As a policeman in 1925 Paris, you’ve seen a lot. The country is still recovering from the Great War, and society is in chaos. The great city takes pride in its iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower, but there have been reports
that it’s falling into disrepair.
Still, you never expected to read a report like this – a con man is attempting to sell the Eiffel Tower to scrap metal dealers!
And what’s more, it might not have been the first time?
You can’t imagine the nerve of someone to try to pull off a scam like this, so brazen and on such a large scale. Who could be confident enough to try to get away with this?
One thing’s for sure – you’re going to get to the bottom of this case, and you want to start at the beginning of this con man’s dossier.
The perp’s name is Victor Lustig, and he’s been leaving a trail of cons and fraud across both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Hosting, Austria-Hungary in 1890, it was clear from an early age that he was a brilliant boy.
He excelled in his studies, but he also tended to skirt the rules and look for
trouble. By the time he was nineteen, he was studying in Paris and found himself falling into the company of fellow gamblers. He was successful at the tables, but his passion for women-led him into more trouble.
An encounter with the jealous boyfriend of one of his paramours left him with a distinctive scar on the left side of his face. He left school not long after and soon parlayed his studies and his multilingual skills into the one thing he had always been best at – scamming people.
As soon as Lustig began his new career, he started weaving a fiction about his life. He told everyone he met that he had been raised by the burgomeister, or Mayor, of his small Austrian town. In fact, his mother and father were poor peasants who lived in a modest house made of stone.
He liked to say that he would only steal from the greedy and dishonest, but in reality, Lustig was only looking for the marks with the deepest pockets.
That led him to a fertile location to begin his criminal career – the trans-Atlantic ocean liners that made voyages between France and New York City.
These luxurious ships were filled with rich travelers enjoying all the amenities of first class – several high-quality meals a day, comfortable sleeping quarters, and parties that made the perfect opportunity to size up potential marks. Lustig was an excellent talker, and his signature move was presenting himself as a learned, wealthy man seeking investment in a project in New York. One of his favorite tricks was pretending to be a music producer seeking investment in a Broadway musical. Art-loving rich travelers were quick to invest for a share in the show, but they would never
see any of that money back – the show never existed, and Lustig would be onto his next scam before they realized what would happen. But Lustig’s great ocean con hit a snafu when World War I made the Atlantic a much more dangerous place, and leisure travel was suspended.
So he decided it was time to make his name on dry land – in the United States. There was only one problem for Lustig – law enforcement was much more active on the mainland, and he soon became one of the most wanted men in America. He pulled one scam after another, including a 1922 caper where he pulled off an elaborate heist on a bank. He entered the bank offering them bonds tied to a repossessed property, in exchange for cash on hand. But Lustig had studied sleight-of-hand artists, and he was just as good at hands-on con jobs as he was at talking his way into money. He managed to trick the teller into handing over the cash and escaped with both the cash
and the bonds in hand. But defrauding a bank is a federal law enforcement affair, and soon Lustig had powerful investigators on his tail.
Lustig was always trying to stay one step ahead of the law, and so needed a scam that let him get money in a hurry and then be on his way before he was caught. That’s how he developed his most common scheme – the Rumanian Box.
Haven’t you ever wished you could just make money appear out of thin air?
It would certainly solve your cash problems. Lustig preyed on this desire and presented his marks with a large mahogany box with two small slots.
He claimed it took six hours to create an identical duplicate. He would ask for a denomination, place it in the device, and then wait with them while
the device supposedly worked, even take them to a bank to authenticate the supposed duplicate, but he was using sleight of hand to swap out real and fake bills. He would then sell the mark the box at a high rate, leaving them to figure out it was a hoax once he was long gone. But eventually, Lustig’s tricks started catching up with him, and he had too many law enforcement agents on his tail. It was 1925, and Lustig decided to return to France until the heat died down. That led him to the biggest opportunity of his career.
The Eiffel Tower may have been one of Paris’ proudest landmarks, but the post-war era had led to hard times. The monument was starting to rust, and maintenance and repainting was taking a financial toll. When Lustig read an article that said the public might eventually support it being torn
down, Lustig hatched his wildest plan yet – one that would make him the most wanted man in France.
Lustig often referred to himself as a Count, part of his obsession with attaining the high-class status that had evaded him in youth. That gave him access to some of the richest and most powerful people on both sides of
the Atlantic, and he had developed a “Ten Commandments of the Con” that would let him pull off one of the most ambitious scams in history.
Be a patient listener,Never look bored wait for the other person to reveal their politics, then agree with them. Let the other person reveal their religious views, then agree with them. Be open to discussing sex, but only follow it up if the mark displays strong interest. Don’t discuss illness unless the mark shows concern. Don’t pry into a person’s circumstances, wait for them to reveal them to you. Never boast, just let your importance become obvious.Never be untidy. And finally, never get drunk to keep your wits about you. Lustig applied these rules at all times, but never more so than when he began his Eiffel Tower scam.
