Count Victor Lustig may have been the most
successful con man of the XXth Century. From the Belle Epoque to the Great Depression,
through the Roaring Twenties and across two continents, this elegant swindler eluded the
grasp of the law while racking in hundreds of thousands of Dollars.
Newspapers described him as ‘a story book character’. Federal Agents said of him that
he was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s
dream” Today we remember him as Victor Lustig, the
man who sold the Eiffel Tower A Bohemian Rhapsody
Count Victor Lustig was born on the 4th of January 1890, into an aristocratic Austro-Hungarian
family. His birth place was the town of Hostinné, back then part of the Province of Bohemia,
modern day Czech Republic. Or at least, that’s one of the stories he
told. Victor Lustig was born on the 4th of January
1890, the son of Ludwig, the middle-class burgomaster (or mayor) of Hostinné.
Or maybe not. The man who would be later known as Count
Victor Lustig was born Robert V. Miller in Hostinné, in a family he described as the
“poorest peasant people”, and was raised in a house made from stone, little more than
a cave. Or was he?
The man who would be known as Victor Lustig, Robert Miller and more than 40 other aliases
was born sometime in 1890, somewhere near the border between Bohemia and Poland, from
two parents, whom we can safely guess were a lady and a guy. Any more detail than that,
I would not bet my hard-earned money on it, provided YouTube actually allows me to make
some[TA2] . Relying on any of these stories would imply trusting the word of he who would
grow up to become the King of Swindlers, the Arch Duke of Grifters, the CEO of Confidence
Tricks, Inc. On one detail we can all agree on: he was
a Bohemian, in both meanings of this word. He definitely came from the land of Bohemia
and he led a lifestyle that could be described as ‘Bohemian’, at least according to my
handy Oxford English Dictionary: “A socially unconventional person, especially
one who is involved in the arts” And what was the capital of the Bohemian Lifestyle,
or la vie bohemienne, if not Paris at the height of the Belle Epoque? And that’s exactly
where we are going to pick up again the story of our protagonist, whom I am going to call
‘Victor’ from now on. Very little is known of Victor’s childhood
and early teens. But we know with a certain degree of confidence that he lived in Paris
around 1908 and 1909. He may have lived there to attend University, which backs the version
that he came from a middle-class background. But apparently he spent little time studying,
being more suited to a life of gambling, womanising and generally having great fun. Not everybody
agreed with his idea of fun, especially when it involved sleeping with somebody else’s
girlfriend. When Victor was 19 he was scarred on his left cheek by the jealous lover of
his fille, a scar that would remain visible for the rest of his life.
Victor’s bohemian lifestyle left other durable marks on him, albeit more metaphorical. During
his formative years Victor became proficient in several languages, including English, French
and Italian. More importantly he started perfecting his
money-making skills – on the wrong side of the law, of course. Starting at entry level
as a pick-pocket, Victor soon graduated to burglar and then branched out to street hustling
and finally earned a Masters in scamming and confidence tricks. Especially card tricks:
according to a true crime magazine of his time, by his late teens
“Lustig could make a deck of cards do everything but talk.”
Across the Pond After clearing the pockets of many a Parisian,
Victor moved to a new level of conmanship: being a conman aboard cruise ships. Between
1909 and the outbreak of WWI Victor travelled back and forth across the Atlantic, from France
to New York and back, picking his marks (in other words: his victims) among the nouveaux
riches travelling in 1st Class. It was in this period that he created his
most famous persona, the Count Victor Lustig, a nobleman from the fallen kingdom of Bohemia.
He acquired a set of well-tailored clothes and affected his mannerisms to appear wealthy,
aristocratic – but never boastful, nor arrogant – and most of all: worth of confidence.
Despite being in his early twenties he managed to convince his marks that he was a Broadway
producer, in search of investors to put on a new dazzling musical show.
This evolution into a smoother style of swindling did not happen by magic. Victor needed a master
and he found one during one of these Atlantic trips: Nicky Arnstein, an American professional
gambler and con artist, famous for being the husband of actress Fanny Brice. Nicky and
Fanny are now remembered as the main characters of the films “Funny Girl” and “Funny
Lady” with Barbra Streisand. Lustig would acknowledge Arnstein as the one
who taught him the true art of the con, the one who raised him from the status of promising
rookie to Smooth Scam-master General. Arnstein’s teachings would influence the ‘10 Golden
Rules of the Con’ which Victor formalised later in his life. Curious about these ‘Golden
Rules’? I will give you two for the moment: 1. Be a patient listener. It is this, not
fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups. 2. Never look bored.
