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”.
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Blog: All Posts
- 125 Years ago: a song propels Charles Wells to lasting fame November 11, 2016
According to popular legend, songwriter Fred Gilbert was walking along The Strand one day when he spotted a news vendor’s placard bearing the immortal phrase:
After Charles Deville Wells had won further large sums of money at Monte Carlo, lengthy articles had appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, based on an interview with Wells (see blog post for 7 November). If the legend is true, it was probably at the time of this conspicuous press coverage that Gilbert might have seen a poster such as this.
Gilbert immediately turned the headline into a song, and sold it to the famous music-hall singer Charles Coborn. It was published in late 1891 and was probably first performed in February 1892 when Coborn sang it as part of his act at a London music-hall. It subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring songs of all time, and undoubtedly turned Wells into a lasting legend. Coborn later said that he must have sung it at least a quarter of a million times, and as his career lasted almost until his death in 1945, this is perhaps not such an exaggeration as it might seem.
Click here to see and hear a Youtube clip of Coborn performing this number in the 1934 film Say it with Flowers. This appears to capture the atmosphere of a Victorian music-hall to perfection. (In fact the era of the music-hall had not yet ended at this date, and Coborn was still performing the song on stage – probably on a daily basis). An alternative Youtube video can be seen here. In my opinion, however, this performance lacks the atmosphere of the previous one, having been filmed without an audience present. Watch them both and see which you prefer!
- On this day 125 years ago – 9 November 1891 November 9, 2016
This was the day when The Times and The Daily Telegraph published their respective accounts of the interview they had conducted with Charles Wells two days earlier. The report from the Telegraph is reproduced in full in my previous blog post of 7 November. The Times published a similar version, but went into rather more detail on his gambling ‘system’, which Wells claimed to be ‘as nearly infallible as human ingenuity can make it’.
In an effort to find wealthy investors to finance his gambling activities, Wells had embarked on an intensive advertising campaign. He already had a reputation as “king of the classifieds”, having placed hundreds of small-ads over the last few years in connection with a scam involving inventions and patents. In the first half of September 1891, he placed ads – similar to the one shown here – in almost every edition of the Morning Post, Pall Mall Gazette, St. James’s Gazette, and some other papers, including The Times itself. With its headline of ‘Thirty Thousand Pounds Monthly’ the advertisement strongly resembled an earlier one that Wells had used for his patents fraud (‘Thirty Thousand Pounds in Three Months, and probably more yearly, is the certain product of a share in a patent …’). For some reason he stopped advertising, but started again a month later, on 12 October. Perhaps he needed this respite to evaluate the replies he had received.
This attempt to interest financiers to back his gambling at Monte Carlo had no chance of succeeding unless Wells could convince his prospects that he had developed an infallible system. The Times correspondent was clearly not convinced that this was the case. Describing his own interpretation of Wells’ approach, the journalist gives us a rare insight into Wells’ character:
‘It does not seem to me that he has made any very novel discovery in the science of playing roulette and trente-et-quarante … The secret of his success rather seems to be in the courageous way in which he attacks the tables and his cool-headed manner of treating either great success or any rebuff which might be encountered. Most men get excited in either event and lose control over their play, and then the table has its turn. But Mr. Wells keeps on steadily with his double stakes, which in total range from 6,000f. to 24,000f., … following up the table assiduously with the maximum when a series is running, and dropping the stakes to smaller amounts when the cards are persistently intermittent. All this has been done thousands of times before, but few have had the courage to risk repeatedly for 11 hours a day close upon a thousand pounds [£100,000 in today’s values] at almost every coup. In the long series for which all old hands are ever on the alert he would make five or six thousand pounds [£500,000 – £600,000] in a few minutes, and accomplish the feat of breaking the table several times a day’.
(Updated 10 November)
The Times Digital Archive: http://www.gale.com/the-times-digital-archive/ (Available on subscription only. However, access is available through membership of many local libraries).
British Newspaper Archive: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (This is a fantastic research tool which is being expanded all the time. A free trial is available)
- On this day 125 years ago – 7 November 1891 November 7, 2016
Having arrived back in Monte Carlo a few days earlier [see recent blog posts], Charles Deville Wells had gone on to win yet another fortune at the gaming tables. By 7 November, 1891, public interest in his exploits had reached fever pitch. The Times and The Daily Telegraph each sent a journalist out to Monaco to watch him gamble. This was the first time that London-based reporters had been in a position to give a first-hand account of Wells’ activities. It was also the occasion when he gave his first-ever ‘press conference’, with the two newspaper men hanging on to his every word.
In The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, I include some short extracts from this coverage, but here, in its entirety, is the Telegraph article dated 8 November – the day after the interview – and printed in the following day’s edition.
Mr. Wells, the lucky Englishman, closed his campaign against the Monte Carlo gambling tables last night, and left for England, the winner of £28,000. This, added to the £32,000 won in July, makes a sum total of £60,000 winnings [equivalent to £6 million today]. On Friday last he cleared £10,000, and broke the bank five times in the evening. He had before him a pile of thousand-franc notes a foot and a half high, but he never lost his head at play, and afterwards slept soundly with them under his pillow in a room at the Hotel de Paris, overlooking the Place du Casino.
