In May 1935, Victor Lustig was strolling down Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. At first, the Secret Service agents weren’t sure it was him. They’d been shadowing him for seven months, trying to learn more about this mysterious and dapper man. As he turned up the velvet collar on his coat and quickened his pace, the agents swooped in.
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1890, Lustig, became fluent in several languages. Charming and poised, he spent his younger years aboard ocean liners, selling what he called a “”money box”” (used to print counterfeit money) to successful businessmen for $10,000. It was rigged with several hundred dollar bills for test runs, and Lustig promptly disappeared with the money after the deal had been struck.
In 1925, Victor Lustig had devised the plan that would make him a legend amongst conmen. In Paris, he read a newspaper story about the rusting Eiffel Tower and the cost of its maintenance and repairs. He researched the largest metal-scrap dealers in Paris. Then he sent out letters claiming to be the Deputy Director of the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes and requesting meetings that might prove lucrative. In exchange, he demanded absolute discretion. He conducted meetings, telling scrap dealers that a decision had been made to take bids for the right to demolish the tower and take possession of its metal.
Lustig focused on Andre Poisson, a newcomer. As a public official, Lustig said, he didn’t earn much money, and finding a buyer for the Eiffel Tower was a big decision. Poisson bit. He’d been in Paris long enough to know what Lustig was getting at. Poisson paid Lustig $20,000 in cash, plus $50,000 if Lustig could see to it that his was the winning bid. Lustig secured the $70,000. In less than an hour, he was going back to Austria. However, the Count suspected that a scrap dealer had notified the police, so he fled to the United States.
In 1930, Lustig went into partnership with Tom Shaw, a chemist, and the two men began a counterfeiting operation, using plates, paper and ink that emulated the tiny red and green threads in real bills. They set up an elaborate distribution system to push out more than $100,000 per month, using couriers who didn’t know they were dealing with counterfeit cash.
As more phony cash turned up at banks and racetracks, the Secret Service tried to track Lustig down. Then Lustig’s girlfriend, Billy May, found out he was having an affair. As revenge, she made an anonymous call to the police and told them where the Count was staying in New York. Federal agents finally found him in the spring of 1935.
On the day before his trial was to begin, Lustig fashioned bedsheets into a rope and slipped out the window of the Federal Detention Headquarters. Pretending to be a window washer, he casually wiped at windows as he shimmied down the building. Dozens of passersby saw him and thought nothing of it.
The Count was captured in Pittsburgh a month later and pleaded guilty to the original charges. He was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz. In 1949, the New York Times reported that Lustig’s brother had told a judge that the infamous Lustig had died at Alcatraz two years before. It was most fitting: Victor Lustig, one of the most colorful con men in history, was able to pass without attracting any attention.
Adapted from G. King, The Smoothest Con Man Who Ever Lived @ Smithsonian Magazine, 2012.
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