The extraordinary life of a conman who scammed Al Capone, ‘sold’ the Eiffel Tower and stole jewellery from unsuspecting European aristocrats is investigated in a fascinating new book.
Victor Lustig was born in January 1890 in the small hamlet of Hostinné, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic.
By the age of 16, while still at school, Lustig, who went by dozens of aliases over the course of his life, had already learned how to hustle opponents and billiards and understood how to lay odds at the local racecourse.
Over the next 30 years, Lustig honed his skills as a brilliant confidence man and master manipulator. He posed as a fairground medium, dabbled in blackmail, claimed to own London‘s Tower Bridge and developed a talent as a forger.
Biographer Christopher Sandford traces the remarkable trajectory of Lustig’s life in The Man Who Conned the World.
Con man: Victor Lustig (right) was born in 1890 in Hostinné, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. He became an international career criminal who was active for more than 30 years before being caught. Pictured, after being sentenced to 20 years in prison
Lustig, who could speak six languages fluently and played competitive-level chess, was once described as ‘the cleverest and most resourceful exploiter of human frailty in the history of crime’.
Lustig had a fertile imagination and was an accomplished actor, playing the role of a European Count, a French government minister, or an English gentleman, as the scam required.
He targeted everyone from New York city gamblers to European socialites, hardened criminals to wealthy French businessman, but always claimed to only target those who could afford it.
Although he was married and had a daughter, Lustig also had a way with women. Sandford claims a young Joan Crawford, a brothel madam and American singing star Ruth Etting were among the women he was linked to over the course of his life.
In writing the biography Sandford consulted the archives of the US prison service and draws on notes from the FBI agents who were so desperate to capture this elusive character.
Womanizer: Although he was married and had a daughter, Lustig also had a way with women. Sandford claims a young Joan Crawford (pictured), a brothel madam and American singing star Ruth Etting were among the women he was linked to over the course of his life
Finally caught: While his daughter remembers him as a devoted father who was kind to his friends, law enforcement described him as an ‘unscrupulous criminal felon – a character without morals or pity’. Pictured, Lustig (centre) is questioned by police in New York in 1935
While his daughter remembers him as a devoted father who was kind to his friends, law enforcement described him as an ‘unscrupulous criminal felon – a character without morals or pity … because of him men’s careers were destroyed, women committed suicide’.
Lustig, who criss-crossed between the US, Canada, Mexico and Europe throughout his life, was finally arrested in 1935 after a jilted mistress went to the police.
He was arrested for masterminding a counterfeit banknote operation that threatened to shake confidence in the US economy and sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz. He died of pneumonia in 1947.
Here, in extracts and adapted text from Victor Lustig: The Man Who Conned The World, a selection of Lustig’s most outrageous cons…
‘EARL MOUNTJOY’ THE INSURANCE EXECUTIVE
Playing the part: Lustig, who had more than 40 aliases over the course of his life, could speak six languages and used this to his advantage in his elaborate schemes
Woman on the side: Lustig had a relationship with American singing star Ruth Etting, pictured
In January 1908 Lustig, then just 18, was arrested by police following one of his ‘snoozer’ cons, so-called because the criminal checks themselves into the same hotel as his victims before fleecing them of any money. As Sandford explains:
‘The complaint against him said that he had celebrated the event by installing himself in a suite of the Nemzeti Hotel and, sporting expensive new tailoring and a waxed moustache, posing as an apparently well-bred young insurance company executive sent on a continental tour by his associates in London.
‘For only a token fee, he announced, he would be glad to take a piece of any potential client’s jewellery, leave behind a receipt, and then have the item professionally appraised by an expert before returning it in the morning.
A life as a career criminal: A potted history of Lustig’s cons
February 1909, Vienna: Posed as a hotel carpenter and installed a fake wall in a room that allowed him access to a guest’s valuables from the other side.
April 1911, Budapest: Convinced a wealthy woman to give him money by claiming it was going to fund an orphanage.
1914, London: ‘Sold’ London Bridge for £2,400 by posing as a local authority worker seeking to raise funds.
Early 1916, London: Posed as a musical producer named André Dupre and convinced Harley Street specialist Cyril McLintock to invest £500 in a West End show that never existed.
February 1918, New Orleans, Louisiana: Swindled gambler and boxing promoter George ‘Tex’ Rickard out of $500 in a poker game after bribing the dealer and practising his ‘poker face’ in his hotel room.
August 1922, Cape May, New Jersey: Using the alias Count Kokum, he set up a stand and pretended to communicate with the dead.
October 1922, Springfield, Missouri: Stole $10,000 from a bank after posing as a wealthy businessman looking for a site for his next chemical plant.
June 1924, Salina, Kansas: Pulled a similar scam to the one above, this time posing as Baron von Lustig, seeking a property. Ended up taking $1,000 from the community bank.
December 1929, Texas-Mexico border: Arrested for crossing the border with counterfeit pesos.
‘He had walked off in this manner with a Cartier ‘tutti frutti’ necklace and matching earrings, after introducing himself to their owner as ‘Earl Mountjoy’ and mentioning that he hoped she might find time later in the spring to join him on his yacht as he cruised the French Riviera.
‘That was the last the lady had seen either of the young lord or her valuables. He did not marry her.’
THE FAKE CHURCH
After arriving in the US, Lustig set about earning money in the best way he knew how: by conning unsuspecting people.
One of his schemes in 1916 involved setting up his own church on the Manhattan waterfront and promised the congregation that the service would ‘swell all hearts and souls with joy’.
As he was not an ordained priest – indeed, he was not even very religious – Lustig relied on copying a speech made by a Catholic speech in the Polish city of Breslau and switching around a few of the words.
The congregation were so impressed they handed over $90 ($2,400) in the collection plate, which Lustig swiftly pocketed.