In this spirit, I will ask you to continue to listen patiently and try not to look too
bored. Let’s continue with Lustig’s life for the moment …
Adventures in America When World War I broke out Transatlantic travel
for the rich became less frequent and more dangerous. In a way the U-Boots were responsible
for the next stage in Lustig’s career: the con artist settled in the US, mainly Kansas
City. As ever, the details of his life in this period
are sketchy and unreliable, but we know of some juicy bits. During and immediately after
the War, Victor partnered with a sidekick known as “Dapper” Dan Collins, whom the
New York Times described as “a former circus lion tamer and death-defying
bicycle rider”. We love him already! Smooth Victor and Dapper
Dan’s main scam was called the “Rumanian money box.”
This was an ordinary box, fashioned to look like a complicated machine, with rollers and
dials. If you put a banknote inside it, say a 100 Dollar bill, and then inserted some
chemicals, the machine would take 6 hours to print an identical copy of your money – so
realistic that no bank teller could identify it as counterfeit. After 12 hours of recovery
time, the Rumanian box was ready to print another bill.
The trick behind it was elaborate but brilliant: Step one: collect a handful of 100 Dollar
bills from your bank, ensuring their serial numbers are all sequential
Step two: alter the banknotes so that they all have the same serial number
Number three: keep one note for demonstration purposes and then stuff the other notes into
the machine Then, find your marks and get them interested
in the machine Now, demonstrate how the Rumanian box works.
Spend the six of hours of waiting time with your marks, while you dine, wine and charm
them Step six: open the box and – voila! There
are two banknotes now! How cool is that, your money has doubled.
Next step: to further convince the marks, take them to a bank and deposit the freshly
printed bill. Watch them gasp and amaze when the bank teller fails to realise it’s fake
money! Gran Finale: sell the Rumanian box to your
mark for anything up to 10,000 Dollars. It will repay for itself after all!
While the marks waited for the 12 hours for the machine to ‘rest’ before they used
it again, Lustig and Collins would skip town, ready to trick somebody else. The genius idea
for the operation was that nobody would report to scam, as it would amount to a confession
of counterfeiting. A similar scam, in the sense that it exploited
the victim’s dishonest leanings, took place in Montreal in the early 1920s. Here Victor
gained the trust of a wealthy banker named Linus Merton: he first had his wallet stolen,
and then returned it intact. He then lured him into a gambling scheme: Victor said that
his cousin Emil – perhaps Dapper Dan – was able to delay by one minute the telegraph
wires relaying the results of horse races. This vital minute would allow Victor and Merton
to always place winning bets. Lustig convinced the banker to place a bet for a whopping 30,000
Dollars. No surprise there, when the Lustig cousins disappeared from Canada. Again, they
left behind a victim too ashamed, and too guilty of bet-fixing, to go to the police.
The next big job took place in 1922, in Missouri. Under the name of Robert Duval,
[Editing suggestion: show a photo of actor Robert Duval on screen, with the caption ‘Not,
not him, just a coincidence’] he offered to the American Savings Bank 32,000
Dollars in World War I war bonds, the famous Liberty bonds, in exchange for 10,000 in cash
and some farmland. At the moment of closing the deal, he switched the envelope containing
the bonds with an empty one. With a simple sleight of hand trick, he walked out with
the bonds, the farm AND the cash. American Savings hired some private detectives
who succeeded in tracking Lustig in Kansas City. Victor could rely on his ultimate weapon:
smooth talk. He convinced the detectives that if the bank pressed charges and the story
went public, then clients would lose confidence in them. That would spell ruin for American
Savings. So, not only did he convince the bank to drop
all the charges – they even paid him an extra $1000 to buy his silence!
The Eiffel Job The run-in with the private detectives was
not the only time that Victor Lustig had risked ending behind bars. In fact, he had been arrested
around 40 times, but every time he managed to talk or bribe himself out of those sticky
situations. In extreme cases, he simply had his wife bail him out, for him to disappear
again. Victor’s wife was called Roberta Noret,
a pretty, young, red-head Kansan whom he had married on the 3rd of November 1919. But more
on Victor’s private life later – for now, let’s stick to talking shop.
In May 1925 Victor and Dapper Dan moved to Paris, possibly to escape increased attention
from American law enforcement. In the Paris capital they read an article about the status
of disrepair of the Eiffel tower and how maintenance expenses would be too costly for local government.
That sparked the idea for Victor’s craziest scam: he would sell the Eiffel Tower.
The idea actually was not that crazy. The Tower had been erected in 1889 as a temporary
structure, to be taken down no later than 1909, and yet it was still standing. It was
effectively expensive to maintain, and the public opinion was split about it, many considering
it an eye sore. So how about the French Government decided
to sell it as scrap metal? Lustig carefully prepared his con. He first
forged a set of stationery for the Ministry in charge of posts and telegraph.
This was realistic, as the Tower was used as a giant post to transmit radio signals.
He then used the letter head to summon the five largest scrap metal dealers in Paris.
