Historians claim that hanging on a wall of Victor Lustig’s Alcatraz cell was a postcard of the Eiffel Tower. Scribbled atop the iconic scene were the words “vendue pour 100 000 francs“. Lustig, a lifelong criminal who by age 20 had honed his charlatanry to P.T. Barnumesque acuity, was sentenced to 15 years in the notorious penitentiary. Charged with the distribution of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit dollars, the aristocratic swindler stood out among the prison’s many thugs. Were it not for the protection of fellow inmate Al Capone, Lustig might have quickly fallen prey to an onslaught of hostilities. Surprisingly, Capone too was one of Lustig’s many dupes.
Lustig’s coup de maître, however, had nothing to do with counterfeiting or scamming mobsters. Ten years previously, while posing as an official of the French government, the talented con man managed to sell the Eiffel Tower to an unwitting scrap metal merchant.
The Making of a Swindler
It’s hard to pinpoint Victor Lustig’s precise origins. Over the course of his life, Lustig employed more than 40 aliases and invented numerous backstories, ranging from parents who were the poorest of peasants to a resplendent upbringing as the oldest son of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats. The best guess, however, places his birth on January 4, 1890, in what was then known as Bohemia—now part of the Czech Republic. Born to a bourgeois family, Lustig was a talented and polite student who eventually became fluent in 6 languages. But around the age of 16, his life took a turn toward the shady and disreputable. Not yet an adult, Lustig became a devotee of horse betting, poker, fist fights, pocket-picking, and assorted seedy schemes that landed him briefly behind bars for various minor offenses.
In 1909, Lustig moved to Paris, purportedly to further augment his education. But apparently, the thrill of the swindle was far more appealing. Instead of immersing himself in academic studies, Lustig devoted himself to a self-constructed apprenticeship in gambling, pimping, card tricks, and various hustles. Now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, he began frequenting the chic smoking and gaming rooms of luxury paquebots crossing the Atlantic between New York and Normandy.
Impressed with Lustig’s new title, cultivated demeanor, and lavish outlays of cash, the upper-crust passengers on board—industrial magnates, movie stars, members of the nouveau riche—quickly fell prey to his numerous ploys that suctioned bills from their wallets. However, the outbreak of World War I and the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania by German U-boats put an end to Lustig’s illicit transatlantic trade and he decided to settle on the American side of the pond. There, he continued to expand his underworld connections while refining his talents for selecting and defrauding the ideal pigeon.
One of Lustig’s favorite scams began by gaining entry to a high-society club where he could select a wealthy victim. After ingratiating himself and feeling certain of his mark’s confidence, Lustig would invite the man to enjoy a drink in his hotel suite. There he would unveil one of the secrets behind his own immense fortune, a boîte roumaine. Lustig explained that the simple wooden box was supplied with special chemicals that allowed it to duplicate paper currency.
With his patsy’s curiosity piqued, Lustig would insert a 100-dollar bill into the machine and offer to entertain him for the next 6 hours, while the chemicals went to work. This, claimed Lustig, was the time needed to reproduce a perfect copy. After 6 hours had passed, the Austrian count would turn a knob and two identical bills would exit from slits on one end of the box. Lustig would encourage his mark to take the duplicate bill to a bank and have them verify that it was not counterfeit. The verification process was always successful because the duplicate was also a legitimate 100-dollar bill with only one small modification. The last digit of its serial number had been altered to match its sequential companion.
During those 6 hours, I imagine that Lustig must have talked exuberantly about the amazing science harnessed within the box and the boon it had brought to his already sizeable fortune. Yet, it’s surprising that such a simple trick could work. The hoax would conclude with Lustig accepting $10,000 to give up the box. The new owner would only realize after 18 hours had passed—the box needed to rest for 12 hours between each use—that he’d been suckered. That gave Lustig plenty of time to fly the coop.
