“I cannot understand honest men. They lead desperate lives full of boredom”
In the summer of 1925 five businessmen received a letter from the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs asking to meet at the Hotel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris to discuss a government contract. When they arrived they met an impeccably dressed gentleman who announced that the government was to dismantle and sell the Eiffel Tower and he was authorized to offer them first refusal on the 6,350 tonnes (7,000 tons) of high-grade scrap iron.
The Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, and was not intended to be permanent. It was to have been taken down in 1909 and moved elsewhere. The government official then took them on a tour of the landmark and decided that one of the men, André Poisson, a rough diamond who felt uncomfortable among the rich, was the most likely target. Back at the Hotel Crillon, the man from the ministry solicited a bribe from Poisson and a week later handed over a fine looking document, selling the Eiffel Tower in exchange for a large cheque.
This was duly pocketed by “Count” Victor Lustig who, far from working for the French government, was a skilled conman. Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia on 4 January 1890 and was fluent in several languages. He counted on Poisson being too embarrassed to tell anyone, which he was, so two years later Lustig returned to Paris and pulled the same stunt again. This time his mark did go to the police and Lustig narrowly avoided arrest. He once said, “I cannot understand honest men. They lead desperate lives full of boredom.”
Nine years later, in 1934, the FBI arrested Lustig on charges of counterfeiting. A day before he was due to go on trial, he escaped from the Federal House of Detention in New York, but was recaptured after 27 days on the run, in Pittsburgh. Lustig pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz. On 9 March 1947, he contracted pneumonia and died two days later at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Lustig once convinced Al Capone (search the article) to invest $50,000 in a stock deal. Lustig kept the gangster’s money in a safety deposit box for two months and then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig, Capone gave him $5,000, which had been Lustig’s aim in the first.