The Con Man Who Sold The Eiffel Tower. Twice!
Rua (Paul Gleeson) is the star of TG4’s ten part magic, mind reading and escapology TV series ‘Draíocht’. He co-curated Science Gallery Dublin’s ILLUSION exhibition in 2013, and also had a sellout 4 star show in the Dublin Fringe Festival. A student of magic history and the psychology of illusions, he is regularly hired to perform and speak for companies and Universities across Ireland. He has been featured on RTE’s The Saturday Night Show, TV3’s Morning Ireland, the BBC and every major radio station in Ireland. Rua has a BA and Masters degree in Communication studies from DCU, and currently makes a living performing Close-up magic at Weddings, Corporate Events and Private parties across Ireland, Europe and US.
“Everything turns gray when I don’t have at least one mark on the horizon. Life seems empty and depressing. I cannot understand honest men. They lead desperate lives, full of boredom.” – Count Victor Lustig
This is the true story about one of history’s most audacious men, and my all-time favorite con – artist, Victor Lustig. Every fact and every detail, impossible as they may seem, are absolutely true to the letter, and I hope you’ll agree that this sounds like something out of an amazing crime movie, full of twists and turns. I really hope you enjoy it!
“Count” Victor Lustig was born in the Czech Republic in 1890 and became adept at studying different languages, mastering five of them before his death. This multi-lingual skill assisted him in facilitating most of his cons later on in life. He also became a master manipulator of human beings – in his time he used pure ‘chutzpah’ to score money from Al Capone, headed the biggest counterfeiting ring in the US, and most famously, sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. Twice. By the age of twenty he was a certified Con Artist, and by the age of thirty he was a confirmed wanted man on the run from police in several European countries.
Lustig moved to the United States in the early 1900′s and reinvented himself as a ‘Count’, which gave him an air of importance that helped him in his various swindles.
Nope, not that kind of Count, the other kind.
At this time, Al Capone reigned as one of the most dangerous criminals in the US…and Lustig had every intention of conning him. The Count approached Capone with a tantalizing business investment opportunity – he wanted $50,000 of his money to invest, which he was certain he could double in sixty days, in return for a small commission. Incredibly, Capone gave him the cash, along with a warning of what would happen to him if this was a dishonest double-cross. A dangerous man, Al Capone is famous for regularly stating that
“A smile will get you pretty far, but a smile and a gun will get you farther”
The Count left the money sitting in a bank account for sixty days before returning to Capone with a disheartened look on his face. He explained to Capone that the deal had fallen through, and before Capone could draw his gun to kill him, he calmly pulled out the $50,000 and handed it back to him with an apology. The crime boss was so taken aback by Lustig’s honesty that he gave him a $1,000 reward for his efforts. Which is exactly what Lustig was expecting Capone to do!
This $1,000 dollars presumably covered Lustig’s costs to move back to Paris in 1925 with his long-time collaborator and fellow con-artist ‘Dapper Dan Collins’ (real name: Robert Tourbillon). Dapper Dan was so called because of his billing as somewhat of a Brad Pitt of Con Men (if you get my drift!). His reputation was such that he could meet a beautiful woman at 9 in the evening and be holding her hand within 10 minutes. By 9 in the morning, he’d be holding her bankroll. Hilariously, the New York Times weren’t one bit impressed by Dapper Dan’s ‘Dapperness’ when he appeared in court, and noted that
‘His Sartorial appearance hardly matches his title’.
It was probably written by a scorned woman who he met at 9 in the evening, and was holding her hand within the first 10 minutes, and her bankroll by 9 the next morning! That said, his chivalry was applauded in court when he once refused to publicly reveal a married woman’s name whom he had ‘acquainted’, which would have secured his release from prison, but gotten her into an awful lot of trouble with an aggressive husband.
Anyway! Back to Paris, 1925. Both Lustig and Dapper Dan were relaxing outside a café when they read an article that explained how the Eiffel Tower was in desperate need of repairs, while small pockets of public opinion seemed to think that the 985 foot structure should just be torn down. The Count’s opportunistic brain started buzzing, and within minutes he conjured up a money-making ruse: He would sell Paris’ most famous landmark to a scrap metal dealer.
Lustig gave himself the Government title of ‘Deputy Director – General of the Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs‘. Dapper Dan was to be his Secretary. They went about typing up some very official looking letters, with Lustig’s name and title printed on them. Letters were then mailed to the five leading scrap metal companies in Paris. The heads of each company were invited to meet Lustig and his secretary at the fashionable Hotel Crillon for a strictly confidential conversation.
The scrap metal dealers were told that it had become too costly to maintain the Eiffel Tower and to tend to its repair needs, and for this reason the 7,000 ton steel structure was to be torn down – and its scrap metal sold to the highest bidder. The Count gave a brilliant performance whilst convincing the men that the Eiffel Tower was indeed to be ripped down. He quoted Alexander Dumas, who had once called the Tower “ a loathsome construction ”, and writer Guy de Maupassant, who said, “ What will be thought of our generation if we do not smash this lanky pyramid. ” The meeting had to be kept a secret, to avoid public outrage if the information was leaked too soon. As a further convincer, Lustig and Collins brought them on a Limousine ride for an ‘inspection tour’, which would also allow Lustig enough time to choose the right mark – the most gullible and fragile of the lot.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking the exact same thing as I am…’I’d never fall for that!’. But keep two things in mind, firstly, this was in 1925! And secondly, the Eiffel Tower was never intended to be a permanent structure in Paris – it was built there for the 1889 Paris Exposition and was meant to be taken down in 1909 and moved to another country because it never really ‘fit in’ with the scenery of Paris, and stunning monuments like the Gothic Cathedrals or the Arc de Triomphe. So this deal made complete sense back then.