They were invited to a secret meeting at the exclusive Hôtel de Crillon, in Place de la
Concorde. Here was the deal: the French Government was
considering tearing down the Eiffel Tower and sell its pieces as scrap metal. Lustig
insisted that the five dealers kept quiet about it, as the Government did not want the
deal to leak to the press. At the meeting, Victor identified the fish he was going to
catch: the conveniently named André Poisson. His business was relatively small compared
to the others’ and because of that was low in self-esteem.
Lustig arranged a separate meeting with Poisson, and expressing sympathy for his budding business,
offered the deal to him … in exchange for a sizeable kickback. And it was thus that
Count Victor Lustig, not only sold the Eiffel Tower as a heap of scrap metal, but he also
pocketed a nice bribe on the side. The following day Victor and Dan left France
for Vienna and waited patiently for the storm to calm down. To their surprise, though, the
French newspapers did not report the scam. Lustig correctly assumed that Poisson had
been too embarrassed to press charges. It was too good to be true. What did he do
next? Well, he returned to Paris and attempted the exact same scam a second time – with
different metal dealers of course. But this second time around one of the dealers
was immediately suspicious and reported this self-described Ministry official to the police.
Victor was quick to flee: using one of his many aliases and forged passports he embarked
again and returned to America. Back to the USA
Upon returning to the US, Lustig set to work again. He clearly got a kick out of performing
his confidence tricks, but he also needed to fund a very expensive lifestyle. He and
his wife Roberta had had a daughter, Bettie Jean and their living arrangements were very
costly. Roberta and Bettie Jean moved constantly from town to town, living in hotels. This
was Lustig’s idea to keep them ‘secret’ and avoid that they could be traced back to
him to prevent capture. To make up for this unconventional lifestyle
Victor lavished them with gifts. When the girl reached school age, he signed her up
in an expensive Catholic boarding school in Pittsburgh, run by an order of nuns. Because,
you know, you have to give your children a moral example (!).
On top of this, Lustig had to look after his second unofficial wife, or rather long-term
mistress: Billie Mae Scheible, a notorious brothel madame.
The long-suffering Roberta was patient enough to put up with being basically just a courier
for bail money, but she could not tolerate his husband’s affair with Billie Mae, nor
the additional philandering on the side. So, she divorced him.
They had a heart-warming reunion in which Roberta literally tried to kill him, by running
him over with her car. But he was quick on the dodge … and apparently that was enough
for them to reconcile. Victor and Roberta remarried – because Lustig had to do everything
twice, it seems. And divorced again, after Roberta found out that Victor was lodging
Billie Mae in the same hotel as hers! Oh, the cheek! The scarred left cheek![TA3]
While Lustig was not working his charms with the ladies, he was always looking for new
tricks. He probably thought that scamming schmucks
was too easy. So he set on scamming Chicago’s most dangerous resident: Al Capone[TA4] . The
plan was basic: Lustig convinced Capone to loan him 50,000 Dollars to buy some stock
that would guarantee a sure profit. He then deposited the cash in a bank … and just
waited. After some weeks Victor returned to Capone and told him that the stocks had crashed
and the money … it was gone. But, to apologise he would return the 50 grand to the gangster,
from his own pocket. Capone did not realise that Lustig was simply
returning him his own money! And to reward his honesty, he gave him 5,000 Dollars.
The Secret Service is on the Case Victor’s next money-making scheme was literally
about making money. In the early 1930s, at the height of the Great
Depression, Victor got into counterfeiting with two new accomplices, a chemist named
Tom Shaw and an engraver, William Watts. They were so successful that they managed
to produce and circulate over one million Dollars’ worth of fake money. The Treasury
was so concerned that there was a genuine worry this would imbalance the US economy.
This was one step too far, and it raised the attention of the Secret Service, one agent
in particular: Italo-American Peter Rubano. [Roo-bah-know]
Which is ironic, because ‘Rubano’ means ‘They steal’ in Italian.
For our friends who are not familiar with US law enforcement let me clarify one thing.
Today the Secret Service is associated with personal protection of the President and other
high-ranking offices. Its original task however was – and still is – to track down and arrest
counterfeiters. It was only after President McKinley’s assassination that the Secret
Service was assigned to protect the President, because at the time they were the only agency
with a Federal jurisdiction.[TA5] Fun fact: do you know how Secret Service personnel
introduce themselves? “Hello, I am a Secret Agent[TA6] ” – which kind of defeats the
purpose … “Hello I am Secret Agent Rubano, nice to
meet you!” “My pleasure, I am Undercover Federal Agent
Johnny Utah, how do you do?” “I don’t believe we have met, my name
is Blofeld. I am the secretive leader of a shadowy criminal network. Oh, and of the Parent-Teachers
association, too, of course!” [Subtitle on screen: OK that’s enough, can
we get on with Lustig please?] [TA7] Secret Agent Rubano was able to trace back
the counterfeit money to a conman with a number of aliases who had been selling some mysterious
money-making boxes … This had happened when Lustig had sold a Rumanian box to a Texan
sheriff. When the lawman had confronted him about the hoax, Victor had appeased him with
a bribe in fake cash. Rubano and the Secret Service established
a connection between the counterfeiters and the money box man, but they could not pin
down Lustig. By now, he had taken to traveling with a trunk full of disguises, including
rabbi, priest and bellhop. Finally, in May 1935, Rubano received an anonymous
tip off from a jealous mistress of Lustig’s. Maybe Billie Mae, maybe one of his many other
girlfriends. The Agents converged onto a hotel in New York.