The beauty of the scam, however, lay in the fact that Lustig’s victims never reported the crime. Doing so would admit to investing in counterfeiting. Even if their involvement didn’t land them behind bars, since they had never reproduced fraudulent bills, it would have caused irreparable harm to their reputations. Lustig employed this principle—embroiling a dupe in a crooked undertaking such that he’d be forced to hold his tongue even after realizing he’d been hoodwinked—in many of his swindles. In some cases, when confronted by his victim, Lustig would boldly extort an extra payment to keep quiet.
Les Années Folles
The French refer to the 1920s as les années folles. It was a festive period in Parisian history. World War I was over and people felt sure that mankind had finally realized the folly of warfare. Young people wanted to celebrate and forget the horrors of the past. Jazz clubs opened across Paris. Automobiles flooded the streets. Electric appliances liberated women who now donned knee-length dresses and joined in the revelry. Artists from around the world flocked to the brasseries of Montparnasse, the cafés of Boulevard Saint-Germain, and the nightclubs of Montmartre.
While Parisian merriment was mounting to a fevered pitch, Lustig was filling his pockets with cash but simultaneously making plenty of enemies across North America. So, in 1925 he headed back to Paris where francs were flying like the rays of a disco ball. Accompanied by fellow shyster, Dapper Dan Collins who allegedly spoke French well, Lustig soon ran through most of his money. He needed a new scheme, one with the potential to yield a small fortune.
While sitting in a café one afternoon, Lustig noticed a newspaper article decrying the deteriorating condition of the Eiffel Tower. The famous monument, constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair, was initially permitted to occupy the Champ de Mars for 20 years, after which time it would be dismantled. Now nearing its 40th birthday, the tower was in need of significant repairs and critics grumbled that the cost of restoration would entail a frivolous use of municipal funds.
The fiscal conundrum re-ignited Lustig’s genius for manipulation. If he could pass as a high official in the ministère des Postes et des Télégraphes, he wagered, he might be able to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap to the highest bidder.
Nerves of Steel
Energized by his audacious plan, Lustig contacted a counterfeiter to reproduce stationery mimicking the letterhead of a French governmental secretary as well as other official documents and pieces of identification. Posing as a sous-secrétaire d’état with Dapper Dan as his directeur du cabinet, Lustig sent official summons to the 5 richest metal dealers in France, inviting them to a private meeting at the illustrious Hôtel de Crillon.
All five dealers complied with their country’s summons and arrived à l’heure on the day of the meeting. With Dapper Dan at his side, Lustig explained that the proposal he planned to present was highly sensitive. Only the President of France, the Minster of Posts and Telegraphs and the people in the room were privy to it. Hence, it was imperative that the gathering be kept secret. He then disclosed that the government planned to dismantle the Eiffel Tower. The showy monument had not been built to stand for as long as it had and the cost of restoration was prohibitive.
To bolster his credibility, Lustig subtly mentioned the newspaper article that had inspired his ruse, then explained that he had been charged with gathering bids from companies capable of reclaiming the tower’s 7,000 tons of steel. The deal would undoubtedly be unpopular and thus nothing should be divulged to the public before it was closed. He went on to flatter his audience, claiming he had selected only dealers with the finest of reputations and whose discretion could be relied upon.
Sizing Up and Zeroing In
Lustig knew next to nothing about the five men who sat before him. He needed time to study their personalities in order to determine which among them would make the easiest mark. He proposed a trip to visit the tower, then ushered his guests to awaiting limousines. Upon arrival, the faux and fawning undersecretary led his entourage past crowds of tourists to the base of the Eiffel. After Lustig presented his forged ID to a guard, the party was waved into the next available elevator.
It was a beautiful day and the views of Paris, coupled with the massive structure’s elegance, stoked flames of grandeur within the assembled imaginations. Upon leaving the site, Lustig instructed his guests to send their bids to the Hôtel de Crillon. Time was of the essence, he confided, since a leak could jeopardize the entire operation. The tour had worked spectacularly. Most importantly, however, Lustig was now certain of the man most likely to take the bait, hook, line, and sinker—ironically named André Poisson.