He hired a forger to produce fake government stationery that let him present himself as the Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. Contacting some of Paris’ most powerful scrap metal dealers, he told them that the government had decided that the Eiffel Tower was a money loser and needed to be dismantled and sold for scrap. Warning them that this was a big secret that would cause a public uproar if revealed, he
told them he was in charge of picking the dealer who would get the job.
Many of the dealers were taken in, agreeing that the modernist Eiffel Tower didn’t fit in with the city’s other classic monuments like the famous Gothic cathedrals. Lustig wasn’t looking to deal with more than one dealer, he was looking for the perfect mark. And he found it in Andre Poisson, an underdog desperate to gain acceptance in the higher levels of Paris’ business community. Lustig pretended to accept his bid and pretended to be a corrupt official, seeking a bribe of $70,000 to guarantee Poisson’s place as the winning scrap detail.
Poisson paid Lustig off, and Lustig soon ran off to Austria with the money.
Lustig had picked his target well because Poisson was so embarrassed by his failure that he never reported the theft to the police and Lustig’s massive scam was undetected. It’s a wild story of a con man with a fearless confidence in his own ability to scam people, but Lustig had one weakness – he was overconfident, and he dared to pull the same scam for a second
time. On your desk, you’ve got the report of Lustig’s second attempt to sell the Eiffel Tower.
Only months after fleeing to Austria, Lustig contacted a second group of scrap dealers and found another mark in them. He played everything exactly the same way, down to the bribe, but his second mark wasn’t
quite as weak-willed as Poisson. He reported Lustig to the police, and you have your best shot yet at getting this notorious con man behind bars.
In the post-war era, trans-Atlantic travel is easy again and Lustig is able to hop a liner to the United States, But you can’t get his brazen scams out of your mind, and you make sure to keep up on the exploits of this notorious con man across the pond. He doesn’t disappoint, as he returns to his old haunts. But the failed Eiffel Tower scam and the close call may have unnerved him because it seems like he’s becoming more reckless and more arrogant in his targets. Lustig’s later exploits in the United States continue his most common tricks, but they also, pick riskier targets and require more close calls. That brings down more law enforcement attention on him.
In 1928, Lustig was invited to the Massachusetts home of businessman Thomas Kearns to discuss an investment. While there, he pulled off a hands-on theft of $16,000 from Kearns’ home. Sure enough, Kearns called the police, and Lustig was on the run again. But that was nothing compared to the dangerous targets he went after next. He pulled a con on the notorious gangster Al Capone, attempting to get Capone to invest
in a mutual scam. He never intended to actually scam Capone, because he had no intention of sleeping with the fishes, Instead, he borrowed money for an investment, then returned it claiming the con had fallen through.
He then convinced his “business partner” Capone to give him $5,000 to help him get out of town.
Incredibly, it worked, but Lustig had played with fire for very little reward.
By 1930, Lustig had partnered with a pair of counterfeiters, William Watts and Tom Shaw. Their goal was to mass-produce fake money and sell it.
But Lustig’s lust for risky cons continued to escalate, as he attempted to scam a Texas sheriff. He sold the sheriff one of his Rumanian boxes, but when the Sheriff realized he had been scammed, he pursued Lustig all the way to New York. Incredibly once caught, Lustig actually convinced the Sheriff he had just been using the box wrong and gave him a ‘compensation’ of several thousand dollars- which were all counterfeit
of course. When the sheriff tried to use the money, he was arrested for passing counterfeit money.
This became another entry in Lustig’s growing dossier of crimes as he was pursued by federal and local officials across America. So what was Lustig’s undoing? Not one of his scams, but a con of the heart. Lustig was known for being a ladies’ man, and he had his own mistress, Billy May, while also pursuing his business partner’s younger lover. When Billy May found out, she called the authorities and left an anonymous tip.
Lustig was soon arrested in New York for counterfeiting and quickly threw his business partners under the bus. But when the key in his possession was proven to open a locker full of counterfeit bills, Lustig was caught red-handed. The law had finally won over the notorious Count. But Lustig had one last trick up his sleeve. The day before his trial began, Lustig pretended to be sick. That allowed him to use a rope he made to escape from the medical wing. He was on the run for almost a month before being captured in Pittsburgh. This time there was no escape, and he pled guilty at his trial.
He was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison, plus five for the escape.
He was sent to the notorious Alcatraz Island in California, where he was easily the sharpest-dressed inmate taken into the prison.
But there was one enemy Victor Lustig couldn’t out-talk, out-scam, or con.
After serving twelve years of his sentence, Lustig came down with a bad case of pneumonia and died two years later.
The Eiffel Tower, however, is still standing strong, and has been repaired, repainted, and is secure as one of France’s most beloved landmarks.
And that’s case closed on one of the most notorious con men ever to plague two continents.