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 105 years ago – 20 January 1912 January 20, 2017
Falmouth, Cornwall. 20 January 1912.
Thirty-two-year old Herbert John Crocker, a police constable, had seldom witnessed such excitement in all his life. The previous day his boss had received an urgent telegram from Scotland Yard in London. Apparently a big man-hunt had been launched for a fraudster who had swindled thousands of people in France. The total haul was said to be in the millions, and the suspect was believed to be living locally in the Cornish port of Falmouth (population about 11,000). This was a rare event indeed for the local police, whose everyday activities were generally confined to looking for lost dogs, investigating cases of stolen bicycles, and pursuing the odd sheep rustler.
Rumour had it that a man named Charles Deville Wells was involved somehow. Wells had famously broken the bank at Monte Carlo almost twenty years earlier, earning the sobriquet ‘Monte Carlo Wells’. He had inspired a music-hall song at the time, and this was still as popular as ever — in fact there was hardly a man, woman or child in the country who could not hum the jaunty melody or recite at least some some of the lyrics.
To add to the intrigue, a whisper went around the police station that a high-ranking French detective was taking the train down from London and would be arriving first thing in the morning. By all accounts this Frenchman knew no English. But Crocker spoke reasonable French — in fact he was the only member of the ten-man local police force to do so. It was under these circumstances that one of Falmouth’s more junior officers was sent to meet one of France’s top detectives when the overnight express arrived at 10.00 a.m. on Saturday, 20th January.
Sous Brigadier Jean Roux was a member of an elite squad of 40 men, whose business was to solve the most serious of crimes. He was attached to the Sûreté — the French equivalent of Scotland Yard — and was based at 36 Quai des Orfèvres beside the River Seine (later famous in fiction as Inspector Maigret’s HQ in the novels of Georges Simenon).
After meeting the portly French detective, Crocker changed into plain clothes and the two men, chatting animatedly in French, went into the town to look around. Almost a year earlier, Inspector Roux had met Charles Wells and had conducted a preliminary interview. His sixth sense had told him that Wells had something to hide, but before further enquiries could be made the suspect had disappeared into thin air, taking with him millions of francs belonging to French citizens. Roux was one of the few people who could identify him. The French detective and his new-found English friend sauntered up and down Falmouth High Street, mingling with the crowds of Saturday shoppers. But the mysterious Mr. Wells was nowhere to be seen.
Wells had arrived in the town several months previously, accompanied by a glamorous female companion and the couple had been a constant subject for gossip and speculation in the local community. They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Deville”, and lived on a splendid yacht in the harbour. Mrs Deville was very obviously French: she wore fashionable clothes, shoes and jewellery — all direct from Paris, it was rumoured. Mr Deville spoke perfect English but with a very slight foreign accent. He always wore a blue yachting cap, and consequently the locals nicknamed him “the French captain”. When the couple came into town they spent money freely. Local gossip had it that Madame had inherited a fortune. When a local shopkeeper offered to supply them with goods on credit, “Deville” cheerfully replied, ‘I have plenty of money. Why should I not pay when I buy?’
Around 1.00 p.m., the local Superintendant of Police, together with Inspector Roux and another officer, arrived at the Prince of Wales Pier. They rowed out to the yacht, where the couple had just begun their lunch. Charles Deville Wells seemed unperturbed, but beneath the calm exterior he must have been shocked to see the burly French detective who had quizzed him so thoroughly in Paris the previous April. Before long “Mr and Mrs Deville” were locked up in the cells at the nearby police station.
A whisper went around town that they would be taken to London two days later, on the Monday. Crowds gathered at the railway station that morning hoping to catch a glimpse of the ‘man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’. But as the hours went by there was no sign of him. The day wore on and still the people waited patiently. A hundred and fifty locals who huddled in the falling temperature and drenching rain were finally rewarded when two cabs appeared around nine o’ clock in the evening. Pandemonium followed, as the mass of people surged forward to see Wells and his mistress. The excited crowd spontaneously burst into song:
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
- 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?