Among the wealthy industrialists, Poisson was a newcomer. Born to a middle-class family, he had earned his money, rather than having been born into it. As such, he keenly wished to improve his standing among the Parisian elite. Without waiting for the bids to come in, Lustig went straight to Poisson’s home. Wishing to deepen Poisson’s commitment to secrecy, Lustig explained that even though he held a coveted position in government, his pay was barely sufficient to maintain the lifestyle required to hold his job.
The state would likely receive several close offers, he continued. In order to favor one over the rest, the bidder might sweeten the deal with a pot-de-vin. Fortunately for Lustig, his gamble worked as predicted. Poisson retrieved a stack of bills, proffered them to Lustig, and asked if he’d offered enough. The play was extremely risky but also characteristic of Lustig’s modus operandi. The likelihood of Poisson backing out at this point, or going to the police even if he suspected fraud, was minuscule.
In for the Kill
Poisson would need a few days to gather the funds. This was not a problem. However, Lustig made clear that the transaction would again need to take place at the Hôtel de Crillon—far from the eyes of overly inquisitive functionaries who might spill their suspicions to the press. As customary, Poisson should arrive with a cashier’s check for half of the total bid. And, there was one last condition. The check should be blank. The absence of a beneficiary would guarantee the utmost secrecy.
After agreeing to a date, Lustig set the closing at 3:00 pm. This would give him time to deposit the check before banks closed at 5:00. Poisson dutifully arrived at the prescribed hour with the requisite certified and blank check. Whether he willingly handed it over or needed additional convincing, we’ll never know. What is known, however, is that Lustig deposited the whopping sum later that day, then fled with Dapper Dan to Austria.
Comfortably installed in a Viennese luxury hotel, Lustig and Dapper Dan Collins perused the daily papers, waiting for news of the affair to erupt. After a month, however, they realized that Poisson would probably never file a formal complaint. Doing so would be tantamount to publicly admitting to his own gullibility. The operation had gone so incredibly smoothly, that the diabolic duo decided to return to Paris and pull the same scam a second time. They almost got away with it, but at the last minute, their victim smelled a rat and went straight to the police. Realizing they were pressing their luck, Lustig and Collins high-tailed it back to the United States and Poisson remained the only dindon to fall under Lustig’s Eiffel spell.
Swindling the King of Swindlers
Lustig never returned to France. When news of the failed sale broke, word spread rapidly through Europe. Authorities across the continent soon realized that Lustig was wanted in 7 countries for dozens of offenses. Meanwhile, in America, the man who sold the Eiffel Tower showed no signs of reigning in his appetite for hustling. Within weeks, he’d resurrected his Romanian box hoax as well as other deceptions including counterfeit securities, fake insurance policies, rigged horse races, and stacked decks of cards.
At this point, Lustig had bamboozled so many people, that perhaps he was looking for a bigger challenge. He set his sights on Chicago mobster, Al Capone. The plan was far simpler than his Eiffel caper. Lustig told Capone that he had an inside tip on some stocks that would guarantee a hefty profit. If Capone had $50,000 to invest, Lustig would ensure a fruitful return. Once again, Lustig’s powers of persuasion won the day and the mobster forked over 50 grand.
Lustig deposited the money in a bank and waited. Weeks later, he returned to Capone’s headquarters and reported that the company had folded. The stocks were worthless. However, Lustig confessed, he had been overzealous in recommending the securities and he would return the money out of his own pocket. Impressed with Lustig’s integrity, Capone gave the smooth-talking swindler $5,000, never realizing that Lustig had simply handed back Capone’s original investment.
The Jig is Up
In 1930, Lustig joined forces with a Nebraskan engraver named William Watts. A gifted artist and forger, Watts began producing bill-printing plates with incredible precision. The two criminals thus launched a lucrative partnership with Watts producing counterfeit bills and Lustig laundering them. Already a familiar face at dozens of race tracks, Lustig placed bets with fake dollars and collected his winnings in real cash. According to one journalist, prior to Lustig, money laundering was unheard of. His ingenious knack for trickery invented it.
