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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- On this day 125 years ago – 7 January 1892 January 7, 2017
Once again, we’re going back in time exactly 125 years to catch up with the continuing story of Charles Deville Wells, “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”.
Having won the equivalent of £6 million the previous year, Charles Wells returned to Monte Carlo on 7 January 1892. He went straight to the Casino after dinner, and began to play the card game, trente-et-quarante, with ‘a big pile of notes’ as stake money. January and February were the height of the Monte Carlo season, and the salons were crowded. ‘Every movement of his is watched with the greatest curiosity, and his play excites much interest,’ an observer wrote.
His previous visits to the casino had been something of an endurance test. Every day he had sat at the gambling table for eleven hours at a stretch, playing non-stop without even taking a break for food or drink. This was, he said, part of his “infallible system” for winning.
But this time his approach was different and he only dropped in to the Casino at intervals and played for a short time. Journalists, who had gathered to watch him play, immediately spotted the change in his fortunes. ‘Mr. Wells started backing both chances for one, two, and three thousand francs each, but immediately began to lose,’ The Standard reported. ‘He tried all the dodges of his famous system, but the cards kept beating him mercilessly, and when the tables closed at eleven o’clock he had lost two thousand pounds’ [roughly equivalent to £200,000 today].
Wells’ appearance was described as thin and careworn, and it is known that he had been ill that winter. On the following day he did not go to the Casino until late afternoon. At first it looked as if his luck was changing and he enjoyed a few minor wins. But every time he amassed some money he lost it again. ‘Before the dinner hour he was cleared out of all his capital, and left the building,’ one of the reporters wrote. ‘He has several times reached the maximum amount permitted, but has invariably lost his biggest stakes. Mr Wells has now lost seventy-thousand francs [approaching £300,000 in today’s terms] since his arrival on Thursday’. After spending only three days or so at Monte Carlo, and having failed to repeat his previous successes, Wells packed his bag and left.
When questioned at a later enquiry, he was adamant that the system that he claimed had taken him years to perfect was infallible. His losses in January 1892 had only occurred because he allegedly had his wife and family there ‘worrying him about his meals’, and he had been unable to follow his usual procedures.
As far as we know ‘Monte Carlo Wells’ never returned to the place with which he will always be associated. In a court appearance in 1912, though, he testified that he had gone there again in 1910, and had used the same “infallible system” to win the equivalent of almost a quarter of a million pounds. But, like many claims he made during the course of his eventful life, this was probably untrue.
A fuller account appears in my book, The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo: Charles Deville Wells, Gambler and Fraudster Extraordinaire, published by The History Press.
RECEIVED A GIFT CARD OR BOOK TOKEN FOR CHRISTMAS?
WONDERING WHAT TO SPEND IT ON?
FANCY AN UN-PUT-DOWNABLE TRUE STORY OF VICTORIAN (AND EDWARDIAN) CRIME AND ADVENTURE?
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo is available in hardback for as little as £12.91 (WHSmith) and as an e-book for £6.64 (Amazon). Waterstones have copies available at many of their stores, as well as online.
- Steam Power January 6, 2017
As a young man, Charles Deville Wells had practised as an engineer in France, and had invented an apparatus for regulating the speed of ships’ propellers. He sold the patent to a steamship company for 5,000 francs – a very large sum at the time.
Some twenty years later he used his earlier engineering expertise to set up a scam, in which he persuaded well-heeled investors to sponsor another invention of his. This piece of equipment, he assured them, would greatly increase the fuel-efficiency of steam engines. Considering that steam power was the mainstay of transport and industry around the world, any effective method of saving coal would indeed have been worth a fortune. Wells told his would-be financiers that the gadget could provide savings of 50%, and promised to share the proceeds if they backed his idea.
The really clever part of his scheme is that what he claimed must have been totally believable at that time – especially to a lay person. I recently watched the repeat of a BBC documentary, Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here. This shows how the earliest steam engines had an efficiency of only 5%. By the late 1880s to early 1990s, when Wells was operating his scam, newer designs of engines had achieved a figure of 10%. Thus it was clear not only that efficiency could be doubled, but that there was still more than ample room for further improvement. Two of his investors handed over sums approaching £3 million in today’s money, but never received a penny of the promised profits.
In fact, steam power never achieved much more than 10% efficiency: and at the time when Wells was peddling his device, the internal combustion engine was already being developed. As we now know, this would make the steam engine virtually redundant – though it would take more than half a century to do so.
- Titanic – new evidence January 2, 2017
I was fascinated to watch the Channel 4 documentary yesterday, Titanic – The New Evidence. Too many documentaries seem intent on putting forward someone’s pet theory without backing it up with convincing evidence. But this programme used recently-discovered photographs which – according to the experts interviewed – contain plausible evidence of the serious fire in the coal bunkers on board. This suggestion was backed up by documentary evidence, mostly testimony from the official enquiry.
One of the worst faults of all in so-called documentaries is the practice of putting forward a theory – however far-fetched – and then claiming to have proved that it’s correct, when in fact they have done nothing of the sort. So we hear the likes of: ‘We know the castle burnt down, we know that Henry VIII visited the town that year, so we can safely say that he’s the one who did it”. (I exaggerate, of course, but not much).
