Count Lustig – The Greatest Con in the World

“Never give a sucker an even break.” – W.C. Fields

An early mugshot of Victor Lustig
One of Lustig’s Rumanian Boxes and a replica of it’s interior.
FBI Fingerprint Wanted sheet for Victor Lustig

 

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” – P.T. Barnum

Intro.

On April 26th, 1936, the same day Joseph Bowers fell to his death, a ship of new inmates arrived on the island. One of the men on the ship that day was known across the world as “The Smoothest Con Man That Ever Lived”. The man was Victor Lustig, one of the most successful and cunning con men of the 1910s 20s and 30s. 

1.

Victor Lustig was born in 1890 in Arnau Austria-Hungary, today’s Czech Republic. Born Robert V. Miller, the early life of Lustig consists of transatlantic sea voyages and migling with the rich. During his travels, he studied languages, the affluent, gambling and swindles. Upgrading his clothing, his grooming and his demeanor along the way, Lustig made himself a man of the world. Even if he was not nobility he would claim to be, and took on the title of “Count Lustig.”

Onboard these long sea voyages, Lustig had a plan to separate the rich travelers from their money.  Lustig, young, well dressed with a suave demeanor caught the interest of his fellow passengers by buying them meals and drinks. They were curious how such a young man had done so well for himself. Lustig would show disinterest in talking about his business and money. Eventually, after much interrogation and questions about his ancestry, he would reveal his source of income: a wooden chest that printed money.

The wealthy travels couldn’t believe what they were hearing and insisted on seeing the box. Lustig, for obvious reasons was reluctant to show off his device, but after hours or sometimes days of pleading aboard the ship, Lustig would relent and give a demonstration. Lustig would show the curious passenger a wooden box, the size of a small chest. Explaining how the process worked, Lustig would show the box to the curious viewer. Inserting a blank dollar-sized paper and a real bill into one end of the box. Several of the boxes polished knobs were turned and the process began.

He would invite the curious onlooker to wait with him while the “chemical process” completed, about six hours. At the end of the wait, Lustig returned to the box and turned the knobs again: two crisp $100 dollar bills would emerge to the disbelief of Lustig’s company. Would they hold up to scrutiny? Lustig would take the passenger and the freshly printed bills to the ships bar and use the cash freely without suspicion. The other traveler was amazed. 

Filled with greed, charmed by Lustig and impressed by the mechanical device, it was inevitable Lustig’s companion would begin to enquire about pricing for a box of their own. The great con he was, Lustig always refused to name a price or consider selling. He knew he and his victim would have plenty of time on their Trans-Atlantic trip to work out a deal. 

After much pleading and increases in offers, Lustig would relent. He would offer to exchange the box for somewhere between $10-30,000. A small sum for a license to print unlimited cash.

Lustig knew how to trap for his victim. His clothes and demeanor would peak their curiosity. Letting them in on the scam gained their trust and his reluctance to sell gave them confidence that Lustig was the genuine article. It wasn’t until it was too late to realize he wasn’t. The whole act was a farce. 

The so called money box, or Rumanian Box was nothing more than random printing parts in a beautiful mahogany case made by a New York Carpenter. Lustig had doctored a second bill’s serial number to match the first bill and put it in the box before the scam began. The so called “chemical process” was nothing more than Lustig buying time for himself once he sold the machine. A new purchaser would buy the box, which Lustig loaded with a handful of genuine bills. These bills would print off one by one, six hours for each bill. By the time the box was empty, Lustig and the traveler would have departed the ship and split ways long ago.

The first known example of the Rumanian Box scam was not created by Lustig, but it was Lustig who perfected it with his peronality and ingenuity for trapping his victims with their own greed.

2.

Lustig would create new cons in the United States and Canada. Claiming his nobility and the damages of the first World War, Lustig approached a bank in Florida in 1922. Lustig had set his sights on a farm that had been repossessed by the bank and was being sold. Lustig devised a story of how his family and most of his fortune were lost in the war. He explained that he wanted to start over and farm for a living. 

In return for the land, Lustig would give over what remained of his fortune, $22,000 in bonds for the farm and an additional $10,000 to run it. The bank was happy to get the property off their books and to help someone in need. It wasn’t until after the payment was made that the bank realized they had been tricked. Lustig had switched the envelope containing the bonds and made off with the cash. 

