THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO
About the book
Essential reading for lovers of Victorian true-crime stories. The book takes readers on a roller-coaster ride through Britain, France and Monaco in the company of one of the greatest swindlers of the era as he pulls off one breath-taking coup after another. His amazing win at Monte Carlo is just one of many highlights in this true story, which reaches a climax when Wells is pursued across Europe in one of the biggest man-hunts of all time.
FACTFILE: Charles Deville Wells aka ‘Monte Carlo Wells’ aka ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo’
Blog: The Man Who Broke The Bank
- On this day 125 years ago: 23 July 1891 July 23, 2016
CLASH OF THE TITANS
I was browsing the edition of The Times for this day 125 years ago when a report about two music-hall strong-men caught my eye. On looking into this topic more closely, I found that these performers were the “pop-idols” of their day, and that intense rivalry existed between them. I then discovered a book by Graeme Kent, The Strongest Men on Earth: When the Muscle Men Ruled Show Business, which tells their fascinating story in detail. (Snippets are available to read on Google Books).
According to The Times, an artiste billed as “Sampson, the strongest man in the world”, had been performing at the London Aquarium a few days earlier, when 21-year-old John Marx, ‘a powerful-looking man described as a professional athlete and champion dumb-bell swinger’, bounded on to the stage and challenged “Sampson” to lift a steel bar weighing 320 pounds. This, it seems, was a feat which even “the world’s strongest man” was incapable of achieving, and Marx then ‘created a disturbance’. An assistant of Sampson’s approached Marx, who ‘felled him with a violent blow to the head’. When Marx was brought before a court in London, the Magistrate, Sir Albert de Rutzen* remanded him on bail.
John Marx appears to have survived his brush with the law and gone on to enjoy considerable fame: a newspaper advertisement from 1899 – eight years later – shows him at the top of the bill at a Belfast theatre, ‘supported by thirteen variety artists’.[*The name of Sir Albert de Rutzen seemed familiar to me. Then I realised that he was the magistrate who, some years later, presided over an extradition hearing involving the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells, “gambler and fraudster extraordinaire”].
- On this day 125 years ago: 22 July 1891 July 22, 2016
Before going to Monte Carlo to break the bank, Charles Deville Wells had committed a large-scale swindle in Britain over a period of several years. In this way he had accumulated a sizeable amount of money, much of which had already slipped through his fingers. Reading about his exploits today we might wonder why he had never been prosecuted: the answer lies in official attitudes towards fraud as a crime, and in the laissez-faire business climate of the time, which favoured minimal government intervention in everyday affairs.
On this day in 1891, the subject of prosecuting fraudsters came up in the House of Commons, when the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, told Parliament that it was not his intention to pursue those frauds ‘in which a set of rogues and knaves put forward a number of false and fraudulent statements, whilst other people who desire to get large interest join in the scheme, and when they lose their money, come shrieking to the Director of Public Prosecutions to get their money back. I do not agree that the Director of Public Prosecutions ought to be required to spend large sums of money in prosecuting cases of that sort.’
Doubtless, when the “rogues and knaves” in question learned of this policy it simply encouraged them to continue their criminal activities. A magazine called Truth expressed the view a few days later that ‘Mr Matthews went out of his way to say that the law will not punish where there has been fraud on the part of these persons. In doing so he not only gave carte blanche to promoters and their decoys to swindle, but he struck a blow at the monetary enterprise of the country’. It is unlikely that Charles Deville Wells ever read this reply. By the time this issue of the magazine had appeared in print (30 July 1891) he was already in Monte Carlo, making a name for himself at the gaming tables.
- On this day 125 years ago: 21 July 1891 July 21, 2016
Before breaking the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells earned fame as an inventor – though notoriety might perhaps be a better word.
On this day in 1891 the current edition of The Engineer – a weekly magazine – presents a snapshot of a Victorian world still deeply entrenched in the era of horse-drawn power, yet poised to move forward into an age in which machines would replace animals, and in which electricity would take over from gas for lighting and heating purposes.
I chose the following assortment of patents from this issue of the periodical more or less at random.
Wheels for Velocipedes; Photographic Reliefs in Rubber; Combination Surprise Spring Cannon and Shooting Gallery Toys; Producing Coffin Lace; Magic Goal Kicker; Pictures Projected Upon a Screen; Typewriting Machines; Turning Over the Leaves of Music; Utilising the Power of Streams; Hay Making Machines; Shot Firing Safety Lamp; Mineral Water Opener; Walking Stick Billiard Cue; Convertible Phaeton Front Seat; Retaining Device for Cuffs; Machine Guns; Fire Escapes; Gas Lighting; Ventilating Mackintoshes; Sockets for Electric Lamps; Calks for Horseshoes; Detaching Horses from Carriages; Curling Iron Holder for Gas Jet.
Charles Wells himself had, in the preceding years, applied for patents on a bewildering variety of gadgets and ideas, including:
Obtaining Photographic Birds-Eye Views; a Multiple-Wick Candle; Sunshades; a Life-Saving Torpedo; and Detecting Counterfeit Coins.
More recently, though, his inventive skills had been directed almost exclusively towards improving the efficiency of steam engines: his inventions could potentially have been extremely valuable in a civilisation largely reliant on steam power. This week’s crop of patents in The Engineer reflects this trend with applications for:
Regulating the Speed of Steam Engines; Steam Boilers; Steam Generators.
- On this day 125 years ago: 20 July 1891 July 20, 2016
In the London Bankruptcy Court on this day a man named Carl Westergaard, the owner of racing stables in Ostend, appeared before a judge. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported on the case:
MONTE CARLO AND THE TURF
In November, 1889, with £500 given by a friend, [Westergaard] went to Monte Carlo, and, while there he lost that money at the tables, in addition to £300 borrowed from the petitioning creditor, and which he had since been unable to repay … He attributes his failure to losses by gambling, to household and personal expenditure, and to other causes.
Similar articles frequently appeared in the British press, and the Casino at Monte Carlo – the only place in Europe where gambling was legally allowed – attracted considerable criticism for encouraging people to risk their money, and that of other people. There was another side to Monte Carlo, however:
The Prince of Monaco has proved himself a most diligent investigator of the questions connected with ocean currents. In command of his own steamer he has made the currents of the Atlantic the subject of investigation for years, and the results at which he has arrived are at least full of interest, if not also of high scientific value. [Birmingham Daily Post]
A week later Charles Deville Wells made his own journey to Monte Carlo and his successes there pushed stories like these on to the back pages.
- On this day 125 years ago: 19 July 1891 July 19, 2016
CROSSING THE NIAGARA FALLS ON A CABLE
A man named Samuel Dixon, of Toronto, walked across the Niagara gorge over the Whirlpool Rapids to-day on a wire cable three-fourths of an inch in diameter. This is the first time that such a journey has been made from the Canadian shore.
[Reynolds’s Newspaper, 19 July, 1891]