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.]
Blog: All Posts
- The Winter of 1947 October 4, 2016
The winter of 1947 was extremely harsh with heavy falls of snow which threatened Britain’s fragile economy in those difficult post-war days.
One of the German prisoners held in Britain, Dieter Hahn, recollects: ‘They sent us out to shovel snow over Shap Fells. It was a waste of time – in places with the snowdrifts all you could see was the tops of the telegraph poles. We had to dig down to find the road. We never cleared the thing. That road, the old A6, was the only main road between England and Scotland over Shap Fells. We shovelled the snow into lorries. We had no extra clothes except maybe some gloves or a scarf.’
- Partners in Crime (2) – Lizzie Ritchie October 4, 2016
In the mid-1880s, Charles Deville Wells began to dream up a series of inventions including an improved ship’s anchor; a new type of parasol; and even a ‘Combination Fire Extinguishing Grenade with Lamp and Chandelier’. Few, if any, of these brainwaves met with financial success, but a glimmer of hope came along in late 1887 when he patented a musical skipping rope and sold it for £5,000 in today’s money.
The British patent – number 16,711 – was jointly in his name and that of a Lizzie Ritchie, whose true identity has never been established. (A United States patent was also granted: US403556A. This can be viewed online at Google Patents). On some occasions Wells described Lizzie as his niece or as his business partner; at other times he claimed to be her guardian. In any event, her name crops up several times in his story.
A few years later he was quizzed by officials about his exploits at Monte Carlo, where he had reportedly won the equivalent of £6 million. Wells said at first that ‘an American gentleman’ had put up the capital for his gambling, but he later changed his story and said that Lizzie Ritchie had been his backer. Under his agreement with her, he had paid her a significant proportion of his winnings. She could not come forward to back up this claim because, he said, she had married a Polish gentleman and was, to the best of his knowledge, living somewhere in Poland.
But when Wells later found himself inconveniently detained in prison, it was Lizzie Ritchie who wrote a grovelling letter to Her Majesty Queen Victoria in the hope of gaining Wells’ release. Was this really from his “niece”? Or had Wells arranged for it to be written and then posted abroad? The address at the head of the letter is in Vienna, Austria, and appears to be a genuine one.
At the National Archives – where the document is kept today – I inspected it closely. The envelope is missing, so I could not check the stamp or postmark. The paper has no visible watermark, or other clue to its manufacture, but when I measured the page I found that it was of a size commonly used at the time in Britain, but not in Continental Europe.
According to Wells’ family tree he had no nieces, as only one of his siblings had children, and they were all males. I attempted to locate a match for Lizzie Ritchie in the usual records, including census and birth-marriage-death data, and other sources. There were quite a few individuals of that name and – with no further details to go on – it was impossible to say whether any one of them was the person I was looking for.
But one intriguing clue did emerge. As we have seen, Lizzie Ritchie had been named as Wells’ co-applicant in the patent for the musical skipping rope. Eleven years later, in 1898, a Lizzie Ritchie of Patchogue, New York, took out a patent for a washboard (Patent No. US603410A, which can be seen at Google Patents.) At the time of the skipping rope patent, Lizzie had been described as a British subject, whereas now she is stated to be a US citizen. However, this discrepancy could be explained by her having given incorrect information on her nationality – or she could have become an American citizen in the interval between the two patents.
So was Lizzie Ritchie a real person? Or was she just a creation of Wells’ vivid imagination, whose presence he could magically invoke – like the genie of the lamp – whenever the need arose? As with most of Wells’ associates, it is unlikely that the truth will ever be known.
- Partners in Crime – Charles Deville Wells and his accomplices October 1, 2016
In this short series of blog posts I investigate some associates of Charles Wells who participated in his crimes, or at least knew of them. It’s quite a short list because Wells usually preferred to act on his own. In fact, when the French police contacted their British counterparts for information, a Scotland Yard detective had replied, ‘Wells was an exceptionally reserved man, frugal and simple in his habits. He appeared to have no friends or relatives.’ It is stated in the same letter that he had only ever worked with one accomplice. But this was not strictly true.
Around 1891, when Wells broke the bank at Monte Carlo, he was in close contact with a man named Aristides Vergis, who had already experienced at least one brush with the law.
A few years previously, Vergis had taken a job with a jeweller as a kind of freelance salesman. He went to his employer with what purported to be orders from various customers for expensive items. These were to be delivered to the clients, who would subsequently be invoiced. But there was one little snag in this arrangement. Most of the ‘customers’ had not really ordered anything; and some of them did not even exist.
For example, Vergis had told his employer that a Mr. Frederick Kaye had ordered jewellery as a wedding present for his daughter, and a stylish pin for his son. The goods were duly sent to Kaye with an invoice. But Kaye later testified: ‘I have no daughter … [and] I did not order a horse-shoe pin for my son. He is only seven years old. The first I heard of this matter was receiving the invoice …’
All of the goods – to the value of about £400 (£40,000 in present-day terms) had finished up in the hands of Vergis himself. He went on trial at the Old Bailey and was sentenced in 1887 to 12 months hard labour.
