington in Crawford County. Early on, the farmers did receive their pay for the oats raised, but it was like a pyramid scheme that constantly needed new buyers, and when the supply of new buyers ran out, the scheme did too.

Late in 1885, a suit was brought in Erie County by a Castalia farmer against an oats agent. Just a few months later, Bohemian Oats were reported to be selling for only $1 per bushel in Henry County. This was the beginning of the end in that area. Another court case was filed as late as 1890 in Erie County, but I could not find the eventual settlement of it.

An Erie County person prominent in the Bohemian Oat Swindle was a man from Florence Township named Medad Buckley. After the swindle matters had died down, he married a wealthy widow near Tiffin, who was ‘thirty-some’ years his senior. She no doubt was attractive in that she was worth about $100,000 from her former husband. Buckley got control of as much of her money and property as he could, but his plot was soon discovered and Mrs. B. sued for divorce and recovery of her assets.

The divorce was successful, for we find Medad marrying once again in 1892. He died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901, survived by his fourth wife. Burial took place in the Baptist Cemetery at Berlin Heights beside his first wife — Julia Elson, a Berlin Heights girl who passed away in 1877.

Thus closed one of the chapters of the Bohemian Oat Swindle.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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