About a week ago I posted about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s attempt to turn “cocktail” into a verb. That list was from Shaun Usher’s wonderful book (and blog) Lists of Note: An Eclectic Collection Deserving of a Wider Audience. Today, I thought I’d offer you one more list from his collection, mostly because it relates to a subject I’ve written about before: con men.
The list, “Ten Commandments for Con Men,” was written by Victor Lustig. Lustig was a famous American con man in the 1920s and 30s. With five languages under his belt, twenty-five known aliases, and forty-five law enforcement agencies on his tail from around the world, Lustig was primed for international crime: and he succeeded on a massive scale. Lustig specialized in the “long” con. Long cons are ones where the “sucker” has to be strung along for a while until they give up as much money as possible. They’re the most elaborate and risky of cons, usually involving more than one person and specialized locations as well, such as fake banks or offices.
Lustig’s biggest and most well-known heist involved selling, of all things, the Eiffel Tower. How is this possible? Well, in 1925, the Tower wasn’t looking too great. Put up 36 years ago for the 1889 World Exhibition, it had already lasted 10 years past its projected lifetime. It was never meant to be a permanent fixture on the Paris skyline, or to handle so many visitors each day. Paint was flaking off. Eventually it would need to be rebuilt entirely—and that could cost the city quite a lot of money, nevermind what it was costing now. Paris citizens debated tearing it down. Seeing the state of the Tower and sensing people’s ambivalence, Lustig came up with a brilliant plan.
Posing as a government official from the “Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs”—complete with fake government stationary—Lustig contacted six scrap metal dealers with a “confidential” proposal: the city couldn’t maintain the Eiffel Tower any longer and wanted to sell it for scrap, but needed to keep the deal secret from the public due to possible outcry. Would any of them be interested in purchasing 7,000 tons of scrap metal, plus the rights to demolish the site?
To seal the deal—and pick out the biggest sucker in the bunch—Lustig hired a private limo to take them all to inspect the Tower itself. Afterwards each of them submitted a bid, but Lustig had already picked one out: Andre Poisson, an insecure scrap metal dealer who thought landing a deal like this would put him on par with the bigger fish.
Poisson’s wife, however, was suspicious from the start. Why would a government official approach them in secret like this, and move so quickly on such a major deal? To set their minds at ease, Lustig arranged another meeting with Poisson and “confessed” to needing a bribe to make sure that Poisson got the government bid—to the tune of $70,000. Oddly, the bribe reassured the scrap dealer: who else but a real government official would outright ask for a bribe? Of course, the deal never went through: Lustig took the money and fled back to America. Lucky for him—and like other con men before him—Poisson was too embarrassed to tell the police he’d been scammed.
When Lustig got back, he returned to more standard scams. One con he enjoyed using in particular was the “money-making machine.” It involved creating a convincing-looking “machine”—usually a box of some kind—that could “print” legal tender on demand. In reality, it was simply a box stocked with a limited amount of money that could be “printed” with the press of a button. A con man would demonstrate this to the sucker, lamenting about how it’d only take, say, six hours to print a $100 bill. Sensing a deal, the sucker would buy it for some exorbitant amount, usually tens of thousands of dollars. After that, the “machine” would continue “printing” money twice more—using the bills it’d been stocked with earlier—and then run out, spitting out reams of blank paper. By the time that happened, though, the con man would be long gone.
Honest folks weren’t the only people Lustig scammed, however—sometimes he went after criminals too. He got $50,000 out of Al Capone once, claiming he needed it for a job and telling him he’d pay it back double in a month. Al was suspicious but handed it over anyway. In the end, Lustig came back, saying it’d gone south, and returned the money. Al was so impressed with his honesty, he gave him $5,000—which was exactly what Lustig wanted.
In the 1930s, Lustig entered into a counterfeiting partnership with a chemist named Tom Shaw, who could engrave plates for printing money. They did pretty well until Lustig’s mistress, Billy May, got jealous and ratted him out when she found out he was running around with another girl. He was arrested with a locker key that led to a box in Times Square full of $51,000 in counterfeit bills and the plates they were printed with. He spent the next twelve years in Alcatraz until he died of pneumonia in 1947.
Lustig’s “Ten Commandments” highlight the necessary qualities in a successful con man: acting chops, good manners, a nice appearance, and primo listening skills, all of which promote feelings of trust and friendship with the mark. They’re just as useful, though, for any other kind of manipulation, so use them wisely… 😉
T E N C O M M A N D M E N T S F O R C O N M E N :
1) Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).
2) Never look bored.
3) Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4) Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5) Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.
6) Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
7) Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
8) Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
9) Never be untidy.
10) Never get drunk.
Want to know more about Lustig and his criminal career? Try these sites:
This Mental Floss article
This Stuff You Missed in History podcast covers him in detail
This Biography website has an entry on him too
Looks like I’m not the only person on WordPress who posted about this guy. Phil Ebersole also has a post abut him
***UPDATE: Victor now has his very own children’s picture book! It’s called Tricky Vic, appropriately enough, and details his attempt to sell the Eiffel Tower. It made the New York Times Bestseller List for children’s books in 2015. I hear that Mr. Poisson is actually portrayed as a walking, talking fish. Sounds like fun! 🙂
And of course there’s always his Wikipedia page