Charles Jeremiah Wells – father of Charles Wells (the man who broke the bank) – lived at this house, 2 Montée des Oblats*, in Marseille. (*Since re-named rue Vauvenargues). It would appear that the house was first occupied by members of the family when Charles ‘Monte Carlo’ Wells was entering a successful phase of his career as an engineer when in his thirties, and it is thought that he may have bought it for his parents.
At the rear of the building is a steep drop, (seen in the second illustration), providing two extra storeys below the house. Nearing the end of his life, and seriously ill, Charles Jeremiah Wells wrote: ‘I have the first society here, and the first salons open to me – but can’t enjoy it – perfectly isolated – having nothing and wanting nothing – inhabiting one of my apartments – one bed – no servant – and done for by the family below. From my former habit of life it is a terrible come-down in one year.’
More photographs from my research on the man who broke the bank will follow soon ! Watch this space!!
When researching a book I like to visit the sites where the action took place. Usually I take a number of photographs to remind me, when writing later, what the place was like.
It took me some time to realise that I have assembled something of an image library in connection with The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo: from this image of a house in Marseille where he once lived …
… to this letter written by the man himself …
Over the coming days and weeks I’ll be dipping into the photo album to find other pictures such as these.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I was fascinated to watch the Channel 4 documentary yesterday, Titanic – The New Evidence. Too many documentaries seem intent on putting forward someone’s pet theory without backing it up with convincing evidence. But this programme used recently-discovered photographs which – according to the experts interviewed – contain plausible evidence of the serious fire in the coal bunkers on board. This suggestion was backed up by documentary evidence, mostly testimony from the official enquiry.
One of the worst faults of all in so-called documentaries is the practice of putting forward a theory – however far-fetched – and then claiming to have proved that it’s correct, when in fact they have done nothing of the sort. So we hear the likes of: ‘We know the castle burnt down, we know that Henry VIII visited the town that year, so we can safely say that he’s the one who did it”. (I exaggerate, of course, but not much).
Back to the Titanic documentary: the technique of blending archive still photographs with moving reconstructions is impressive. But I worry a little that this technique, in the wrong hands, could be used to “prove” pet theories by “recreating” events that never happened, or at least didn’t happen quite like that. But then I’m a natural worrier, especially when it comes to historical accuracy.