Secret bids started coming in like lightning, but Lustig and Dapper Dan had already chosen their gullible mark: a Monsieur Andre Poisson, who was somewhat of a small-time scrap dealer with some cash to burn, insecure, and dying to make it into the big leagues of business and into the inner Parisian business circles. And what better way to make an entrance than by being the guy who bought the Eiffel Tower!
Possion’s wife was the prickly kind though, and was extremely suspicious of Lustig, wondering who he was, why everything was so secretive and why everything was being done so quickly. Girls ruin everything, don’t they?. To counter this, Lustig arranged a secret meeting with Poisson and essentially revealed that he was a Government Minister who was looking to make some discrete money on the side to supplement his income. So, what does that mean? He wanted Poisson to Bribe him so that he would sell the Eiffel Tower, exclusively, to him…and bribe him he did! Poisson was used to dealing with corrupt officials, and if nothing else, this actually put his mind at ease because past experience would have taught him that this was now a done deal, paid for in full by his bribe money.
How incredible is that? Lustig didn’t just get the money for the fake sale of the Eiffel Tower, he also received a large bribe to make the fake sale happen! Lustig signed over the forged documents to Poisson, before fleeing to Vienna with Dapper Dan and a suitcase full of cash. Lustig never revealed exactly how much the Tower sold for, but it is rumored to have been 250,000 francs, which equates to roughly 1 Million Dollars today. One camera wielding journalist happened to spot the two men enjoying their spoils on a yacht off the coast of Vienna, and produced a suspect, yet also believable image which was later used in court. This, is that image:
*This is still a true story!*
Here’s the amazing part – Poisson was so humiliated by what had happened that he knew that he would be a source of public ridicule if the story got out, and so, he never reported the crime to the Police or to any journalists. Lustig and Collins waited and waited and scoured every newspaper for the story but found nothing. Believe it or not, this was a regular occurrence amongst marks – they were normally so embarrassed to have fallen for such a stupidly obvious scam that they never reported it to the Police out of sheer mortification, accurately represented by the image below:
What did this mean for the Count and Dapper Dan? If the Con was never reported, what was stopping them from going back and trying it again!? Less than half a year later, Lustig and Collins travelled back to Paris and selected 6 other scrap metal dealers…and sold the Eiffel Tower one more time for 100,000 francs. Unfortunately, this time their victim realized what was happening before the money exchanged hands and went to the Police before Lustig could close the deal, but both Lustig and Collins managed to evade arrest and fled back to the USA.
Victor Lustig re-surfaced around 1930 when he began working with a chemist named Tom Shaw, who also had the job of engraving plates that were used for the manufacture of counterfeit banknotes. Lustig and Shaw ran a ‘Counterfeit Ring’ who’s purpose was to circulate the hundreds and thousands of forged notes throughout the country. This Ring became the largest in the United States at the time.
On the evening of the 10th of May 1935, a group of US Federal Agents ‘Green-Lit’ an operation to catch Lustig in New York, after they received an ‘ anonymous ‘ tip-off from a lady named Billy May who was Lustig’s mistress. However, she became extremely jealous and vengeful when she discovered that he was also secretly ‘shagging’ Tom Shaw’s mistress, Marie. (See, I told you. Girls really do ruin everything!).
When Lustig was captured, he had a briefcase that contained some expensive clothes, and a wallet. Inside the wallet they found a single key, which Lustig denied knowing anything about. Eventually, the Federal Agents discovered that the brand on the key was belonging to a set of lockers in the Times Square Subway station, and when they found the corresponding locker, they opened it up to find $51,000 in counterfeit bills, and the engraving plates from which they had been printed.
It doesn’t stop there.
Lustig was locked up in the Federal House of Detention in New York City, where criminals were kept before going on Trial. During his stay there, he noticed that when bed-sheets were given out, no tally or record was kept of how many were given, so Lustig began stealing an extra sheet every day. When he had enough for his scheme, he ripped them into strips, fashioned them into a rope and escaped from the third-floor window of the formerly Escape-Proof Federal House of Detention in New York City. Unfortunately, our somewhat likable protagonist was re-captured 27 days later in Pittsburgh.
Over the course of his ‘career’, Lustig was arrested 9 times in Europe and 28 times in the US before his re-capture in Pittsburgh, which was actually his first real conviction, for which he was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz Prison off the coast of San Francisco. He died of pneumonia on March 11th, 1947, and although his exploits had made front page news over the course of his life, at the end he was relegated to oblivion, as his death went unreported for more than two years.
A set of instructions known as the “Ten Commandments for Con Men” has been attributed to Lustig, sort of like a mental check list to run through before engaging the Mark in conversation:
Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
Never look 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.
Bit like going on a date with a girl really! (Except for number ’10′. Always get drunk.)
That’s the story of Victor Lustig, one of History’s most revered Confidence Tricksters. If you’re wondering how he came up with the idea of selling the Eiffel Tower, you can read about another story that happened in New York a few years prior, which surely inspired his attempts, as one man became legendary for selling New York landmarks to tourists and fools.