True Crime Sunday: Victor Lustig

(This post was originally seen on the House of Stitched blog back in December. I had to bring Victor Lustig back for my look at great con artists this month. He is one of my favorites I’ve written about for True Crime Sunday… the Eiffel Tower and Al Capone, what’s not to love?)

In a previous post, I mentioned one of the things I find compelling about true crime is the psychology of it all. Something else I enjoy—is “enjoy” the right word? —is the wide range of subjects that huddle under the true crime umbrella. This week’s post has to do with one crafty fella. I could see him fitting in nicely with the Leverage team… if he wanted to be a good bad guy.

Victor Lustig, born in 1890 in Austria-Hungary, possesses a good number of traits the perfect criminal in an epic crime story would have. He was skilled, charming, and fluent in five languages. His resume is long and varied, and even the most skilled writer couldn’t create a craftier, more daring figure with the perfect end to his criminal endeavors.

He was born to poor parents, but he didn’t let something like poverty stop his illustriousness. He wove tales of powerful parents and lineage full of nobility. As a teenager, he started with small cons and worked his way to more complex ones.

By the “Roaring Twenties,” Lustig was living in Paris and happened upon news that the Eiffel Tower was rusting and would need to be repaired. Seeing an opportunity, he got his hands on some government stationery and wrote to several of the top businessmen specializing in scrap metal. In the letters, he claimed to be an official in the French government and he was taking bids for the rights to dismantle the landmark. Sounds legit, right?

After wining and dining those who responded, he chose one man who was working hard to become one of the elites among the businessmen and tycoons. After an agreement was reached, the man’s wife was skeptical and passed that along to her husband. Always one step ahead, Victor Lustig told the man that the nature of their arrangement caused him to seem suspicious because he was also hoping for a bribe.

Mystery solved! The businessman not only paid for the thousands of tons of scrap metal, but granted this obviously very important government official a $70,000 bribe.

Since his first attempt was such a success, he attempted the same scam later. However, that one didn’t work out so well, and he narrowly escaped being arrested.

Another one of his schemes was the “Rumanian Money Box.” This was a small box in which counterfeit money supposedly could be printed. But that wasn’t quite accurate. When he was demonstrating his wares, he would use a couple of real $100 bills to show the box worked. People paid up to $30,000 for this device, and by the time they realized they’d been swindled the suave Victor Lustig was nowhere to be found. The money box would ultimately lead to his arrest when he swindled a law enforcement officer in the United States and caught the attention of the federal government.

So confident was he in his skills that he attempted a couple of other scams that caught my eye as I was doing research for this. In the late 1920s, Lustig approached none other than Al Capone. He convinced Capone to give him $50,000 for an investment. Lustig kept the money for a short period and then returned it to Capone letting him know things didn’t quite work out. Capone gave Lustig $5,000 for being such a swell and honest guy. The reward was the goal all along.

As with all good stories, this one had to end eventually. In early May 1935, he was arrested and later escaped from his cell. In late September 1935, he was captured again.

Lustig was sent to Alcatraz. When he got there, it seems he carried himself with all the swagger and confidence he’d used his entire career. Though he was in prison, he still had the last laugh.

He had dozens of passports and other forms of identification under different names. And no one was able to discover which was his true identity. According to Smithsonian Magazine, a historian went to his hometown, but could not find anything saying Lustig had even existed.

Now, just like with murder, I’m not saying it’s awesome to swindle people. That’s not nice. But how riveting is Victor Lustig’s story?

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