I had a long talk with Mr. Wells last night when he rose from the gambling-table, and asked him for the secret of his success. He replied that this was the result of a system of his own, which he had been working out for years, and after patiently watching the behaviour of the table. He was now putting it into actual practice. He thought its value had been fully tested during its trials of the past week and of July last. [See blog posts ‘On this day 125 years ago’, 28 July – 3 August, 2016] I then remarked: ‘If this system be infallible, why not go on and clear out the bank?’ ‘Because,’ replied Mr. Wells, ‘the physical strain is beyond my strength. I have been sitting daily from twelve noon till eleven at night, playing without a break, and I am worn out. But I have decided to come again shortly. I have implicit faith in my system, and I am perfectly sure I can win again.’*
I then asked Mr. Wells if he cared to give to the world in general and players in particular the advantages of his system, but he declined. Players, he said, had watched him and tried to do likewise, but the great majority had not pluck enough to follow him even when they saw him winning. His system required £6,000 capital,** as it must for the most part be played with the maximum stakes of 6,000 and 12,000 francs, so as to enable the player to withstand a considerable run of adverse luck. He acknowledged that one of his principal points was to follow the table, and catch ‘runs’ or ‘series’ as on Thursday and Friday, when with 12,000 francs on each of the two chances he was able to clear the table of its capital several times. Again, at one o’ clock yesterday, he had taken all of the 100 and the 1,000 franc banknotes supplied to the trente-et-quarante table, and the croupiers were obliged to pay one deal in small odd notes and rolls of gold*** until another £4,000 had been brought by the cashier.
All this naturally afforded splendid sport for the spectators, who rejoiced at so successful an attack upon the enemy. Mr. Wells added that when the cards were running awkwardly he placed smaller stakes, but for ‘series’ he placed the maximum of 12,000f on each of his chances. He always insured against a ‘refait’ (the bank’s odd chance); and though this cost him at the rate of 1 per cent. upon his stakes — over £1,000 a day — he believed it paid him. Then he never tempted good Dame Fortune too far, and sent off his winnings to London daily, and left when his luck turned. That, he admitted, was a great help even to this system of his, and finding yesterday that he was making no progress, he packed up his portmanteau.
(Daily Telegraph, 9 November 1891, p.5)
* Wells did in fact return two months later, in January 1892. I’ll be recalling the events of that visit 125 years on.
** £6,000 was the sum which he wanted investors to provide in return for “Thirty thousand pounds a month”. (See my blog post of 2 November, in which his actual newspaper advertisement is reproduced, and the post of 5 November, in which a magazine editor suggests that the proposition is fraudulent).
*** ‘Rolls of gold’: these were cylindrical paper packets wrapped around a small stack of coins of a certain total value. On the continent of Europe this is a common way for banks to dispense quantities of small change.
- On this day 125 years ago – 5 November 1891 November 5, 2016
On this day in 1891, Charles Wells was on a winning streak again at the Monte Carlo Casino.
But his past as a fraudster was already threatening to catch up with him. Exactly 125 years ago, a London magazine called Truth ran an article on Wells – the latest of many.
A fortnight ago [the editor wrote] I hazarded the opinion that the recent advertisement offering a return of £30,000 per month for an investment of £6,000 was the work of this rascal, with whose modus operandi most readers of Truth must by this time be familiar. It turns out that I was right. Several persons who have had the curiosity to answer the advertisement, sent me Wells’s replies. All are in identical terms, and actually promise that the amount of profits reaped (which, after a week, will be divided daily) will “far exceed” the fabulous sum named in the advertisement. If it is worth while for a detective to hunt down an “astrologer” who advertises for shillings, why is this Wells left free to defraud the public year after year? [Truth, 5 November 1891]
It is very clear that suspicions were already mounting, but at this point no-one was quite prepared to state that Wells, the fraudster, and Wells, the Monte Carlo bank breaker, were one and the same person. Before long, though, an enterprising journalist from the Evening News would show that this was indeed the case. The revelation would mark the beginning of turbulent times for Charles Deville Wells.
- On this day 125 years ago – 4 November 1891 November 4, 2016
After a disastrous start, when he lost the equivalent of £400,000 in a day, Wells started over again on 4 November (see previous post). This time, though, he placed bets of about £500 in today’s values – much smaller sums than previously. Perhaps he was just being unusually cautious: but it’s possible that he really was down to his last few francs. According to a report in The Times:
Commencing yesterday with the modest sum of six louis*, and gradually increasing the amount, he in the course of the sitting won the sum of 98,000 francs [thus more or less recouping the sum he had lost earlier]. An excited crowd gathered round the tables in the Casino today to watch the successful player, and their expectations were not disappointed. Mr. Wells made a vigorous attack on the bank, and at the close of play had amassed a pile of 70,000 f, bringing up the total of his winnings since his arrival in Monte Carlo to over 250,000 f [£1 million].
Charles Deville Wells had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But would luck be on his side for the rest of his stay, or would the Casino win back everything he had won so far?
To be continued.
*The louis was a small gold coin with a face value of 20 francs [worth about £100 in present-day purchasing power].
NOTE: The news report quoted above was published in The Times of 6 November, 1891. In that era a delay of a couple of days in reporting news from afar was not unusual. I was fascinated to see how – over the following days – many smaller British papers shamelessly copied the Times article, often word-for-word. Some credited The Times as their source, while others did not. Some even had the audacity to use such phrases as ‘from our correspondent’ to make it appear that the piece was their own ‘scoop’. In fact, it would have been prohibitively expensive for local and provincial newspapers to have overseas correspondents in all parts of the world to report such stories.