There have been conmen and cheats, cardsharps, and crooks but when it comes to deception and trickery few could match the style of international conman Victor Lustig.
Victor Lustig was the king of conmen with forty-five known aliases and nearly fifty arrests in the United States alone. He was born in 1890 in Czechoslovakia. Though brilliant as a child, he turned to a life of crime, excelling in gambling, card games and scams.
Lustig became a riverside gambler plying the various cruise boats that invariably consisted of the rich and famous. Here he met other experts and under their tutelage fine-tuned his skills.
In 1922, Lustig landed in Missouri, USA and decided to lease a farmhouse, which a Missouri bank had reclaimed from its owner for failing to pay back debts to the bank. Assuming the role of a rich Count, Lustig approached the bank with a riches to rags story and how he wanted to settle down and work on a farm.
As proof of his intentions, Lustig offered $22,000 in bonds to the bank and also convinced the bank to exchange an additional $10,000 of bonds for cash. The bankers gladly obliged. However, Lustig switched the envelopes and made off with both bonds and cash.
The bankers hired a private detective who traced him to New York city. While bringing him back Lustig convinced the bankers that if they did press charges, the negative publicity would cause a run on the bank by its depositors.
To top it all, Lustig insisted that the bank give him $1000 for the inconvenience that the arrest had caused him and then coolly walked away with the loot.
Lustig then moved to Canada on ‘business’ where he conned another banker into placing bets on ‘sure fire’ wins in horse racing. Having won over the banker’s confidence with a few such wins, Lusting pressed the banker to make a largish bet. Naturally Lustig walked away with the money.
The scam that really took the cake was the selling of the Eiffel Tower (Paris’ most famous landmark built in 1889). In 1925, Lustig moved to Europe as both the US and Canadian police were after him. He shifted base to Paris in partnership with another trickster called Dapper Dan Collins.
The French government was at that time trying to get the Eiffel Tower repaired. Newspapers covering it also mentioned in passing that the cost of repair were more than the cost of tearing down the tower.
Lustig immediately hit upon a terrific scam. He decided that he would sell the rights to tear down the tower. He then went about making elaborate precautions. First, he printed some official looking stationary. Then he sent letters to various scrap iron dealers inviting them to discuss the government contract.
During the discussion Lustig announced that the Eiffel Tower was being scrapped as in the last 35 years the steel had rusted. He invited them to submit tenders and bids and also played up on the secrecy part as it could raise a public hue and cry.
Lustig had already chosen his victim and informed him that he was winner of the bid. Lustig approached the Frenchman and indirectly hinted that he wanted a bribe before the bid could be approved. The Frenchman gladly offered him the bribe and also the tender money for the sale of the Eiffel tower.
Immediately after, Lustig and Dan Collins escaped to nearby Austria. But, the Frenchman, either due to embarrassment or shame never reported the scam and Lustig again came to Paris and sold the Eiffel Tower to another gullible dealer again!
However, Lustig’s luck ran out as the victim complained to the police. Lustig was lucky enough to be one jump ahead of the French police.
Many were the scams Lustig attempted, like the ‘money’ making machine in which one enters a real note and it duplicates itself. By this time Lustig had joined hands with a forger named William Watts. Soon they were circulating counterfeit US currency in large numbers.
In 1934, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) finally caught Lustig with thousands of counterfeit money. Put in the Federal House of Detention in New York city, Lustig however, managed to escape from prison the day before his trial.
Recaptured a month later, Lustig was sent to Alcatraz prison, in California in 1935. On March 9, 1947, Lustig contracted pneumonia and died.
Victor Lustig made full use of the adage “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Though crime never pays and the criminal is ultimately caught, conmen survive only because when it comes to the thought of making easy money, even the smartest get suckered.
Aside: If Victor Lustig was the king of conmen with forty-five known aliases and nearly fifty arrests in the United States alone, Natwarlal or to use his real name, Mithilesh Kumar Shrivastava, was his Indian counterpart. Natwarlal swindled, duped and conned people of over a crore of rupees.