PARIS, FRANCE – What better day to tell the story of Victor Lustig than April First? Sometimes better known as April Fools Day for its legacy of pulling practical jokes and harmless trickery on unsuspecting victims, the first day of April typically represents a transition from the bluster of winter to the warm days of spring where moods change and hearts become lighter.
So who was “Count” Victor Lustig, and how does his story conjure a link to April Fools Day?
Historically, Lustig may have been the greatest con man of all time. In fact, his proficiency at the art of the scam was so good that he actually sold the Eiffel Tower…twice! So adept was he at his craft, that Lustig even swindled Al Capone out of several thousand dollars during the Roaring 20s.
Not only did he swindle Capone, but he did also live to tell about it.
Lustig was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890 when it was part of Austria-Hungary.
Throughout his lifetime he had more than 45 aliases. The “Count” spoke five languages fluently.
Early in Lustig’s career, he made his money by scamming wealthy tourists during Trans-Atlantic sailings between Europe and the United States. Traveling with another con man named “Dapper Dan” Collins, the two master thieves made their way to in Paris in May of 1925.
One day while sitting at a sidewalk café reading the French newspaper Le Monde, Lustig came across a small article that reported the Eiffel Tower was in dire need of repair.
The Eiffel Tower – For sale 22 millions pounds of scrap metal
Now a national icon and a symbol of the city, the tower had been built for the Paris Exposition in 1889 and was never intended as a permanent fixture in the city’s skyline. In fact, the Eiffel Tower was originally scheduled to be taken down in 1909 and moved to another location.
According to the story in the paper, the costs for repair to the tower would be prohibitive.
That’s when a light bulb came on in Count Lustig’s fertile brain.
Giving himself the title of Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, Lustig then had a forger print some fake government stationery and arranged for a highly confidential meeting with six scrap metal dealers at the exclusive Paris Hotel de Crillon.
The meeting was “by invitation only” with the businessmen being told that they had been exclusively selected because of their high standards of quality in the scrap metal industry.
Each company was to asked to submit a bid to tear down the Eiffel Tower, but Lustig’s primary goal in setting up the scam was to select the best “mark” for his con. During his presentation, Lustig emphasized the need for secrecy due to the controversy that would most certainly erupt at the thought of tearing down one of Paris’ most beloved landmarks.
Within four days, Lustig had chosen his victim, a man named Andre Poisson.
Though Poisson’s wife became suspicious that such an important decision would be surrounded by so much secrecy, Lustig managed to charm his way through the negotiations with yet another bit of skullduggery. Lustig confided in Poisson that though he was a “high ranking” government official, his salary was not as prestigious as his position appeared to warrant.
The scrap metal dealer quickly realized he was being awarded the project as a bribe, and paid Lustig handsomely to secure the deal.
Once lucratively rewarded, Lustig and his pal Collins immediately fled to Austria where they lived a lavish lifestyle at Poisson’s expense. Just to be certain there was no danger of being caught for their scheme, the rip-off artists checked Paris newspapers on a daily basis to stay informed about their escapade.
After approximately six weeks with no news of any scandal, Lustig concluded that Poisson had been too embarrassed at falling for the con and never reported it to the authorities.
April Fool me once, shame on you. April Fool me twice, shame on me.
Emboldened by the results, Lustig and his accomplice returned to Paris and attempted the same plot again with five different scrap iron dealers.
Amazingly, Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower for a second time using identical techniques as before. This time, however, he was not so fortunate. Lustig’s mark contacted the police after being fleeced of $100,000 and “The Count” abruptly fled to the United States to avoid capture.
Eventually, Lustig was caught and sentenced to do time in Alcatraz. While serving his sentence, he contracted pneumonia and died in prison at the age of 57.
Interestingly enough, Lustig’s death certificate listed his occupation as a “salesman.”
So on this April Fools Day, nearly a century after the Eiffel Tower was sold for a second time, we pay homage to “Count” Victor Lustig, scam artist extraordinaire, whose calm, beguiling personality represents the tradition of the day better than any other.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up
Lead Image: In the early years of the 29th century, “Count” Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower twice (Courtesy: pxhere – CC0 Public Domain – Free for personal and commercial use – https://pxhere.com/en/photo/178722)