Back to the Titanic documentary: the technique of blending archive still photographs with moving reconstructions is impressive. But I worry a little that this technique, in the wrong hands, could be used to “prove” pet theories by “recreating” events that never happened, or at least didn’t happen quite like that. But then I’m a natural worrier, especially when it comes to historical accuracy.
- The Yachting Fraternity December 29, 2016
Bank-breaker Charles Deville Wells bought the former cargo ship Tycho Brahe in 1891, converted her at great expense into a luxury yacht with a ballroom for 50 guests, and renamed her Palais Royal. Former BHS boss Sir Philip Green bought the yacht Lionheart in 2016 for a reported $150 million. Lionheart and Palais Royal are almost exactly the same length at 90 metres.
Both men frequented Monte Carlo.
Wells had his yacht seized in 1893 after he had been found guilty of fraud on a massive scale and had been declared bankrupt.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
- Partners in Crime (5) December 14, 2016
A few weeks ago I ran a “mini-series” of blog posts, featuring some of Charles Wells’ partners in crime. The name of Henry Baker Vaughan came to mind at the time, but I hesitated to include him as one of Wells’ side-kicks because, I believe, he was only a reluctant accomplice. But his story is an interesting one, so I’ve decided to add him to the list as an afterthought.
Henry Baker Vaughan was born in about 1858 and – in common with thousands of others in those days before typewriters, photocopiers and word-processing – he became a legal clerk. We can almost picture him as he stands at a tall desk like a preacher’s pulpit, scratching away with a quill pen like a character out of Dickens.
He married Mary Anne Barber in 1881 and they set about producing a large brood of children. Life must have been hard for a young man with such a large family working at a job which was notoriously badly paid. One day in about 1887, though, he spotted an advertisement in the paper. A businessman was seeking a legal clerk.
Vaughan went along to meet this entrepreneur, who turned out to be Charles Deville Wells. Wells took him on, promising to pay him 12s 6d (equivalent to about £60 today) to copy by hand 500 letters relating to patents for which he was seeking financial backing. This must have been a dreadfully repetitive and mind-numbing task, but Vaughan duly delivered the letters to Wells, who elected to pay him only 7s 6d (worth just under £40 today), instead of the amount he had promised. Vaughan was hardly in a position to argue, and over a period of a few years he made some 3,000 copies like these.
(Lest there be any doubt, the inventions that Wells claimed to have patented were all phony, and few, if any, of the investors ever got any money back).
Up to now, of course, Vaughan himself had done nothing wrong and was probably unaware that Wells was operating a scam. But soon the young clerk, always strapped for cash, and with an ever-expanding family, was tempted to depart from the straight and narrow. At the same time as he was employed by Charles Wells, Vaughan also did some work for a legal firm. He once mentioned to Wells that he was going to Temple Chambers and Wells asked him to write a letter from there about an agreement between himself and a client. Wells offered him £1 (equivalent to £100 today) if he would write a “legal opinion” stating that the contract was a fair one.
Some time later, when Wells went on trial at the Old Bailey for fraud, Vaughan was a prosecution witness. He testified that Wells had asked him to accompany him to Paris in connection with a company that Wells was forming. (Naturally, this undertaking was later discovered to be a sham). While they were in the French capital, Wells gave him an Affidavit to copy out. Among other details the document named Vaughan as Company Secretary, and after he had made a copy they went together to the British Consulate where Vaughan swore the Affidavit.
After Vaughan had recited this saga in court, the judge remarked, ‘You need not answer any questions that may prejudice yourself.’ The hapless clerk seems to have been shaken by this comment. Up to now Vaughan had not felt that he had done anything wrong, but now the judge seemed to imply that he had participated in a deception on a huge scale.
He blurted out, ‘I have nothing to conceal that I am aware of.’
In the event, no further action was taken against Vaughan, but his career seems to have been tainted by his association with Wells, and it is evident that he had difficulty finding further work within the legal sector. The 1901 census finds him and his wife living in Greenwich accompanied by no fewer than nine sons and daughters ranging from 1 to 18 years of age. Vaughan is now working as a dock labourer.
Henry Baker Vaughan’s story ends with a particularly sad twist. It seems that even 15 years after working for Wells he was still regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. Shortly before Christmas 1906, these few lines appeared in a newspaper:
PATHETIC STORY OF DESPAIR
Mr. N. Schroder held an inquest at Hampstead on Henry Baker Vaughan, aged 49 years, lately living in Woodstock Road, Walthamstow, who committed suicide by taking arsenic on Hampstead Heath. Herbert Rowe, manager to George May, a Fulham moneylender, in whose service deceased was, stated that the latter told him that he recently lost £3 through a hole in his pocket, and had to make it good, and was suspended pending examination of the accounts, and he was much depressed. The books were [subsequently] found quite correct. — A verdict of Suicide during temporary insanity was returned.
A number of sources were consulted in piecing together Vaughan’s story. For his court appearance I relied in particular on the account in The London Evening Standard of 16 February 1893. His death was reported in the Essex Newsman of 8 December 1906, and other publications. Both papers can be consulted online at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk