The Legendary Conman Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

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membership is completely free for the first 30 days. When the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 it
was intended to function as the entrance arches to the World’s Fair in Paris. It was never meant to be permanent. In fact, it only had a permit to stay standing
for 20 years, until 1909. This was a good thing according to many Parisians
who thought of the structure as an eye-sore. This included famed author Guy de Maupassant
who said of it, “What will be thought of our generation if we do not smash this lanky
pyramid.” In fact, a group of artists and architects
from France actually submitted a group letter to the Minister of Works and the Commissioner
for the Exposition against it being built in the first place, writing: “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects
and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength,
with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of
this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment
a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing
under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les
Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this
ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching
like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal…” Nevertheless, it was built anyway and due
to the value provided for radio transmissions and tourism, the city of Paris kept it erect. This all brings us to May of 1925, when one
Victor Lustig first conceived the scheme that would make him a legend. With documents and letterheads proclaiming
him the Deputy Director of the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes (the Ministry of Postal
Services and Telecommunications), Lustig sent out notes to prominent Paris scrap metal businesses
urgently asking them to meet him at the Hotel de Crillon. Six dealers came, curious what the French
government wanted with them. After an expensive meal and plenty of wine,
Lustig declared, in his typical charismatic fashion, that the city of Paris was going
to knock down the Eiffel Tower and sell it for scrap metal. This was a huge secret and the public could
not know at this point, of course, but he wanted the scrap metal businesses to bid against
one another to see who would get this extremely valuable government contract. Negotiations began in earnest with Andre Poisson
winning the bid for seventy thousand dollars (about a million dollars today). It was a lot of money, but to Poisson, who
was new in town and wanted to establish a reputation, it was worth the huge contract. Of course, there was one very big problem. Victor Lustig did not work for the Ministere
de Postes et Telegraphes. In fact, Lustig did not work for the French
government at all. Victor Lustig was a con man. Born in Arnau, Austria-Hungary (today Hostinne,
Czech) in 1890, not much is known of Lustig’s childhood besides that he was born as Robert
V. Miller to an upper middle class family. At an early age, he decided to travel the
world. In order to finance his adventures, he took
to conning rich people. Fluent in several languages due to the varied
cultures of his homeland, he rode ocean liners between Europe and America playing the part
of a rich, free-spending young man – and gave himself a new moniker, the “Count.” The Count would wine, dine, and charm potential
marks, until eventually conversation turned to his line of work and source of obvious
wealth. Reluctantly and asking for utmost secrecy,
he would reveal his “money box” (also known as a Rumanian Box). A well-known con, the “money box” was
essentially a fake money printer – spitting out bills that were hidden in the machine. The contraption was made out of beautiful
mahogany and was the size of a steamer trunk. He would ask his mark for a hundred dollar
bill, insert it into the machine, wait a few hours for “chemical processing,” and when
they came back, two of the bills would emerge. As Lustig would put it, “the box literally
paid for itself… and then some.” The enterprising new friends of Lustig would
beg him to sell it, despite Lustig’s “reluctance.” After much cajoling and rising bids, Lustig
would agree to sell it for, sometimes, up to thirty grand. After a few more test runs – and a few more
hundred dollar bills – Lustig would depart the ship and leave the money box with its
new owners. It would be only a matter of time before they
realized it was scam, but it didn’t matter. Lustig was already gone, onto his next con. His coup-de-grace of cons came to him when
he was reading a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower. The article remarked on the high cost of maintenance
and repairs for the Tower, making mention that it was rusting. As previously noted, many Parisians thought
of it as a huge eye sore at this time, with all of this giving Lustig the idea. Despite the interest of the six Parisian scrap
metal business, Lustig had already identified his mark – Andre Poisson. As mentioned, Poisson was new to the business