THE PHONY BETTING SHOP
Another front used by Lustig was the fake off-track betting shop. Gamblers made easy marks for Lustig because they were already prepared to part with their money.
In this ruse, Lustig, sometimes posing as the displaced European aristocrat Count von Kessler, would convince a wealthy individual to visit the premises under the guise of placing a bet.
The con man was so thorough and well-rehearsed that he would fill the room with actors playing employees and furnish it as if it were an actual better shop.
The ‘broadcasts’ from the track that blared through the speakers were actually being recorded live by an associate in the next room.
THE MONEY-MAKING MACHINE
In the early 1920s, Lustig came up with a literal money-making machine which he claimed would ‘print money’. Here, the author explains how it works:
‘The idea was to ply a mark with a well-oiled meal in a luxury hotel, and then to invite him into a private room upstairs to inspect the wonder machine.
‘Lustig would produce a genuine $100 bill from his wallet, insert it into one of the box’s two end slots, and turn a lever that sucked the bill into the interior.
‘Into the other slot he fed a sheet of banknote-sized white linen paper. After twirling a few knobs, Victor would tell the expectant customer that they needed to wait a further six hours in order for the miracle of alchemy to take effect. The delay served only to heighten the air of anticipation.
Busted: Lustig, who criss-crossed between the US, Canada, Mexico and Europe throughout his life, was finally arrested in 1935 after a jilted mistress went to the police. Pctured, in the 1930s
‘When the two men returned, possibly fortified by more drinks, the demonstration would swiftly reach a climax. After Lustig again carefully adjusted all the knobs and turned the crank, the box obligingly issued two crisp $100 bills, the original and its duplicate. Both were quite genuine. Lustig had concealed the second bill in the device before his victim ever set foot in the room.
‘The results were uniformly gratifying from Victor’s point of view. Sometimes he sold one of the boxes, which typically took him a couple of hours to knock up in his workshop, for as much as $30,000 ($800,000 today).
‘The device’s new owner would eagerly repeat the procedure he had just witnessed with his own eyes, but somehow no more money would ever emerge.
‘The six-hour waiting period was generally more than enough for Lustig to put a couple of hundred miles between himself and the scene of the crime. Besides, he reasoned, the party buying the box was dishonest himself. He would be unlikely to welcome the attention of the police. ‘
SELLING THE EIFFEL TOWER
In 1925, Lustig packed up his family and went to Paris, where they stayed in a suite in the Hôtel de Crillon – and he pulled off the con that would define his career.
In a lengthy and elaborate scheme that involved fake information booklets, a staged business meeting in Bordeaux, infiltration of a government department and a faux office set up in the basement of the hotel, Lustig managed to convince a scrap metal dealer that he was buying the Eiffel Tower.
The plan was methodical and well-researched and could have been years in the making, although Lustig maintained it was a spur-of-the-moment idea.
He was joined in it by a fellow conman known as ‘Dapper Dan’ who he met in the US and brought with him on the ocean liner to Paris, introducing him to his wife and daughter as a business associate.
Biographer Christopher Sandford traces the remarkable trajectory of Lustig’s life in The Man Who Conned the World
After whittling down 11 prospective targets to one mark, a man named André Poisson, Lustig and ‘Dapper Dan’ finally struck on 13 May 1925. As Sandford writes:
‘It seems almost absurd today, when a typical ‘end-user license agreement’ for a basic phone service can run to an eye-glazing 10,000 words, but the contract eventually set before André Poisson in the private downstairs conference room of the Hôtel de Crillon on 13 May 1925 covered just two double-spaced sheets of paper.
‘The essence of it was that he would pay 1,200,000 francs, or around £170,000 (roughly £4.2 million today) by certified cheque, and the Eiffel Tower would then be his to dispose of as he saw fit. There were one or two subsidiary clauses concerning matters such as confidentiality and the timetable for the tower’s demolition, but nothing that gave him any cause for alarm.
‘This was a Wednesday morning, and Poisson requested forty-eight hours in which to raise the cash. There was some question of him needing to put his family home on Avenue Montaigne up for collateral against a bank loan, he explained.
‘That was all perfectly acceptable, Lustig smoothly replied. Poisson later remarked that the seller’s utmost courtesy throughout the transaction served only to aggravate the final horror of the scene.’
Poisson eventually realised he had lost over a million france – £5million today – in an outright scam.
On returning to the hotel, which had served as the ‘office’ and meting place for Lustig and his meetings, he discovered that the basement venue was nothing more than a janitor’s closet that had been transformed.
The staff, who for weeks had been receiving generous tips from Lustig, could give no information of a forwarding address – or, indeed, his true identity.
By the time Mr Poisson had made his discovery, Lustig was at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, under a different name.
CONNING AL CAPONE
Unknowing victim: In 1925 Lustig swindled a then 26-year-old Al Capone – and the notorious gangster didn’t even realise he’d been had. Pictured, Capone
In 1925 Lustig swindled a then 26-year-old Al Capone – and the notorious gangster didn’t even realise he’d been had.
Lustig arranged a meeting with Capone in his suite at the Hawthorne Hotel in Cicero, near Chicago.
He convinced Capone to invest in a get-rich-quick scheme, promising to double his $50,000 investment in 60 days or less.
The details of the ploy aren’t known but it was enough for Capone who handed over $50,000 in cash. However Lustig either had second thoughts about running off with the money, or wasn’t able to fulfil his promise.
Either way he returned to Capone some weeks later and admitted he had failed.
The gangster asked if Lustig was broke and, when he said ‘yes’, despite being flush with cash, Capone handed over $5,000.
Victor Lustig: The Man Who Conned the World is published by The History Press, £20 (ebook £12.99)