Within 5 years, the operation had printed and circulated more than one million fake dollars and the U.S. Treasury was on high alert. If the pace of counterfeit money entering the market continued, the U.S. economy would be harmed. Enter the Secret Service, tasked with not only protecting high-ranking government officials but also preventing and eradicating counterfeiters.
So far unmentioned here is Lustig’s penchant for womanizing. He married twice, always kept a mistress or two, and frequented brothels on a regular basis. Some of his conquests were lauded starlets, such as Joan Crawford and American singer Ruth Etting. When it came to exploiting women, it seems that Lustig underestimated their capacity for revenge. He left each relationship never bothering to implant the same kind of deterrents that kept his male victims from going to the police.
Thus, after decades of crookery and hundreds of casualties, Lustig was betrayed by a former lover. When Secret Service agent, Peter Rubano received a tip revealing Lustig’s whereabouts, he and his team converged on the New York hotel and took Lustig into custody. In the evasive thug’s pocket, they found a key for a subway locker beneath Times Square. Upon opening the locker, they discovered a small supply of counterfeiting plates and chemicals.
Lustig’s imprisonment in the New York City slammer was hardly the first time he’d been placed behind American bars. Never one to let a small setback, such as an arrest, stand in his way, he fashioned a rope out of bedsheets, cut the wires of a bathroom window, and while pretending to clean the jail’s windows, lowered himself to freedom. Liberty was shortlived, however, and 4 weeks later, FBI agents spotted Lustig entering a limousine outside his daughter’s school. They jumped in their car and chased him for several blocks. Realizing that the driver was as committed as Lustig to fleeing the scene, the agents ended their pursuit by crashing their car into the speeding limo.
Hang on to Your eWallets
Near the end of 1935, Lustig was tried and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. His partner, Watts, was arrested and convicted shortly thereafter. The authorities wanted to ensure that this time, Lustig would not escape. He was sent to Alcatraz. There, the refined and multi-lingual swindler stood out among the penitentiary’s many thugs. Luckily for Lustig, Al Capone was also housed within the sinister walls, serving time for tax evasion. Recalling Lustig’s earlier fidelity, Capone extended his muscle-bound protection services to include the very man who had successfully bilked him years earlier.
Over the next decade, Lustig’s health slowly declined. During his time at “The Rock”, he filed 1,192 medical requests, that largely went straight to the prison incinerator. In March of 1947, officials finally believed he was no longer faking and they sent him to a facility in Missouri to be treated for pneumonia. Medical attention came too late, however, and Lustig died two days later.
In hindsight, it’s hard to understand how Lustig’s scams could have been so successful. The Romanian box, for example, seems utterly absurd. Yet that particular trick worked repeatedly. At one point, Lustig was thrown in jail for using it to produce counterfeit bills. He ended up bribing the sheriff to let him go, exchanging the box for his freedom. Surely, half of Lustig’s success lay in the man’s ability to charm his victims.
Hopefully, today’s potential pigeons have evolved and we are somewhat less prone to falling for the charades of smooth-talking hustlers. But beware, scams have also evolved and technology has accelerated their proliferation. Soon robotic shysters will employ artificial intelligence to cherry-pick the con that is most likely to work, based on our likes, dislikes, and various demographics. Sadly, the old adage that There’s a sucker born every minute is far from falling into disuse.
I learned of Lustig’s Eiffel caper last month from the excellent French podcast, Affaires Sensibles. Other sources, such as this YouTube video, didn’t always agree with the podcast’s version of events. I pieced together my summary of Victor’s life blending claims as I thought best. Lustig undoubtedly embellished his own retellings but there is enough commonality between the many recapitulations that now exist to provide an illuminating portrait of one of the 20th century’s best schemers.