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
- Fake News or Fact? March 1, 2017
On 18 August 1913, players at the casino in Monte Carlo were astonished when the ball landed on black no fewer than 26 times in succession. Believing that this run could not last, many punters had convinced themselves that red must come up next. They lost their money. Others reasoned that as black had been lucky so many times it would continue that way. They, too, lost when the series finally ended.
The story appears on numerous websites, and for many years it has been included in books on gambling and the laws of chance. But is it true?
I was determined to find out more, and to discover who had been the winners and losers. So I searched a number of sources including the Times Digital Archive, The British Newspaper Archive and Google Books. Surprisingly, I was unable to find any contemporary account of this event from August 1913 – or indeed any mention of it whatsoever until many years after. Having trawled through numerous articles and books I located what I believe to be the first published account of it – in a book published as late as 1959. This work is entitled ‘How to Take a Chance – a light hearted introduction to the laws of probability’ and was written by Darrell Huff. (Note the phrase ‘light hearted’). The author of this volume presumably invented the story just by way of example and now it appears in reputable publications as though it were an established fact.
But if it had really taken place, what would have happened if a gambler had bet on black starting with a stake of £1, and then left their winnings to accumulate on the same colour for 26 spins of the wheel? A quick calculation shows that in theory they would have finished up with over £50 million! This would have been something of an inconvenience to the casino, to put it mildly. To prevent any player from winning sums of this magnitude, the casino’s rules at that time limited the maximum stake to about £250, a measure which would have reduced the total win to about £9,000 – still a good return on an initial investment of £1 !
By the way – if you know of any source for this tale which pre-dates Darrell Huff’s 1959 book, I’d be delighted to hear all about it. firstname.lastname@example.org
- Maps as research tools February 24, 2017
In 1910 the British government decided to carry out a detailed survey and valuation of every building in the country. It was an enormous task and involved hundreds of surveyors up and down the land. The records of the survey can be inspected at the National Archives, which means that they are available to researchers, historians and anyone wishing to find out more about the places where their ancestors lived more than a century ago.
I used these records to find out more about the large business premises occupied by Charles Wells (the man who broke the bank) at 152-156 Great Portland Street, London.
- The Man who Broke the Bank lived here February 13, 2017
Charles Deville Wells, later to achieve fame as ‘the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, was born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire in 1841. He was baptised by the Rev. Francis Thackeray, the uncle of author William Makepeace Thackeray. Wells’ own father was also a literary man – the poet Charles Jeremiah Wellls.
- 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.