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).
After committing bank fraud on a huge scale in Paris, in 1910-11, Charles Deville Wells (the man who broke the bank) escaped to England and lived on a yacht in Falmouth harbour. Moorings were provided by a local shipbuilding company, Cox & Co., who even received Wells’ mail on his behalf, and who almost certainly carried out work to the yacht, which Wells was always improving.
When Wells was finally arrested on the vessel, in early 1912, he was charged in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, Arthur William Chard.
Chard also had connections with marine engineering, and I mention in the book that he and the owner of Cox & Co. were evidently acquainted: ‘… on at least one occasion the two men had jointly presided over the committee which investigated wrecked and missing ships.’ I make the point that Wells was also passionate about ships and the sea, and – in other circumstances – the three men would probably have got along famously together.
An additional piece of information has come to light. Yesterday I found this on the simplonpc.co.uk website. It concerns the River Fal Steamship Company and shows that there was a further connection between Chard and Cox , which I hadn’t previously been aware of.
‘In 1899, William John Thomas, in partnership with Arthur William Chard, ordered a second smaller passenger steamer Victoria (1), delivered in 1900 from Cox & Co. Unlike the rival Benney & Co steamers, she was twin screw with a lower draft. Within six months she was sold back to her builder Walter Cox, who had a buyer ready in Mauritius. Cox delivered the replacement Victoria (2) in 1901, also twin screw. The partners adopted the title The River Fal Steamship Company. Victoria (2) was similar to her predecessor, but had a small upper deck. Both steamers had buff funnels and white hulls. In 1905, the Victoria (2) was also sold to the Portuguese Government. Once again, a replacement was ordered from Cox & Co, becoming the Princess Victoria in the combined fleet with Benney & Co in 1907.’
My thanks to Ian Boyle who runs the site, simplonpc.co.uk , which contains some very interesting material and is well worth a look!
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo – Charles Deville Wells, gambler and fraudster extraordinaire is quite a long title!
I was wondering whether it qualified for a place in the record books, but found that, with 21 words and 102 characters, it was by no means the longest recognised book title of all time. Sadly no gold medal awaits me. The winner is … according to some sources* … a volume with the catchy title:
The history of the wars of New-England with the Eastern Indians; or, a narrative of their continued perfidy and cruelty, from the 10th of August, 1703, to the peace renewed 13th of July, 1713. And from the 25th of July, 1722, to their submission 15th December, 1725, which was ratified August 5th, 1726
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”!
While researching my biography of Charles Deville Wells, “The Man who Broke the Bank”, I needed to consult birth, marriage and death registers , as well as census records, in France.
I was already reasonably familiar with the system in Britain, where such information is easily available on the internet via websites including FreeBMD, Ancestry, and Findmypast. But the equivalent resources in France are less easy to use. To begin with, records are not held centrally. This means that you will usually need to know the place where the birth, marriage or death took place. This information may not be available, which complicates matters considerably.
The second major stumbling block is that, while the likes of Ancestry provide easy-to-search databases of the British records online, the most you are likely to find in France is a digitised online image of an original register or census document. This can involve a lot of searching. Charles Deville Wells and his family group lived at Quimper, Brittany, for a time. The town had some 10,000 inhabitants and to find them involved me in a page-by-page search of a schedule extending to just over 300 pages listing them all. Sod’s Law dictated, needless to say, that the entry I wanted was eventually found on page 299!
However, do not be discouraged. The system is quite easy to use once one has got over the problem of knowing where to look. The records are handwritten but are generally completed in beautifully-formed script by some clerk of long ago. And it is possible to access and download the original images free of charge*, which is a very significant advantage over the UK system. (*Subject to terms and conditions, no doubt!)
I found it useful in the beginning to consult the website of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), which provides a vast amount of family research material in general, and a comprehensive beginner’s guide to genealogy in France.
You can try a search on Ancestry, selecting France as the area of interest: you may or may not find what you are looking for, as the collections are not as comprehensive as those relating to Britain or the USA, for example.
Another potentially very useful resource is the Geneanet site, based in France. Many French people post their family trees here, and digitised versions of many registers are now available, with more appearing regularly. It was here that I found one person vital to my book, having failed to locate her elsewhere.
In early 1912, Charles Deville Wells – best known as “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” – was arrested on board his yacht at Falmouth. A photograph (below left) appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror. I recently visited the scene myself, and photographed the scene as it looks now. (Below right). By this time, the man who broke the bank had moved on to opening his own bank.
For the full story read my book, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells – gambler and fraudster extraordinaire. For more details, or to buy your own copy, please see the Amazon page here.
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, the biography of gambler and fraudster Charles Deville Wells, has been out for just over a month now, and Amazon reviews are beginning to be posted.
Reviewer TD writes:
Robin Quinn has produced another fascinating book writing about the long criminal life of Charles Wells. The author must have spent hundreds of hours searching, not just the official records both in France and England, but in particular scanning the columns of the many newspapers which over many years referred to the persistent fraudulent activities of this man of many aliases. It makes compelling reading.
Another reader comments:
Robin Quinn’s well-researched, highly readable account of the extraordinary Victorian fraudster Charles Wells is a useful reminder of the gullibility and greed that allow confidence tricksters to flourish in all ages. Wells was a respectable, moderately successful civil engineer who turned to fraud in middle age to satisfy his growing desire for wealth, status and luxury. The book’s title comes from a short but highly publicised episode in Wells’ career, when he sailed his fraud-funded yacht into Monte Carlo harbour with his glamorous French wife and “broke the bank” at the roulette tables. Quinn uses contemporary newspaper reports and public records very effectively in his investigation of Wells’ criminal techniques, and even analyses how Wells’ might have engineered his success at the casino. It’s an intriguing account of a highly inventive and single-minded confidence trickster who is often seen as the true inventor of the Ponzi scheme, and who would have relished the opportunities offered by the Internet today. A fascinating book, and one that would make a great film!
Delighted to read another positive, five-star review of The Man who Broke the Bank on Amazon
“When I was a child, one of the songs my father sang was “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, and I always wondered about the man behind that music-hall favourite. Now I know – thanks to this book – and what a fascinating tale it is! The author has not only meticulously researched this story, as evidenced by the book’s wealth of detail, but has brought historical events vividly to life.
In addition to his Monte Carlo adventures, Charles Deville Wells (the subject of this book) was an accomplished fraudster. The workings of his audacious scams are fully explained, but the biggest mystery of all – HOW he broke the bank at Monte Carlo – may just have been explained here too. The author advances several possible scenarios, but has one favoured theory, which is backed by some tantalising historical clues. I found this to be a gripping account of one very clever con-man!”