The man who sold the Eiffel Tower…twice!
Victor Lustig was a Czech immigrant and confidence man who operated from the turn of the 19th century well into the mid 1930’s. His career began with a life of petty crimes, burglary, shoplifting, and pick pocketing. After learning the ropes of various gambling schemes, Lustig began traveling with the many pleasure cruises that traversed the Atlantic between Europe and North America, coning the many wealthy passengers out of their riches.
The threat of German submarine warfare effectively ended Trans-Atlantic travel during World War I, so Lustig settled in the United States and concocted even grander schemes, including real estate and counterfeiting scams. One of his most famous schemes was his counterfeiting machine. He built this special machine that would print a $100 bill every six hours. Of course the machines were only a hoax, loaded with only a few $100 bills that would appear after six hours. He convinced his clients to purchase the machine for hundreds or thousands of dollars, and quickly disappeared before they discovered that his machine was a fraud.
In 1922 Lustig was captured after scamming a bank out of $10,000 through a fraudulent real estate scam. Lustig was such a smooth talker that he not only convinced the authorities to turn him loose, they also gave him $1,000 for his trouble.
It was in 1925 that Lustig would conduct his boldest and grandest scam of all. After reading a newspaper detailing the Eifel Tower’s terrible state of disrepair, Lustig created a scheme to make a huge fortune. Using forged stationary he posed as a government agent and mailed letters to various scrap dealers in France to meet him in Paris. Five scrap dealers answered the letter, and Lustig informed them that the City of Paris intended to dismantle and sell the Eifel Tower due to the huge costs of maintenance and repair. Of the five dealers, Lustig chose Andre Poisson, not because he was the highest bidder, but because Lustig judged him to be the most gullible of the five men. Poisson paid Lustig a large undisclosed sum (as well as a bribe) and Lustig quickly fled to Austria before Poisson could realize that the whole deal was a sham. Filled with embarrassment, Poisson never alerted the authorities.
One year later Lustig returned to Paris and repeated his scam. This time his mark did alert the police, warrants for Lustig’s arrest were issued, and wanted posters were distributed all over Europe. Lustig soon found himself among Europe’s most wanted fugitives. He moved back to the United States, where he continued his various cons and flim-flammery. In 1934 he was arrested and charged for participation in a counterfeiting outfit. He escaped from prison but was recaptured a year later. Lustig died while serving time at Alcatraz Prison in 1947. Today he is known as the “King of Con Men”.