Robin Quinn is an author and radio producer based in South-East England. His new book, The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo explores the life of Charles Deville Wells, fraudster and gambler, and spans the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Published 2016 by The History Press Ltd.
THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO
The incredible true story of Charles Deville Wells, gambler and fraudster extraordinaire.
Charles Wells has two loves in his life: a beautiful, headstrong, French mistress, Jeannette, and his sumptuous yacht, the Palais Royal. At the risk of losing them both, Wells stakes everything he owns at the roulette tables in Monte Carlo’s world-famous Casino – and in the space of a few days he breaks the bank, not once but ten times, winning the equivalent of millions in today’s money.
Is he phenomenally lucky? Has he really invented an “infallible” gambling system, as he claims? Or is he just an exceptionally clever fraudster?
Based on painstaking research on both sides of the Channel and beyond, this biography reveals the incredible true story of the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo – an individual who went on to become Europe’s most wanted criminal, hunted by British and French police, and known in the press as “Monte Carlo Wells – the man with 36 aliases”.
HITLER'S LAST ARMY
After the Second World War 400,000 German servicemen were imprisoned on British soil – some remaining until 1948. These defeated men in their tattered uniforms were, in every sense, Hitler's Last Army.
Reviews of Hitler's Last Army
“Probably the best book on the subject in the last 20 years”
“I recommend this book as a must to read.”
[★★★★★ Amazon review by “a German ex-POW”]
“Well written, interesting, informative, and heart-warming in equal measure … I would recommend this even to those not especially interested in WW2, as a fascinating slice of Anglo-German social history of 70 years ago. Buy it."
[★★★★★ Amazon review by J.B.]
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- Family History Research in France September 9, 2016
While researching my biography of Charles Deville Wells, “The Man who Broke the Bank”, I needed to consult birth, marriage and death registers , as well as census records, in France.
I was already reasonably familiar with the system in Britain, where such information is easily available on the internet via websites including FreeBMD, Ancestry, and Findmypast. But the equivalent resources in France are less easy to use. To begin with, records are not held centrally. This means that you will usually need to know the place where the birth, marriage or death took place. This information may not be available, which complicates matters considerably.
The second major stumbling block is that, while the likes of Ancestry provide easy-to-search databases of the British records online, the most you are likely to find in France is a digitised online image of an original register or census document. This can involve a lot of searching. Charles Deville Wells and his family group lived at Quimper, Brittany, for a time. The town had some 10,000 inhabitants and to find them involved me in a page-by-page search of a schedule extending to just over 300 pages listing them all. Sod’s Law dictated, needless to say, that the entry I wanted was eventually found on page 299!
However, do not be discouraged. The system is quite easy to use once one has got over the problem of knowing where to look. The records are handwritten but are generally completed in beautifully-formed script by some clerk of long ago. And it is possible to access and download the original images free of charge*, which is a very significant advantage over the UK system. (*Subject to terms and conditions, no doubt!)
I found it useful in the beginning to consult the website of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), which provides a vast amount of family research material in general, and a comprehensive beginner’s guide to genealogy in France.
You can try a search on Ancestry, selecting France as the area of interest: you may or may not find what you are looking for, as the collections are not as comprehensive as those relating to Britain or the USA, for example.
Another potentially very useful resource is the Geneanet site, based in France. Many French people post their family trees here, and digitised versions of many registers are now available, with more appearing regularly. It was here that I found one person vital to my book, having failed to locate her elsewhere.
- Man who broke bank arrested at Falmouth! September 8, 2016
In early 1912, Charles Deville Wells – best known as “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” – was arrested on board his yacht at Falmouth. A photograph (below left) appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror. I recently visited the scene myself, and photographed the scene as it looks now. (Below right). By this time, the man who broke the bank had moved on to opening his own bank.
For the full story read my book, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells – gambler and fraudster extraordinaire. For more details, or to buy your own copy, please see the Amazon page here.
- ***** More Amazon Five-Star Reviews ***** September 5, 2016
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, the biography of gambler and fraudster Charles Deville Wells, has been out for just over a month now, and Amazon reviews are beginning to be posted.
Reviewer TD writes:
Robin Quinn has produced another fascinating book writing about the long criminal life of Charles Wells.
