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 – 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.
- Steam Power January 6, 2017
As a young man, Charles Deville Wells had practised as an engineer in France, and had invented an apparatus for regulating the speed of ships’ propellers. He sold the patent to a steamship company for 5,000 francs – a very large sum at the time.
Some twenty years later he used his earlier engineering expertise to set up a scam, in which he persuaded well-heeled investors to sponsor another invention of his. This piece of equipment, he assured them, would greatly increase the fuel-efficiency of steam engines. Considering that steam power was the mainstay of transport and industry around the world, any effective method of saving coal would indeed have been worth a fortune. Wells told his would-be financiers that the gadget could provide savings of 50%, and promised to share the proceeds if they backed his idea.
The really clever part of his scheme is that what he claimed must have been totally believable at that time – especially to a lay person. I recently watched the repeat of a BBC documentary, Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here. This shows how the earliest steam engines had an efficiency of only 5%. By the late 1880s to early 1990s, when Wells was operating his scam, newer designs of engines had achieved a figure of 10%. Thus it was clear not only that efficiency could be doubled, but that there was still more than ample room for further improvement. Two of his investors handed over sums approaching £3 million in today’s money, but never received a penny of the promised profits.
In fact, steam power never achieved much more than 10% efficiency: and at the time when Wells was peddling his device, the internal combustion engine was already being developed. As we now know, this would make the steam engine virtually redundant – though it would take more than half a century to do so.
- The Yachting Fraternity December 29, 2016
Bank-breaker Charles Deville Wells bought the former cargo ship Tycho Brahe in 1891, converted her at great expense into a luxury yacht with a ballroom for 50 guests, and renamed her Palais Royal. Former BHS boss Sir Philip Green bought the yacht Lionheart in 2016 for a reported $150 million. Lionheart and Palais Royal are almost exactly the same length at 90 metres.
Both men frequented Monte Carlo.
Wells had his yacht seized in 1893 after he had been found guilty of fraud on a massive scale and had been declared bankrupt.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
- Partners in Crime (5) December 14, 2016
A few weeks ago I ran a “mini-series” of blog posts, featuring some of Charles Wells’ partners in crime. The name of Henry Baker Vaughan came to mind at the time, but I hesitated to include him as one of Wells’ side-kicks because, I believe, he was only a reluctant accomplice. But his story is an interesting one, so I’ve decided to add him to the list as an afterthought.
Henry Baker Vaughan was born in about 1858 and – in common with thousands of others in those days before typewriters, photocopiers and word-processing – he became a legal clerk. We can almost picture him as he stands at a tall desk like a preacher’s pulpit, scratching away with a quill pen like a character out of Dickens.
He married Mary Anne Barber in 1881 and they set about producing a large brood of children. Life must have been hard for a young man with such a large family working at a job which was notoriously badly paid. One day in about 1887, though, he spotted an advertisement in the paper. A businessman was seeking a legal clerk.
Vaughan went along to meet this entrepreneur, who turned out to be Charles Deville Wells. Wells took him on, promising to pay him 12s 6d (equivalent to about £60 today) to copy by hand 500 letters relating to patents for which he was seeking financial backing. This must have been a dreadfully repetitive and mind-numbing task, but Vaughan duly delivered the letters to Wells, who elected to pay him only 7s 6d (worth just under £40 today), instead of the amount he had promised. Vaughan was hardly in a position to argue, and over a period of a few years he made some 3,000 copies like these.
(Lest there be any doubt, the inventions that Wells claimed to have patented were all phony, and few, if any, of the investors ever got any money back).
Up to now, of course, Vaughan himself had done nothing wrong and was probably unaware that Wells was operating a scam. But soon the young clerk, always strapped for cash, and with an ever-expanding family, was tempted to depart from the straight and narrow. At the same time as he was employed by Charles Wells, Vaughan also did some work for a legal firm. He once mentioned to Wells that he was going to Temple Chambers and Wells asked him to write a letter from there about an agreement between himself and a client. Wells offered him £1 (equivalent to £100 today) if he would write a “legal opinion” stating that the contract was a fair one.
