Who was Victor Lustig?
Victor Lustig is a con man from the beginning of the twentieth century known for the case that inspired the book “The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower” and a short film by Claude Chabrol. A master forger, Victor Lustig was a talented impostor who gained the trust of his victims and knew how to trap them in silence. He also maintained a troubling relationship with the notorious gangster Al Capone.
A youth that doesn’t turn out so well
Born in Hostinné on January 4, 1880 in what is now Czech Bohemia, he had a happy childhood in a well-to-do environment. After an education that left him fluent in five languages, he became involved in a number of minor misdemeanors, which left him with a scar on his eye after a fight. At nineteen, he left his family for probably boring future. He discovers Paris but the milieu rejects him. He then spent his time on the transatlantic liners, living by cheating at poker, robbing wealthy travelers and gaining in wealth and connections. The war put an end to this easy period, and he settled in the United States, a promising land. There he multiplies the scams, loans under false identities or tips at the horse races, building up a small fortune that he decides to spend in Paris once peace returns.
The rocky episode of the Eiffel Tower
Living large in 1925 in Paris’ Roaring Twenties, his reserves quickly dwindled. A press article mentioned the possibility of the dismantling of the Eiffel Tower and that inspired him to come up with a scam. This one was elaborated with the help of an accomplice from a room located at the Hotel de Crillon: he summons five scrap dealers for a market sale as “ultra confidential”. He went, so far as, to visit the tower with the candidates using an imitation of a ministerial map. One of the candidates, André Poisson, believed the story, which included a bribe for veracity, and paid nearly 100,000 francs. The two accomplices having left Paris with the money realized that Poisson will not have revealed his misadventure, certainly fearing he would be ridiculed. They returned to try the scam again, without success this time: they then fled just in time to the United States.
U.S. Exploits for 48 Charges
In the United States, Lustig poses as an earl and navigates wealthy circles of varying degrees of virtue. His specialty is selling machines for printing counterfeit money. Of course, his victims cannot denounce him because they would have to confess to their own dishonest intentions. However, he will be charged 48 times. If the case of the billionaire Herman Loller is reported, the most incredible example concerns a sheriff of Oklahoma, Richard, who released him from prison before a judgement in exchange for the famous machine. The sheriff, realized the imposture and pursued him to Chicago. Surprisingly, Lustig convinced Richard of a problem with its use and compensates him with money: Richard was then arrested for possession of counterfeit money!
Lustig’s troubled relationship with Al Capone
Lustig’s activities were bound to bring him into contact with the mob. He convinced Al Capone to advance him several tens of thousands of dollars as an investment. Al Capone, seeing nothing coming found Lustig and after many arguments gave him back the money. Amused by the character, Al Capone left him 1500 dollars “for his trouble”. A probable hypothesis would be that this was Lustig’s intended purpose. The famous Chicago bandit had him protected later in the terrible prison of Alcatraz.
End of luck and last cavort
A large-scale police operation was carried out from 1934 onwards following an upsurge in counterfeit money. It targeted William Watts but ended up with Lustig, who was arrested for other complaints. His oratorical talents did not prevent the discovery of a hideout key containing traces of forgery tools and an important amount of counterfeit money. Lustig was sent to prison in New York but managed to escape thanks to a bed sheet. Pursued for 27 days, he was caught and sentenced in early 1935 to 15 years in prison, then transferred to Alcatraz where he contracted pneumonia. He died at the special hospital in Springfield, Missouri, in 1947.
His life full of twists and turns is traced in France in two books: “the greatest swindlers in history” by Pierre Lunel and “legendary swindles and other stories of clever delinquency” by Eric Yung.