I guess it takes a certain amount of derring-do or panache in order to become a successful con man. Just think about the exploits of Charles Ponzi and Frank Abagnale Jr. and their ability to bullshit their way into making small fortunes at the expense of others without resorting to violence or threats and relying only on guile and the gullibility and greed of others.
There’s another one that falls into that category and his name was Victor “The Count” Lustig. All he did during his illustrious career was swindle Al Capone out of a few thousand bucks and manage to sell the Eiffel Tower not once, but twice. More on that later.
Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia back in 1890. Little is known about his early years but apparently he became fluent in English, French, German and a host of many other languages. This ability would serve him well when it came to scamming people out their hard-earned money.
He soon headed to America and would become famous for inventing what he called his money-printing machine. The idea behind it was simple. He would have a woodworker craft a box adorned with all kinds of knobs and switches. He would then demonstrate the boxes ability to his “clients" to “print” out $100.00 bills at the rate of one every six hours and offer them the opportunity to buy the box for thousands of dollars. Once they handed over the cash, all the buyers would have to do was to sit back and reap in the dough.
The only problem was that Lustig had jimmy rigged the box to spit out only two $100 legitimate dollar bills over a twelve hour period. After that, all it would produce was blank paper and by that time Lustig was long gone.
In 1925 Lustig took his not so hard-earned money and headed off to France. At the time, Paris was booming after recovering from the after-effects of World War I and just ripe for the taking.
While sitting around sipping drinks at a local café Lustig came across an article in a Parisian newspaper lamenting the escalating costs of maintaining the Eiffel Tower. After all, the tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition and was never intended to be a permanent landmark. In fact, in 1909 plans were hatched to have it taken down and moved to another location.
Fortunately for Lustig, those plans never came to fruition and an idea began to take hold.
The first thing he needed was to have some papers forged on his behalf that identified him as a government official. Then he approached the six largest scrap metal dealers in the country and identified himself as deputy director general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs.
After he lured the scrap dealers to a fancy hotel he explained the plight of the city and the outrageous costs associated with maintaining the Eiffel Tower. He would accept bids from the scrap dealers in order to tear down the tower on one condition. The bids that they submitted must remain secret as so as not outrage the public. He then rented a limousine and took them to the tower for an “inspection tour”.
The next day he asked them to submit their bids but he had already selected his mark. It was for a bidder by the name of Andre Poisson who Ludwig had already identified as having an inferiority complex and wanted to make a name for himself in the burgeoning Parisian society. There was one problem though, Poisson’s wife smelled something fishy and asked why everything had to be kept secret and why was the deal being done so fast.
I guess part of being a con man entails being able to think on your feet and Lustig quickly set up a meeting between Poisson and his wife. There he “explained” that because he was a lowly paid government official there was a certain cost associated with doing business and he wasn’t able to live the lifestyle he was destined for. Poisson and his wife got gist of the conversation immediately. They were merely dealing with yet another corrupt member of government who was looking for a bribe.
They soon coughed up the bid money as well as the bribe and Lustig was last seen headed out of town on a train to Vienna.
Ironically, Poisson never took his case to the Gendarmes. Legend has it he was too embarrassed by his own gullibility to lodge a complaint.
Talk about balls, Lustig returned to Paris one month later and tried to repeat his scam with six other scrap dealers. He was just about ready to seal the deal when one of the dealers got suspicious and contacted police. Lustig got wind of what was going on and managed to flee the country.
He then returned to the States and ran a series of scams involving counterfeit rings and the like. During that time he also managed to convince the legendary Al Capone to fork over $50,000 on a stock offering. He then deposited the money in a safe deposit box and returned it two months later claiming the deal had fell through. Capone tipped him $1,000 just for being “so honest.”
Lustig was finally busted in May of 1935 by his mistress. It seems she was jealous over his philandering ways decided to turn him in. In his wallet police found a key to a locker at Times Square in New York City. Upon opening the locker, they found $51,000 in counterfeit money as well as the plates that were used to conduct the forgery. He was being held at the Federal House of Detention in New York City but managed to escape one day before he was scheduled to go on trial.
His escape entailed yet another con. This time it was on the guards. Lustig noticed that when it came time to change the sheets in his cell, the guards always asked him how many he needed but they never bothered to count the number of sheets he returned. After gathering an additional nine bed sheets Lustig feigned illness and was able to stay in his cell while the rest of the prison population was in the exercise yard. He quickly made a rope and descended to the streets of Manhattan.
Lustig managed to stay on the lam for 27 days but he was eventually nailed Pittsburgh, PA. He later pled guilty to a variety of charges and was sentenced to twenty years at Alcatraz. He wouldn’t survive his sentence.
In March of 1947 he contracted pneumonia and was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri where he would die two days later.
For any of you aspiring to be a con man Lustig’s legacy remains intact. According to Wikipedia that while in prison Lustig penned the “Ten Commandments for Con Men”. They read like this.
Be a patient listener
Never looked bored
Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually)
Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious
Never be untidy
Never get drunk
What’s the old saying? There's a sucker born every minute and for any of you who read this article and wasted ten or fifteen minutes in doing so thinking you might learn something, I’ve got some land in Florida and a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like you to take a look at.
Just kidding. It’s all true.