While researching Charles Wells, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, I had difficulty finding any early pictures of him. This came as no surprise. In the 19th century relatively few individuals ever had their portrait drawn or painted; and photography was an expensive and arcane art, usually reserved for important people and special occasions. But I did eventually stumble on the image shown on the left.
It crops up in several places when “Monte Carlo Wells” is mentioned on the internet. If, for example, you do a Google search for ‘Charles Wells (gambler)’ it appears in the little box to the right of the results list (on my PC anyway!)
For comparison, the sketch on the right, taken from a contemporary newspaper, portrays “Monte Carlo Wells” not long after he broke the bank in 1891. Although the two faces are not dissimilar, I wondered why – and when – Wells of Monte Carlo would have had his portrait painted as a young man. He had been an engineer at Marseille, and his salary would not have been spectacularly high.
But it has been established that in about 1868 he had invented a speed regulator for steam engines, and he reputedly sold the patent for about five times his annual salary. Could he have celebrated his good fortune by sitting for a portrait? It seemed an intriguing possibility.
To resolve the question, I needed to look no further than Wikipedia! The entry on “Charles Wells (American politician)” includes this same image and reveals that this was another Charles Wells, who lived from 1786 to 1866, and was the fourth mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. Clearly he was nothing to do with Wells of Monte Carlo, who was born in 1841 and lived into his eighties.
To make sure, I consulted a 1914 publication with the extraordinary title: Mayors of Boston: An Illustrated Epitome of who the Mayors have been and what they have done. The same portrait appears on the page dedicated to this individual, followed by a brief biography. It seems that this Charles Wells served as mayor from 1832-3. He was a master builder by trade, and ‘little fitted for public office … a man of simple character, not much versed in public affairs’.
The irony is that, if it were not for the fact that many people now confuse him with “Monte Carlo Wells”, Charles Wells of Boston would almost certainly have faded into obscurity, since his career seems to have been singularly undistinguished. And if there’s a moral in the story, it’s that the repeated appearance of an assertion, whether in print or on the internet, does not necessarily validate that “fact”!