Victor Lustig: the man who sold the Eiffel Tower twice
A smooth operator
They called him the smoothest con man ever. Moving seamlessly between high society and the criminal underworld, Victor Lustig was responsible for some of history’s greatest scams, including a banknote scandal which almost collapsed the economy and selling the Eiffel Tower. Here's his incredible story.
International man of mystery
Lustig had a total of 47 different aliases over the course of his life. He was fluent in five different languages and had dozens of passports. His favourite guise was as a fake European Count whose aristocratic family owned several beautiful European castles. In reality, his roots were probably more modest.
No trace of his childhood
Even today his origins are shrouded in mystery. In police interviews he claimed to come from Hostinne, a small town in Austria. He occasionally stated that his father was the mayor of the town, but in later life he claimed his parents were ‘the poorest of people’.
As a teenager, he rapidly built a reputation for himself as a promising street criminal. He moved quickly from being a pickpocket to panhandler and street hustler. True life crime magazines of the time describe him as perfecting every card trick going.
Robbing from the rich
He always argued that he only robbed to survive and only targeted those who were rich and greedy. He found plenty of these kind of people on the transatlantic liners operating between France and New York.
Coming to America
Before long he was known by authorities in 40 different American cities. Some called him ‘The Scarred’, after a livid scar across his cheekbone he’d got from a love rival back in Paris. Despite the name, he never handled a weapon and preferred to melt back into the crowds.
Scamming Al Capone
Victor Lustig stole from the great and the good from all sides of the law and once even targeted the notorious mobster Al Capone. Fortunately for Victor, Capone never realised he had been scammed.
His most successful scam from this time was known as the Moneybox Scam. He convinced his targets to buy a money box which could apparently print money. Made from cedar wood with lots of complicated dials, it looked the part. One gambler paid more than $40,000 for one.
Bogus horse races
Before long, he had perfected a wide repertoire of scams which involved bogus horse racing, and real estate investments. He would also stage dramatic seizures during business meetings. He built up a sizeable fortune and was soon the target of police all over the country.
The Eiffel Tower scam
One day he read a newspaper column about problems with the Eiffel Tower. The story gave him an idea. Using forged government papers, he wrote to scrap metal dealers telling them that the Eiffel Tower had been condemned and needed to be pulled down. They had a unique opportunity to buy the scrap metal.
The thought of all that scrap metal was too good to resist and one dealer stumped up $70,000 for the lot. When he realised the con, he was so embarrassed that he never reported the crime, so Lustig took the opportunity to repeat it with another target.
In 1930, he launched a massive counterfeiting operation which saw him release $100,000 into the market (the equivalent of $1.4 million/£1.06 million in today’s money). He rather bravely copied $100 bills, even though they were the most heavily scrutinised by bank tellers. His copies were so good that the government began to fear they would undermine confidence in the currency.
A very wanted man
Lustig’s adventures in counterfeiting made him public enemy number one and the Feds were soon on his tail. One of their best agents, Peter Rubano, vowed to put him behind bars and spent the next few years in a game of cat and mouse with the elusive conman.
Master of disguise
Catching him was no easy task. Lustig switched easily between many different disguises using costumes he carried in a trunk. One moment he could be a suave businessman; the next he could be a rabbi or a priest.
Captured at last
On May 10 1935, Rubano finally got his man. Lustig (pictured centre) was brought down by his own girlfriend, who suspected he was having an affair and turned him in. The first Lustig knew about it was the command "hands in the air". Ever the gentleman he calmly handed over his case, which was full of expensive suits.
A daring escape
Lustig wasn’t behind bars for long. While awaiting trial in the Federal Detention Center in Manhattan, he fashioned a rope from bedsheets, cut through the bars and swung off through the window. Passers-by were astonished to see him clamber down the building, give them a quick bow and then vanish.
On the run
He was not free for long. Lustig led police on a dangerous car chase. The pursuing cops eventually locked wheels with Lustig’s car, bringing them both crashing to a halt. He calmly surrendered to police with the words “well boys, here I am.”
Sentenced to the Rock
He was finally hauled before a judge in November 1935 and sentenced to 20 years in the notorious Alcatraz prison. Throughout the proceedings he stayed calm, composed and polite. One Secret Service Agent was so impressed that he leaned over and said: "Count, you are the smoothest con man ever."
He was a sickly prisoner, or at least claimed to be. During his time at Alcatraz, he made more than a thousand medical requests. The prison staff assumed he was faking, but in 1947 his complaints proved genuine. He was transferred to a secure medical facility where he died from complications arising from pneumonia.
A mystery to the end
Even in death, he continued to fascinate America. A historian tried to track down his real life in Austria, but could not find a single shred of evidence. It was as if he had never existed.