The author must have spent hundreds of hours searching, not just the official records both in France and England, but in particular scanning the columns of the many newspapers which over many years referred to the persistent fraudulent activities of this man of many aliases.
It makes compelling reading.
Another reader comments:
Robin Quinn’s well-researched, highly readable account of the extraordinary Victorian fraudster Charles Wells is a useful reminder of the gullibility and greed that allow confidence tricksters to flourish in all ages. Wells was a respectable, moderately successful civil engineer who turned to fraud in middle age to satisfy his growing desire for wealth, status and luxury. The book’s title comes from a short but highly publicised episode in Wells’ career, when he sailed his fraud-funded yacht into Monte Carlo harbour with his glamorous French wife and “broke the bank” at the roulette tables.
Quinn uses contemporary newspaper reports and public records very effectively in his investigation of Wells’ criminal techniques, and even analyses how Wells’ might have engineered his success at the casino. It’s an intriguing account of a highly inventive and single-minded confidence trickster who is often seen as the true inventor of the Ponzi scheme, and who would have relished the opportunities offered by the Internet today. A fascinating book, and one that would make a great film!
[Robin adds: “If you’re reading this, Mr Spielberg …” ]
- ***** You can hear the girls declare, “He must be a millionaire …” ***** September 1, 2016
Delighted to read another positive, five-star review of The Man who Broke the Bank on Amazon
“When I was a child, one of the songs my father sang was “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, and I always wondered about the man behind that music-hall favourite. Now I know – thanks to this book – and what a fascinating tale it is! The author has not only meticulously researched this story, as evidenced by the book’s wealth of detail, but has brought historical events vividly to life.
In addition to his Monte Carlo adventures, Charles Deville Wells (the subject of this book) was an accomplished fraudster. The workings of his audacious scams are fully explained, but the biggest mystery of all – HOW he broke the bank at Monte Carlo – may just have been explained here too. The author advances several possible scenarios, but has one favoured theory, which is backed by some tantalising historical clues. I found this to be a gripping account of one very clever con-man!”
- The Monte Carlo Casino – from empty tables to a magnet for millionaires August 30, 2016
The tiny principality of Monaco is the second-smallest sovereign state in the world, and could easily fit into London’s Hyde Park with room to spare. Yet it has become one of the world’s most prestigious and wealthiest resorts.
But in earlier times things were very different. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the rulers of Monaco imposed exorbitant taxes on the 1,000 farmers who made up most of the population, and a time came when the citizens could barely continue to support the extravagant lifestyle of the royals. Faced with a choice between an uprising on the part of his subjects or bankruptcy, the sovereign prince –Charles III – searched for a solution. It was, in fact, Princess Caroline, his mother, who had the brainwave that was to rescue the Prince from ruin, as well as putting Monaco on the map. Caroline had recently visited the spa town of Bad Homburg – a tiny, independent territory in what is now Germany. With the co-operation of the ruler, a successful casino had been established there by a Frenchman, François Blanc. In return for a licence to operate, Blanc paid a generous annual sum to the Prince, as well as meeting most of the expenses of the state, such as defence and law-enforcement.
The gambling business was highly profitable. Since all casino games are biased in favour of the house, most clients lost money in the long run. But there were some notable exceptions: in 1852, Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte – a nephew of the former Emperor Napoleon – won a huge sum of money and had the good sense to depart with it before the casino had a chance to claw it back again. Whenever a gambler had won so much that the cash reserves at that particular table were used up, he was said to have broken the bank. François Blanc invented a ceremony in which the table was temporarily closed down and a black cloth laid upon it. Uniformed attendants brought out more cash from the vaults to pay the rest of the fortunate gambler’s winnings and to replenish the table’s cash reserve. After a decent interval the black cloth was removed, and the table re-opened so that play could recommence.
Blanc realised that news of large wins like this would spread quickly, and that the publicity would entice many other people to come and try their luck, thinking that they might replicate the winner’s success. The casino always got over its short-term loss quickly and profited from the extra business.
Based on these past accomplishments, Blanc was invited by the Prince to set up a similar operation in Monaco. But at first Blanc refused, and other entrepreneurs stepped in. With great difficulty they opened a casino at a site overlooking Monaco’s harbour but, during one six-day period, there was only one visitor, who won the princely sum of 2 francs. Two others then arrived and lost 205 francs. Bored croupiers took to standing around outside the casino watching for the approach of possible customers.