Shortly after being released from prison, Vergis set himself up as a yacht-broker, and opened a plush office in a fashionable part of London – an enterprise that was no doubt funded by his haul from the jewellery scam. His business address – 37 Sloane Square – was situated within the Chelsea-Fulham-Brompton area of London which Charles Wells seemed to frequent: in fact, it was almost next door to the bank which Wells used.
Wells bought several yachts in the space of a few years, almost certainly through Vergis. They included: Kettledrum (a 55ft. steam-yacht); Ituna (a 137ft. steam yacht); Wyvern (a 60ft. steam yacht which was wrecked while in Wells’ ownership), Flyer (a small steam launch) and another yacht, Kathlinda. And in 1891 he purchased the Tycho Brahe – a former cargo ship, nearly 300 feet in length, with a displacement of 1,633 tons. This he converted, at great expense, into one of the largest pleasure yachts in the world, and renamed her Palais Royal. He appointed Vergis as his agent, and gave him a wide range of responsibilities, including selecting and appointing officers to command the ship.
When it seemed likely that Wells would be arrested on fraud charges, Vergis bribed an official with the sum of £5 (about £500 in today’s value) to find out whether there a warrant against Wells. This gave Wells an opportunity to flee the country before the net closed on him. Subsequently, having crossed the Channel in a bid to escape the British police, Wells was arrested on board Palais Royal. In a letter from the local jail he asked Vergis to look after his mistress, Jeannette, while he was in captivity. He also requested Vergis to arrange a defence lawyer for when he was brought to England to stand trial. Their association ceased, however, when Vergis died in early 1895, at a time when Wells was part-way through an 8-year jail sentence.
Vergis has proved to be a most elusive character to research. A factor which complicates matters somewhat is the spelling of his name, which appears in various records as Vergis, Verges, Vergie, and even Burgess.
I had long suspected that he was the man recorded in the 1891 census as ‘Arthur Vergis’, commission agent, living at 77 Bramber Road, Fulham. This individual’s place and date of birth are quoted as Newcastle in 1838. On noticing that Bramber Road was named during the court hearing on the jewellery case, I was convinced that this was indeed the same person.
However, all of my efforts to trace the earlier history of the elusive Mr. Vergis have failed – probably because ‘Vergis’ – like Wells – changed his identity when it suited him to do so.
In my next post in this series, I’ll be on the trail of the elusive “Lizzie Ritchie”.
Sources for the above:
- The Mystery Witness September 18, 2016
When Charles Deville Wells was arrested for fraud in 1893 he appeared before Sir John Bridge, the chief magistrate for London, at Bow Street Magistrates Court. The object of the hearing was to assess whether there was enough evidence of wrong-doing for Wells to face a trial at the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey, as it is popularly known. Over a period of several days, a succession of prosecution witnesses gave their side of the story.
The last witness of all to appear was a Miss Frances Budd who claimed to have answered a newspaper advertisement placed by Wells, offering to sell a quarter share in one of his inventions for £30 (roughly equivalent to £3,000 today). Miss Budd did not have that much money to hand, and had asked Wells if she could invest just £15. Wells replied that this was not possible and so she finally scraped together the full £30. She had never received any return on her investment, she testified, despite threatening to sue Wells. Friends had advised her not to throw good money after bad, and so she had not pursued the claim.
An extraordinary revelation now followed. She went on to state that she had subsequently visited Monte Carlo, and had actually seen Charles Wells at the casino.
‘What was he doing?’ Sir John Bridge enquired.
‘Gambling,’ Miss Budd replied.
‘Breaking the bank, Sir John,’ interjected Wells’ defence lawyer. [Laughter]
The Magistrate pointed at Wells. ‘Is that the man you saw playing at the table?’
‘Did you follow his luck and get your £30 back?’ Abinger [the defence lawyer] asked.
‘Well, I watched him playing trente-et-quarante for about half an hour, but I didn’t play.’*
Immediately after hearing Miss Budd’s evidence, the Magistrate concluded that there was evidence of false pretences in all of the cases, and committed Wells to a criminal trial.
For the prosecution and the police, Miss Budd must have been quite a find. Not only was she allegedly one of Wells’ victims — a woman of fairly modest means who would have been viewed with sympathy by a jury; she had also observed him gambling at Monte Carlo with what were presumably the proceeds of fraud. It all seemed too good to be true. And before long Miss Budd’s story had me wondering whether or not it was true.