community and was wanting to make a splash. As the Count had suspected, when he took all
the potential contractors to the tower in a limo for a tour, it was Poisson who very
clearly was the most serious about winning the contract. However, Poisson’s wife wasn’t so sure. She thought the whole thing seemed fishy,
with all the secrecy and quick moving nature of the deal. To calm her fears, the Count arranged a meeting
where he confessed… Lustig explained to Poisson and his wife that
he was but a lowly bureaucrat, expected to impress, but hardly making enough to pay his
bills. Thus, beyond any orders for normal discretion
when facilitating contracts like this one, he tended to like to keep things extremely
quiet on closing the deal to avoid unwanted attention. Poisson knew exactly what this meant – Lustig
was open to bribes. Poisson and his wife, actually rather relieved,
obliged, giving the Count fifty grand to make sure Poisson would win the bid. Adding in the twenty grand for the actual
contract, Lustig had seventy grand, or about a million dollars today, in his hands. Within an hour of receiving the money, the
Count left Paris. Shockingly, despite the huge sum that had
changed hands, upon realizing he had been had, Poisson decided to keep his mouth shut. The money was probably gone either way, but
at least by keeping quiet, he could keep himself from becoming the laughingstock of the Parisian
business world. So in the end, the price of being embarrassed
and potentially being arrested for bribery made it not worth it. As it had worked out so well the first time,
Lustig decided to try it again. Only six months later, he returned to Paris
with the same letterheads and summoned five new scrap metal businesses. He wined and dined them, just like before,
but as a deal was being consummated with one of the iron dealers, another one became suspicious. He contacted the police. When Lustig caught wind of it, he abandoned
the deal and fled in a hurry to the United States, presumably on one of the ocean liners
where he got his start. If one thought the Count had learned his lesson,
they would be sorely mistaken. He once again turned to the money box for
his scams. Taking on dozens of alias and enduring several
arrests – including one that landed him in the same Indiana jail as former professional
baseball player turned famed gangster in the off-season, John Dillinger. The Count swindled innocent folks in Indiana,
Nebraska, Texas, and Chicago, including one Texas sheriff who followed him across the
country, only to finally catch him and be tricked again when Lustig convinced him it
was the sheriff who failed to work the machine properly. Sometime prior to 1930, he even reportedly
scammed the most famous gangster of our time, Al Capone. The story goes that he convinced Capone to
give him fifty grand with a promise to double his money in sixty days with his newest venture. Knowing full well Capone’s dangerous reputation,
he let the money sit in a bank for 59 days. He then came back to Capone to tell him the
deal fell through and that he’d lost the funds, but was willing to repay the invested amount
out of his own pocket. Capone, evidently, was so impressed with Lustig’s
integrity that he only made him pay back about $45,000-$49,000 of the money (reports vary
on the exact amount Capone let him keep). A tidy little profit for the con man’s minimal
effort. As Lustig grew more confident and arrogant
in his abilities, so did his risks – which led to him eventually being caught and given
a substantial prison sentence. In 1930, he teamed up with a Nebraska chemist
named Tom Shaw and began a real counterfeit operation; plates, paper, ink, the whole nine
yards. The bills looked so real that they were able
to release up to one hundred thousand dollars a month into the US economy (about $1.4 million
today). This much money was never going to escape
the eyes of the Secret Service. “Lustig money” kept showing up from New
Orleans to Chicago. Even so, the Secret Service got a little help
in catching the man behind it all. You see, when Lustig’s girlfriend suspecting
him of cheating on her, she turned him in. With her help, the Secret Service was able
to catch him strolling down Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. With a briefcase full of expensive clothes
and no hint of nervousness, a Secret Service agent remarked to the Count that, “You’re
the smoothest con man that ever lived.” Lustig wasn’t done yet. He somehow escaped jail via a bed sheet rope,
but was caught in Pittsburgh a month later. He was then sentenced to twenty years in the
most famous prison of them all – Alcatraz. There, he lived the rest of his days. Despite his success as a con-artist, his death
attracted no real public attention in the beginning, first reported to the public in
a New York Times article from August 31, 1949, in which Lustig’s brother told a judge that
the famed Count had passed away two years earlier in prison. Just before we get into the bonus facts todays,
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