Not too long after the deal went down, Lustig was captured by private detectives hired by the bank. Lustig gave himself up without a fight and began to work his charm on the detectives. Before he could be returned by train, he had convinced the captors that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that the bank was in the wrong. Somehow, he convinced them that he was owed $1000 for the trouble, which they gave him, and then set him free.

3.

After two years of construction, The Eiffel Tower was completed on March 31, 1889. The 1,063 foot (324 meter) tall, wrought-iron tower was created to celebrate the 1889 Exposition Universelle. The tower was the result of a public contest to “study the possibility of erecting an iron tower on the Champ-de-Mars with a square base, 125 meteres across and 300 metres tall.” Gustave Eiffel’s pyramid inspired, lattice-work tower was selected as the winner of the contest. The tower and the Exposition Universelle would coincide the celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution.

One of the rules for the design was that it was to be easily disassembled after it’s intended 20 year life span. The permit for the land only lasted until 1909. By that time the tower had become a symbol of Paris, what was at first considered an eye-sore was now a calling card for the city. Tourists flocked to Paris to see the metal giant and it’s use as a radio tower added to it’s usefulness.

4.

By 1925 the tower had been standing sixteen years past its expiration date and required regular expenses and repairs to remain standing. Locals and newspapers were discussing the burden and disrepair of Eiffel’s greatest design. One such article was read by Count Lustig, who After World War I, had temporarily settled in Paris.

Realizing the temperament in Paris was turning on the tower, Lustig hatched a plan. Lustig went to work creating fraudulent stationary for the Ministry of Posts, who now were in charge of taking care of the tower. Lustig, along with a fellow con, rented a suite in the Crillion Hotel and invited five prominent businessmen with interest in scrap-metal to a meeting. 

Lustig introduced himself as a representative of the French Ministry of Posts. He explained to the business men that the Eiffel Tower was in particularly bad shape and that the Parisian government no longer wanted to be responsible for it’s costs and upkeep. Prior to the meeting Lustig sized up the group by taking each on a private tour of the Tower in rented limousines. He explained to them that he had been put in charge of tearing down the tower and selling it as 7,000 tons of scrap metal.

Lustig explained that the deal had to be done quickly and quietly since there would be a lot of public outcry if word leaked. He impressed on them that these five men were chosen for their professional demeanor and their ability to keep a business deal quiet. The businessmen were asked to write bids and the Ministry would contact the high bidder.

Lustig and his co-conspirator quickly knew that one of the men Monsieur Poisson was their mark. Mr. P was a scrap metal man. In the early phase of his career, he was looking to make a name for himself. Lustig, keenly aware of Mr. P’s enthusiasm to get a big deal done, he phoned M. P and notified he that he had the winning bid. 

With his 250,000 Franc bid accepted, M P became a little weary of the deal. Lustig had one more phase of the con up his sleeve. To make the experience more authentic, Lustig told M. P that there was still the issue of a bribe for making the deal. Lustig claimed he was making a small amount working for the Ministry and required a little side payment to work out the deal for Poisson. An additional 70,000 francs were required to accept the bid. M. P. agreed, no con would have the balls to ask for a bribe on top of a fake sale. 

The payments were made and Monsieur P received the bill of sale for the Eiffel Tower. Little did he know it was a fake bill of sale and was worthless. Lustig and his partner disappeared from Paris with the money they separated from their mark. M. P never notified any police about the con, most likely to prevent his reputation from being smeared as the man who bought the Eiffel Tower from a fake minister.

5.

Six months following the successful con on Monsieur Pouisson, Lustig was back in Paris again. Seeing how successful he at selling the Eiffel Tower to a scrap-man, Lustig decided to try it again. The plan started off just like the previous, inviting five or six prominent businessmen to privately bid on the scrap metal. This time Lustig encountered some push back by one of the buyers who became suspicious and reported the rouse to the police. Lustig bolted out of town, never to return to Paris. 

6.

No longer welcomed in Paris, Lustig and his brother traveled back to America, returning to their Rumanian Box scam. Lustig’s would sell their boxes, to businessmen, politicians, sheriffs and anyone else with cash and the willingness to take a short cut.

In the meantime, Lustig had hired a chemist to create a way to manufacture passable currency. The Nebraskan chemist, Tom Shaw, created a way to ingrain fibers to create authentic u.s. Currency. Later the Secret Service would sometimes have a difficult time determining if a bill was real or “Lustig”.