Fearing bankruptcy, Prince Charles of Monaco made a last desperate appeal to François Blanc, who now agreed to take over the casino, improve the facilities, and run the operation. In return for this privilege, he would pay the Prince 150,000 francs each year, plus ten per cent of the casino profits. And as he signed the contract, Blanc suggested that the site of the new casino should be named Monte Carlo (‘Mount Charles’) in the Prince’s honour. Under Blanc’s leadership the Casino took off and by 1869 it was contributing such large amounts to the economy of Monaco that the citizens were absolved of all taxes – a situation which still exists to this day. Soon both the casino and the principality of Monaco were booming. When Blanc died in 1877 he left a going concern and a fortune of 72 million francs. His son, Camille, eventually took over as chief director and for the time being the future looked rosy.
Everything changed when the Prince died in September 1899. He was succeeded as ruler of Monaco by his son, Albert, who – unlike his father – strongly objected to the casino, and despised the Blanc family and their mercenary ways. He had allegedly told a friend that he would close the casino down if he could. This became a distinct possibility when he married Alice Heine, an immensely rich American widow. With access to the prodigious wealth of her family he was no longer dependent on the Blanc family or what he saw as their tainted money.
By the summer of 1891 it seemed that the casino’s days were numbered, especially when newspapers reported that the Prince now planned to close it down and turn the building into a free hospital. Camille Blanc even contacted the Prince of Liechtenstein to explore the possibility of relocating the casino there – though the area was far less desirable than Monaco and more difficult for most regular customers to reach. Blanc also halted work on a costly new extension to the gambling salons.
It was at this precise time that a rather ordinary-looking Englishman named Charles Deville Wells arrived in Monte Carlo and began to play roulette with an abandon that suggested ‘a mad millionaire trying to get rid of his capital’. Each day at noon he was waiting on the doorstep when the casino opened, and he gambled non-stop until it closed at 11.00 p.m. In the course of five days he broke the bank not once, but several times, winning £40,000 – equivalent to at least £4 million in present-day values. He returned a few months later, repeated the performance, and left with a further £20,000 (£2 million today). In Britain, Wells and his exploits were hot topics. Newspaper readers never seemed to tire of his adventures, and composer Fred Gilbert immortalised his exploits in the popular music-hall song, ‘The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.’
Wells’ ability to break the bank with apparent ease provoked much discussion and speculation – especially when it was revealed that he had previously claimed to have developed and patented many valuable inventions. He had induced investors to buy a share in his ideas, but no-one had ever received a penny in return. One of his backers, the sister of a distinguished judge, had lost the equivalent of almost £2 million, while another had blithely entrusted him with over £1 million in present-day terms.
In view of this, people began to wonder whether Wells had somehow defrauded the casino, as well. It certainly seemed a possibility.
Or had he developed an infallible system for winning at roulette? This was the explanation he gave at the time and on many occasions in subsequent years. Yet witnesses who had watched him at the casino said they discerned no obvious pattern in his play: instead they attributed his success to his willingness to take risks, and the ability to keep calm when under pressure.
Whatever his secret was, the casino was busier now than it had ever been. Visitors jostled for a place at the tables in the hope of replicating Wells’ astonishing success. Casino profits rocketed, and the price of the shares – most of which were owned by the Blanc family – soared to an all-time high. Wells himself seems to have foreseen this result, too, for it is known that before leaving Monaco he purchased shares to the value of £200,000 in today’s money.
In the event, the threatened closure of the casino never took place. Camille Blanc was finally able to renegotiate his contract with the new Prince of Monaco – but at a hefty price. The Prince would receive 1,000 casino shares and a cash payment of 125 million francs. Blanc was also bludgeoned into paying 7 million francs for improvements to local amenities.
A century and a quarter later, Monaco is as enchanting to tourists as it has always been. As a prominent tax haven it has grown into a magnet for the rich, and almost a third of its residents are millionaires. In recent years it has diversified into banking and tourism, though the casino is still its most famous attraction, and continues to underpin the local economy.
And once in a while casino staff and gamblers alike still speak in hushed tones about “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”.
The above is reproduced from the August 2016 edition of the History Press Newsletter. You can sign up to receive every edition of the newsletter here.