While researching the book, I cross-referenced every individual mentioned by looking them up in the various censuses, birth, marriage, death and other records. It was usually an easy matter to find people in the 1891 census, which had taken place only two years before this hearing. But Miss Budd was an exception. She claimed to have lived at Worthing in 1889, when she first contacted Wells. Subsequently she had moved to Woolton, Liverpool. But no trace of her can be found in either place in the census. In fact, at this stage I saw no plausible match for her in any of the usual sources.
My suspicions were aroused. Could the police have persuaded someone to testify against Wells to strengthen their case against him? Was there any significance in the fact that she was the very last witness at this preliminary hearing? Was she the card they kept up their sleeve in case the other testimony against Wells was not convincing enough? Wells’ activities as a con-man had been public knowledge for years, but until now the police had hesitated to arrest him because of the difficulty in proving fraud. Perhaps, even at this late stage, they still felt the need for a ‘star witness’ to bolster their argument.
Of course, if Wells had been certain that no-one of that name had ever been in touch with him, he could have raised an objection in court. But it is recorded elsewhere that he had so many “clients” that he could not remember them all; and, in any case, an investment of £30 was too small to have been memorable, other people having handed over as much as £18,000. The record states that he and Miss Budd had never met, and thus he had little reason to recall whether or not she had been his client a few years previously.
But there was some evidence to suggest that she was a real person, even if she was an elusive one. A minor point I had noted during my research was that Budd is a name often encountered in West Sussex, including the general area of Worthing. If she were an impostor, would the police really have gone to all the trouble of finding a name suited to the place where she is supposed to have lived? Would they even have considered it? And would they have had access to such information in that era?
Furthermore, a claim for the return of her £30 was later submitted in her name during the process of Wells’ bankruptcy. If she had been a mere puppet controlled by the police, would such a claim really have appeared? Considering all the paperwork and additional scrutiny that would have been involved, and the risk of the trick being discovered, I think it is unlikely.
So I decided to intensify my hunt for the mysterious Miss Budd.
Wells’ bankruptcy records show her name as ‘F. M. Francis Budd’. Leaving aside the question of whether to spell Frances with an ‘e’ or an ‘i’, I concluded that her correct name was probably Frances M. Budd. This led me to an 1865 birth record in Bangalore, India, for a Frances Maud Budd, the daughter of a military officer. If so, she would have been about 27 at the time of Wells’ trial. Although the magazine illustration tends to suggest an older woman, it is probably our modern preconceptions that lead us to believe this. A 27-year-old woman making an appearance in court today would dress in a somewhat ‘young’ or contemporary fashion in spite of the formality of the occasion: while a more mature person might favour more sober or traditional clothing. But in Victorian times, there were no such divisions. Everyone dressed alike. The individual portrayed in the sketch could be young, middle-aged or elderly.
On balance, I conclude that Miss Budd genuinely was one of the victims of Wells’ fraudulent scheme. I am not so sure, though, about her tale of having watched him ‘break the bank’ at Monte Carlo. Since she was allegedly so hard up that she could only afford to invest £15, and was only able to come up with the full amount after some difficulty, it does seem doubtful that, soon afterwards, she was able to take a trip to Monte Carlo and visit the casino.
Whatever the true facts, it is certain that her evidence helped to commit Wells to a full criminal trial. When, as a consequence, he appeared at the Old Bailey, a string of prosecution witnesses – many of whom had testified at the preliminary hearing – gave evidence against Wells. Curiously, Miss Budd was not among them – a fact which was never explained, or even mentioned, at the time.
We may never know the full story of the mystery witness. Or perhaps it’s just that “the jury’s still out”.
(As a final thought – as far as this story is concerned – a Frances Maud Budd died at Bournemouth in 1952 at the age of 86. This means that ripples of this story extend well into the last century; in fact, if this Miss Budd was who I think she was, it would mean that at least one of Wells’ victims was still alive when I was still a small child).
Sources consulted include:
The Times Digital Archive (this is a subscription service but access is available through membership of many local libraries)
British Newspaper Archive (ditto)[*The dialogue from Bow Street Magistrates Court, quoted above, is from my book, The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, page 123].
- 125 years ago September 15, 2016
On 7 September, 1891, Charles Wells placed an extraordinary advertisement in The Times, seeking financial backing for a return trip to Monte Carlo. (A few weeks previously, he had won £40,000 – worth £4 million today. Now he was offering the equivalent of £3 million to anyone who would put up the stake money for his next expedition to the casino):
THIRTY THOUSAND POUNDS MONTHLY (£1,000 daily) to PARTNER, with absolute security. Partner may be cashier, or name one, advertiser not wishing to touch any of the partner’s money and will provide all his own expenses. No further liability than £6,000. Full information and undeniable proof. Write Perseverance, May’s Advertising offices, 162, Piccadilly, W.
Was this a scam, similar to those he had practised over the previous few years? Or a genuine offer? It is known that he received several replies, and the question is discussed further in The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (pages 75-79).