The Rumanian Box con would finally catch up with Lustig in Chicago. A sheriff from Texas had notified the Secret Service that he had been taken. Lustig had sold the sheriff a money-box, only to realize once it had run out of real bills that the whole thing was a con. The sheriff chased down Lustig who apologized for the mistake and offered a large sum of money to the lawman. Although angry, the sheriff gave in an accepted the cash. When the sheriff returned with his cash, he came to the realization that his payoff was made completely in counterfeit bills. The secret service was notified and the manhunt for the Count began.

(It’s worth noting that the secret service eventually arrested the sheriff for his crimes as well).

Reports began to spring up across the U.S.: 

“Albany Park police are searching for three men, one a pseudo German chemist, who swindled Frank Wagner… out of $10,000… Wagner met one of the trio, Ray Finalle, last week. Finalle introduced him to the other two, one of them identified as “Silly Willie,” and the other as Victor Lustig the German Chemist.” – Chicago Daily Tribune Feb 2, 1933

7. 

After over a half a year in search of the famous “Count”, a special squad of the Secret Service, lead by Robert L Godby, moved in to make their arrest on May 13, 1935 on the Upper West Side of New York. Lustig had recently changed his appearance and the officers wanted to make sure they had the right guy. 

Once in custody, Lustig gave up easily. He carried a briefcase and was dressed immaculately. Even in arrest, Lustig was well mannered and refined.  

Lustig’s briefcase was filled with clothing and little else. At first the Secret Service couldn’t find evidence to link Lustig to the crimes he was being arrested for. It was only when they came across a key in his wallet that they received a real lead. Eventually figuring out that the key matched the lockers in the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit station at Time Square, law enforcement searched them. The key opened a locker stuffed engraving plates in $5, $10, $20 and $100 domininantions, along with $52,000 in cash. All fake “Lustig” bills. 

8.

While Lustig was awaiting trial at the Federal Detention Headquarters in Manhattan, he devised a simple but brilliant escape plan. Lustig went to work making a rope of bedsheets. Once complete he worked his way down the side of the Detention Center, acting as if he was a window washer. Working his way down slowly, in no hurry of being caught Lustig made his escape. Lustig went without detection, even in the populated area of Manhattan and went missing for over a month.

Once recaptured, Lustig was deemed an escape-risk. Prior to his window washing stunt, he had previously sawed his way out of a jail in Lake County, Indiana. After careful consideration of hist 37 previous arrests and various escapes, the Count was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz, which included 5 years for his recent prison break.

 

9.

On the Rock it was common for inmates to have reunions. Lustig had previous contact with the biggest name at the time of his arrival. During the height of the depression Lustig was looking to expand his circle of influence. There was no one more influential than Al Capone. Capone was familiar and interested by the European count who had created a money machine. Lustig was in Chicago and met with Capone. 

In a strange series of events, Lustig asked Capone for $50,000 to finance a new con he had worked up. Capone, familiar with the money boxes success and flush with cash, agreed to give the Count the $50k he wanted. It was a great opportunity for Capone to enter a new racket.

Strangely, Lustig did nothing with the money, he locked it up in a safe. It sat there for two months before Lustig came back to Capone telling him that the plan hadn’t worked, but returned his money. Capone was impressed with the honesty of the Count and gave him $5,000 as a gesture of good will. Lustig made out with the cash and the trust of the most powerful man in the midwest.

10.

As promised: Lustig wrote the ten commandments of a con man. It speaks to the nature of his personality and crimes. Not a bad list of rules: 

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

Conclusion

By the time of Lustig’s final capture and imprisonment in Alcatraz, there were over $2.5 millions fake Lustig notes that had flooded the streets of America. The Secret Service would be chasing down and detecting these notes long after Lustig was recaptured.

Victor Lustig would die quietly of pneumonia at age 57 in Alcatraz on March 9, 1947. His death certificate indicates his profession as “apprentice salesman.” 

Lustig, one of the great cons of the 20th century, illustrates another type of criminal beyond the violent and incorrigible that Alcatraz made it’s name for housing. The tales of Lustig’s cons became infamous across the United States and Europe. Wealthy patrons of the crooked arts began to wisen up: later Victor’s brother, Emil Lustig would reflect: “The times aren’t what they used to be. The suckers are smartening up. They want receipts.”