Count Victor Robert Lustig Miller was handcuffed just outside the hotel. The Secret Agents
found a key in his pocket, which turned out to be for a locker in the Times Square subway
station. Inside, they found a stash of plates and chemicals used by his gang to print money.
An admirative agent told Victor that he must be the smoothest conman in the world. Victor
shook his head. “I wouldn’t say that. After all, you have
conned me”. Final Curtain
Lustig was put behind bars in the Federal House of Detention in New York, awaiting trial.
But he had another trick up his sleeve. He soon realised that nobody was keeping count
of the bedsheets distributed to inmates. So, little by little, he stashed enough bedsheets
to fashion a rope. On the 1st of September 1935, he cut through
the wires in the washroom window and swung to safety like a Bohemian Tarzan. To distract
onlookers, he just pulled a rag from his pocket and pretended to clean the Federal House’s
windows. Then, with a final jump, he landed on the pavement, bowed to his audience of
passers-by and disappeared into the night. Lustig did not evade the chasers for long,
though. He hid for a period in his daughter’s boarding school in Pittsburgh, until on the
28th of September FBI agent G. K. Firestone and Secret Service agent Fred Gruber spotted
him ducking in a car driven by a chauffeur. The two ‘feds’ leapt into their car and
gave chase. The engines roared, neck-and-neck for nine
blocks. The agents yelled to the runaways to stop, but Lustig’s driver would keep
on accelerating. The agents had no choice: they jerked the steering wheel sideways and
rammed their car into Victor’s. The cars crashed to a halt. The agents pulled out their
guns and we like to think that they yelled “Stick ‘em up, Lustig!”. What we do
know is that Victor, smooth as silk and cool as a cucumber told his captors:
“Well, boys, here I am.” In November of 1935 Victor Lustig was tried
and sentenced to spend 20 years in prison. Not just any prison, Alcatraz prison. For
the following years, the man of many aliases was simply known as “Convict nr 300”.
Amongst other celebrities who shared the Alcatraz facilities with him, there was none other
than his former mark, Al Capone, by now a syphilitic shadow of his former self.
After many years on the prison known as “The Rock”, also Victor’s health declined.
By the 7th of December 1946 he had filed 1,192 medical requests, most of which were ignored,
as the wardens thought they were part of another escape plan. Eventually Lustig was transferred
to a secure hospital in Missouri, where doctors realized too late that he was not faking.
There, in a town called Springfield, the Conman Known as Count Victor Lustig died of pneumonia
on the 11th of March 1947. His death certificate stated as occupation:
“Apprentice salesman”. Many years later, in March of 2015, Czech
historian Tomáš Anděl, from Lustig’s home town of Hostinné, set out to search
for records and evidence to clarify the mystery of Victor’s identity. Andel browsed through
historical documents, electoral rolls and even school registers. Eventually he had to
admit defeat. There wasn’t, there isn’t any evidence that Lustig was ever born.
10 steps to becoming a Lustig He may have not left us with a clear answer
on his identity, but Victor Lustig did leave us with a clear set of rules on how to pull
the perfect con. And here they are 1. Be a patient listener: it is this, not
fast talking, that gets a con man his coups 2. Never look bored.
3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong
interest. 6. Never discuss illness, unless some special
concern is shown. 7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances:
they’ll tell you all, eventually. 8. Never boast. Just let your importance be
quietly obvious. 9. Never be untidy.
10. Never get drunk. We at Biographics do not endorse using this
advice to swindle, scam or bamboozle your fellow human beings … however we must admit
that this is pretty good advice when it comes to engaging with someone and to creating a
meaningful connection. After all, these rules could apply to a successful first date – maybe
except for nr 5 – or to a job interview. And maybe that’s the key to Victor Lustig’s
illegal but incredible successes. Not the elaborate Rumanian boxes, not the sleight
of hand, and not even the counterfeiting skills. But simply his ability to connect with others,
charm them and making them feel important – before robbing them blind.
Conclusion Thank you for staying until the end, as it
is my habit I will ask you to like, share and subscribe. And if you have a minute why
not leave us a comment. Should we give Victor Lustig a movie? And who would you cast in
the lead role? That’s all from me, as usual – thank you for watching.