Trivia 015: The world’s greatest con man

There was an interesting story in the news last week. A group of thieves stole an entire bridge in India. The bridge in question was abandoned and in disrepair, so the thieves pretended to be government officials dismantling it. They then carted off all the scrap metal, presumably to sell. Unfortunately for them, they were then caught just a few days later. The news put me in mind of the story of Victor Lustig – the man who sold the Eiffel Tower twice.

Born in Austria-Hungary in 1890, Lustig made a living conning passengers on trans-Atlantic ocean liners. The rich travelers often proved easy marks. And since they were traveling far away, by the time they realized they’d been scammed, it was far too late.

One of Lustig’s favorite scams was the “money box”. Posing as an out-of-luck traveler, he would claim to have a box that printed money. Lustig’s mark would watch as he put in a piece of paper, and a crisp $100 bill then slid out of the slot a few hours later. Inevitably, the victim would question why he would want to sell such a valuable machine. Lustig would explain that the box printed money too slowly, and he needed the money now, but his ship was about to leave. He did, however, have enough time to allow the victim to take the note to the bank to be examined for authenticity. After they had struck a deal, the proud customer would then begin to operate their brand new money machine as Lustig boarded his ship. However, after the ship left port, the victim would discover that the box simply had a few real bills in it, and the rest was just blank paper. And of course, the amount Lustig had stocked it with was considerably less than the purchase price.

His most famous achievement was selling the Eiffel Tower. In 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris. He commissioned a set of stationery with the French government’s seal. With it, he sent letters to five of the top scrap metal dealers in the city, asking to meet with them. When they met for a lavish dinner, Lustig introduced himself as an agent of the French government. He told them that due to maintenance costs and structural problems, the government had decided to tear down the Eiffel Tower. It had been built in 1889 for the World’s Fair, and was meant to be temporary. Though it did have admirers, it also had many critics. Lustig explained that the government knew that the decision was sure to be controversial, so they were proceeding in secrecy for the time being. After some negotiation, each of the scrap dealers submitted a bid for the rights to tear down the structure. This undertaking was sure to be profitable, in terms of both money and reputation. Of the bids he received, Lustig selected Andre Poisson as his mark. However, Poisson’s wife was suspicious. She thought things were moving too quickly and things were too shady.

When Poisson confronted Lustig, he confessed…that he was angling for a bribe. Lowly bureaucrats like him, he explained, were paid very low salaries. And yet, they were expected to do all they could to impress their clients. If Poisson would help him out, then perhaps Lustig could make sure his bid was the one chosen. Poisson agreed, and paid Lustig 50,000 francs as a bribe. Lustig then handed over a (worthless) bill of sale to Poisson for an additional 20,000 francs. The next day, Lustig was on the first train to Austria.

When Poisson realized he’d been scammed, he kept completely quiet about it. After all, if he revealed what had happened, he’d not only be the laughingstock of Paris, but he could also be in legal trouble for his attempted bribe. As a result, Lustig was back in Paris less than a year later, attempting the same con with a different set of metal dealers. This time, however, one of his targets was suspicious and went to the police. When the news got out, Lustig fled Europe for America.

In America, Lustig took to counterfeiting. Working with Tom Shaw, a chemist from Nebraska, he began producing bills that looked so real they were able to create up to $100,000 per month ($1.4 million in today’s dollars). Eventually, the Secret Service tracked him down (remember, their initial mandate was stopping counterfeiting, not protecting the President. Bit of bonus trivia for you). Tipped off by his girlfriend, who suspected he was cheating on her, the Secret Service arrested him in New York City. In his briefcase they found a key to a locker that contained over $51,000 in counterfeit bills, as well as printing paraphernalia. This was enough to seal his fate. Although he managed to escape from the New York Federal Detention Center in Manhattan, he was picked up a month later in Pittsburgh. Sentenced to twenty years in Alcatraz, he died there in 1947.

For his exploits, you could consider him the greatest con man of all time. Alternatively, you could say that he could not have been, since he was caught. Who knows how many other incredible schemes have gone unnoticed, except by those who were conned. If this story interested you, I recommend reading more about his life. There are lots of details that I couldn’t fit in this newsletter.

If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected]. And if you’ve just realized I’ve been scamming you, let me know and I can take you off the list.

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