Old Time Con Men: Victor Lustig

06 Sep

1890 – 1947 Another one of the great old time con men was “Count” (yeah right) Victor Lustig. He is most famous for selling the Eiffel Tower, but his cons are many, notorious, and the famous 10 Commandments for Con Men is attributed to him:

  • Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
  • Never look bored.
  • Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
  • Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
  • Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
  • Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
  • Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
  • Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
  • Never be untidy.
  • Never get drunk.

Lustig was born back in 1890 in Czechoslovakia and in his late teens and very early 20s made his living as a gambler, proficient at billiards, poker, and bridge, and he would work the trans Atlantic cruise ship circuit.

When WWI broke out, he headed to the States and began more inventive conning. In 1922 he landed in Missouri and expressed great interest in a dilapidated old farm that was unwanted and which a bank had repossessed. He adopted for the first time his role of a Count and gave a sob story of how his life of nobility in Austria was destroyed when the country was overthrown as a result of the First World War.  He claimed to have come to America to rebuild his life with what was left of the family fortune and begin a new life of farming.

Lustig offered the bankers $22,000 in Liberty bonds to buy the farm and they gladly took it.  Moreover, he also convinced them to exchange an additional $10,000 of bonds for cash so that he would have some operating capital until the farm became productive.  The bankers gladly obliged.  They were so excited to be rid of the worthless farm that they had no idea that the Count had switched envelopes and made off with both the bonds and the cash.

The bankers hired a private detective who captured him in a New York City hotel room. Now, here is just how good of a con man Lustig was: During the long train ride home, Lustig convinced his captors that if they actually did press charges against him, there would be a run on the bank by its depositors and the bank would fold.  Furthermore, and with balls the size of watermelons, Lustig insisted that they should give him $1000 for the inconvenience that the arrest has caused him.  Unbeleivably, the argument worked and “Count” Lustig walked away to freedom not just with the orginal score, but with an extra $1000 in his pocket.

Yes, he sold the Eiffel Tower, just after an article was published in the paper stating that the French government wasn’t sure how to afford its upkeep. One of his best scams, though, and my personal favorite, was the Money Printing Machine. Yes, a machine that prints $100 bills. Add some chemicals, operate the complex system of polished knobs and dials just the right way, and every 6 hours the machine will spit out a $100 bill.

Known as The Rumanian Box, it was a handsome mahogany box measuring approximately 12 inches square with a narrow slot cut in either end. He would sell the machine for $25,000 ($240,000 in today’s prices). Naturally he would show the process to the mark and indeed it would print a $100 bill. It in fact came loaded with 2 $100 bills. Thus, he would have 6- 12 hours after the sale to get out of town before the mark became wise.

However, one of Lustig first victims tried for weeks afterwards, assuming he was screwing up the procedure. Realizing people were even more gullible then he had assumed proved beneficient, for one day in Oklahoma  he was arrested on non-related fraud charges.  He pulled out his magic box and convinced the sheriff (and county treasurer) that he could have the machine in exchange for $10,000 and his freedom (they could claim that Lustig had escaped).

It was a deal that the sheriff couldn’t refuse.  However, eight months later, the sheriff caught up with Lustig in Chicago and pointed a gun at the Count’s face.  Lustig talked his way out of the predicament by explaining that the sheriff did not follow the proper sequence of turning the knobs.  Lustig then returned the $10,000 (can’t win ’em all…).  The sheriff was later arrested down on Bourbon Street for passing counterfeit $100 bills and sentenced to federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Someone bet Lustig he couldn’t take Al Capone. A good bet, for Al Capone is not someone to fuck with. Lustig took to the bet. He took a safe but crafty approach to getting Capone to give him cash. He convinced Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a stock deal. He then simply kept Capone’s money in a safe deposit box for two months, after which he returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig’s integrity, Capone gave him $5,000, and boom. The bet was won.

He eventually was arrested on counterfeiting charges, turned in by a jealous girlfriend when she found out he was sleeping around on her with his counterfeiting partner’s mistress. The day before his trial he escaped from a high security prison (bedsheets made into a rope out the window. the trick was getting the extra bedsheets: When first placed in the prison, Lustig noticed that when the attendants brought clean bed sheets to the cells, they would simply ask how many beds were occupied and hand over the required number.  When they came around to collect the soiled linens, they never counted how many were returned.  This set Lustig’s plan into motion.  A couple of weeks before his escape, Lustig simply added one to the number of occupied cots and accumulated nine sheets that he stored in a slit in his mattress.  At night, while all of the other prisoners were listening to a radio show, Lustig tore the sheets into long strips and fashioned a crude rope.)

However, 27 days later he was recaptured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and that was it for him. He was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz, and 12 years later died in prison of pneumonia.

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Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


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