The man who sold the Eiffel Tower – twice!

Circus promoter PT Barnum is alleged to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and as long as there are gullible people, there are cons and crooks who will exploit that stupidity for their own financial gain. One of the most famous of these cons was Victor Lusing.

“Count” Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia, on January 4, 1890, in what is now known as the Czech Republic. He was originally known as Robert V. Miller, one of several children born into the upper-middle class Miller family. His father was the mayor of the small town of Hostinne, Czechoslovakia, and under his care Lustig proved to be a bright child with a penchant for trouble.

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“Count” Victor Lusig

By the time he was 19, Lustig was taking time away from his studies at the University of Paris to gamble in poker, bridge and billiards. Around this age he also earned a scar across the left side of his face from a jealous man, who though Lustig was paying too much attention to the man’s girlfriend. Using his quick wit and his fluency in the Czech, German, English, French and Italian languages, Lustig left school and began committing dozens of petty crimes under countless aliases across Europe. His favorite, however, was that of “Count” Victor Lustig. Under this name he traveled Trans-Atlantic cruise ships, gambling and bilking wealthy passengers out of their money. When World War I put an end to pleasure cruises, Lustig’s con career also dried up. He decided to head to the United States, during the height of Prohibition.

By 1922, Lustig had conned his way to Missouri, where he learned of a repossessed ranch. Posing under the alias Robert Duval, Lustig offered the American Savings Bank $22,000 in Liberty bonds, and convinced them to exchange an additional $10,000 of the bonds for cash, so that he would have some extra capital to run the ranch. The deal was struck, and the money was placed in two identical envelopes. Through a sleight of hand, however, Lustig had switched envelopes and made off with both the bonds and the cash. He was tracked to Kansas City, where he was arrested, but Lustig managed to talk his way out of an indictment and walked free.

In May of 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris to plan another con, the one which would make him famous. While reading the newspaper, Lustig noticed an article about the run-down condition of the Eiffel Tower. At the time, the Eiffel Tower had become an expensive nuisance left over from the 1889 Paris Exposition. The original plan was to move the monument, but time and money prevented the transfer. The tower had instead fallen into disrepair, and Parisians lobbied for its removal. Lustig saw an opportunity, and forged government credentials naming him Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He met with a small group of scrap metal dealers, and explained that the city wanted to sell the Eiffel tower for scrap but that officials wanted to keep the plans a secret to avoid backlash from citizens.

Eiffel_Tower_and_park,_Paris,_France_ca._1909
The Eiffel Tower, the site of Lusig’s most brazen confidence trick.

 

One of the dealers bought the story and put down a cash bid to tear down the tower. Yet when he went to city officials to cash in on the deal, they had no idea what he was talking about. The dealer realised he was duped, and was so embarrassed that he refused to go to police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris and ran the whole scam yet again. Lustig barely managed to elude authorities the second time around, and was forced to flee to America to prevent his own capture.

But Lustig seemed incapable of keeping a low profile, and in 1926 he became even more infamous for a con known as the Rumanian Box. Lustig had a cabinetmaker in New York City make a handcrafted mahogany box with a narrow slot cut in either end. One side of the box, Lustig had installed a series of complicated handles and levers. Lustig told his marks that the mahogany box was the world’s only “money-duplicating machine.” He would place an authentic $1,000 bill in one end, along with a piece of paper, and then turn a series of cranks and knobs. The only problem was that the process, he told his victims, took six hours to complete per bill.

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The Rumanian Money Box.

Together, he and his victim would wait six hours then Lustig would turn the crank to produce another, authentic $1,000 bill. Lustig would then have the victim take both bills to a local bank to confirm their authenticity. They were real bills in actuality, because Lustig had concealed a second real $1,000 bill in the box. Once his mark, sensing high profits, paid a remarkable sum for the box, Lustig would disappear-and no real money would ever come out of the box again.

By 1934, Lustig had gained too much attention as a counterfeiter in the U.S., and the Secret Service put together a special squad to find out who was flooding the United States market with counterfeit bills. Lustig was arrested, and a search revealed a set of money-printing plates and $51,000 in fake currency. Lustig was sent to the Federal House of Detention in New York City.

On December 5, 1935, he stood trial, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lustig received and additional five years for his escape attempt a few months earlier. According to The Evening Independent in Massillon, Ohio, Lustig died in prison on March 11, 1947, after suffering a brain tumor. Other sources claim Lustig died from complications of pneumonia. Lustig was 57 years old at the time of his death. Secret Service agents said that the occasional counterfeit bill, known as “Count Lustig Money,” still managed to turn up in the years after his death.

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The Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where Lustig died in 1947.

 

The biography of Lustig at http://www.biography.com was used as the basis for this blog post.

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