The Grifter Who (Twice) Sold The Eiffel Tower, Then Scammed Al Capone
Victor Lustig was a master of his craft, and that craft was swindling. He was a con artist who had perfected his art to the point where he convinced unsuspecting marks to buy the Eiffel Tower and even fooled mob boss Al Capone.
Lustig (whose name, appropriately, means “funny” in German) was born in Austria-Hungary in 1890. Details on his life are sketchy, as Lustig was known by more than 20 pseudonyms, and he gave differing accounts of his background. What is known is that Victor Lustig knew five languages, was almost magnetically charming and perfected sleight of hand early on in life. Every skill he acquired made him more of a prototypical con artist, and he traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States to swindle.
In one of his famous earlier bits, he pretended to be a Broadway producer and convinced New Yorkers to invest in new shows. These shows were, of course, not real. These were all small-scale compared to his biggest act, though, selling the Eiffel Tower.
In 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris. He had stationery made to present himself as a French government official, and he sent letters to French scrap metal dealers. The letters said that the Eiffel Tower was going to be knocked down and sold for scrap, and the dealers were invited to bid on the metal. This sounds ridiculous, but it is worth noting that the Eiffel Tower was not intended to remain in Paris forever. It was created for the 1889 World’s Fair, and by 1925, it had outlived its expected lifespan.
Six scrap dealers responded to Lustig’s invitation, and, using his infamous charisma, he convinced them to bid on the Eiffel Tower. Out of the bunch, Lustig had picked the true mark of the con, Andre Poisson. The conman received the equivalent of $70,000 from Poisson, more than $1,000,000 in today’s money when adjusted for inflation, and then Lustig left for Austria.
In Austria, Lustig waited out the storm, keeping his eyes on newspapers in case Poisson reported the scam. Of course, Lustig accurately suspected that this wouldn’t happen. He believed that Poisson would be too embarrassed by what had happened to go to authorities, and this seems to be the case. After six months, Lustig, seriously, went back to Paris to try the scam again.
It almost worked, too. Except, this time, the mark was quick to report what had happened, so Lustig got away while he could.
Victor Lustig’s remaining years of crime were spent in the United States. One of the most notorious schemes he took around the U.S. was the Rumanian money box. This was a box that Lustig claimed could copy money. Lustig would ask for a $100 bill from a mark. He would put it in the machine, and it would soon give two bills in return. These were counterfeits, and Lustig would keep the real money.
In the 1930s, Lustig attempted a scheme only the most daring of swindlers would try: he wanted to scam Al Capone. This seems like a good way to get killed quickly, but Lustig, with decades of experience on his side, tried it anyway. He asked Capone to invest $50,000 in a new company that did not exist. A few months later, he returned to Capone and said that the plans fell through. However, Lustig returned all of Capone’s money, and Capone rewarded him for it. The exact amount that Capone gave Lustig is up for debate, but the fact that he left alive at all is impressive.
Lustig’s luck did finally run out, though. He was arrested in 1935, and after escaping from jail using a rope made from bedsheets, Lustig was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz. His health dramatically declined in prison, to the point where guards thought he was exaggerating as part of an escape attempt. He was truly sick, though, and died of pneumonia in 1947.
While his life of swindling had to inevitably end, Lustig has remained a legendary figure for just how ridiculous some of his schemes were. He also is believed to be the originator of the “Ten Commandments for Con Men,” a set of guidelines for success for other unsavory figures. Though it is unlikely that any who came after Lustig attempted anything as bizarre as selling the Eiffel Tower.
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