Some time later, when Wells went on trial at the Old Bailey for fraud, Vaughan was a prosecution witness. He testified that Wells had asked him to accompany him to Paris in connection with a company that Wells was forming. (Naturally, this undertaking was later discovered to be a sham). While they were in the French capital, Wells gave him an Affidavit to copy out. Among other details the document named Vaughan as Company Secretary, and after he had made a copy they went together to the British Consulate where Vaughan swore the Affidavit.
After Vaughan had recited this saga in court, the judge remarked, ‘You need not answer any questions that may prejudice yourself.’ The hapless clerk seems to have been shaken by this comment. Up to now Vaughan had not felt that he had done anything wrong, but now the judge seemed to imply that he had participated in a deception on a huge scale.
He blurted out, ‘I have nothing to conceal that I am aware of.’
In the event, no further action was taken against Vaughan, but his career seems to have been tainted by his association with Wells, and it is evident that he had difficulty finding further work within the legal sector. The 1901 census finds him and his wife living in Greenwich accompanied by no fewer than nine sons and daughters ranging from 1 to 18 years of age. Vaughan is now working as a dock labourer.
Henry Baker Vaughan’s story ends with a particularly sad twist. It seems that even 15 years after working for Wells he was still regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. Shortly before Christmas 1906, these few lines appeared in a newspaper:
PATHETIC STORY OF DESPAIR
Mr. N. Schroder held an inquest at Hampstead on Henry Baker Vaughan, aged 49 years, lately living in Woodstock Road, Walthamstow, who committed suicide by taking arsenic on Hampstead Heath. Herbert Rowe, manager to George May, a Fulham moneylender, in whose service deceased was, stated that the latter told him that he recently lost £3 through a hole in his pocket, and had to make it good, and was suspended pending examination of the accounts, and he was much depressed. The books were [subsequently] found quite correct. — A verdict of Suicide during temporary insanity was returned.
A number of sources were consulted in piecing together Vaughan’s story. For his court appearance I relied in particular on the account in The London Evening Standard of 16 February 1893. His death was reported in the Essex Newsman of 8 December 1906, and other publications. Both papers can be consulted online at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
- “The best book I’ve read all year …” November 30, 2016
That’s what Nigel Jones, book reviewer for Devonshire magazine, writes in the latest edition which is out now.
The man who broke the bank, Charles Deville Wells, lived at an address in Walker Terrace, Plymouth, from about 1883 to about 1887. From here he registered a number of patents on his inventions, which included multiple-wick candles, advertising by means of balloons, electric baths, and a “combined fire extinguishing grenade and chandelier”! Some years later, he returned in his sumptuous yacht, Palais Royal, and it was here that the finishing touches to the vessel were carried out by local shipwrights.
Here’s an extract from Nigel’s review:
You couldn’t really make up this story. It’s actual real life stuff that’s both unbelievable, extraordinary and true. It’s an epic story regarding the battle man faces to pay the bills (silver spoons excluded here). Charles Deville Wells takes this battle to extraordinary levels in terms of perseverance, innovation and also trickery and fraud. Initially an engineer, Wells takes to developing products which he patents and then seeks investors to reap the harvest, of which there’s usually none. Later Wells indeed does break the bank at Monte Carlo, making unheard of amounts of money, then loses it on incredible projects and continues to evade the law and investors. At one point, he bases his operation in Plymouth, so great local references also.
The best book I’ve read all year, the level of research that’s gone into this excellent book by Robin Quinn is staggering. A thoroughly entertaining, interesting read that’s highly recommended.
P.S. Christmas is coming! (How could we fail to notice!) If someone you know likes Victorian crime books, buy them a copy of The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. If they enjoy it as much as reviewer Nigel Jones evidently did, they should be in for a very happy Christmas!