On this day 125 years ago – 7 January 1892

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”.

The "Salle Mauresque" (Moorish Room, so-called because of the style of decoration used). In this room Charles Deville Wells broke the bank several times.

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].

Charles Deville Wells, as described in 'the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo' by Robin Quinn, author

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?

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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

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.

Patent Steam Regulator
A diagram showing the device for regulating the speed of ships’ propellers.  This image formed part of Wells’ patent application of 1868.

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

Palais Royal
Palais Royal – the former cargo ship, Tycho Brahe

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)

Charles Deville Wells man broke bank monte carlo gambler fraudster extraordinaire robin quinn author victorian edwardian true crime
Charles Deville Wells, the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

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.

Sir John Bridge, Chief Magistrate
Sir John Bridge, Chief Magistrate for London
Charles Deville Wells - the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo - in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates Court
Charles Deville Wells – the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo – in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates Court prior to being sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

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 …”

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!

It’s available online from a variety of booksellers including Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith, and iTunes.

125 years ago

man broke bank monte carlo robin quinn charles deville wells gambler fraudster extraordinaire
A gambling hall at the Monte Carlo Casino, the Salle Touzet, named after the architect responsible for its design.  It first opened in 1890, was temporarily closed, and re-opened just after Charles Wells had broken the bank in November 1891.

Charles Wells had reportedly won the equivalent of £6 million during the course of his two visits to Monte Carlo in 1891, first in the summer and then in early November.  Comment and gossip abounded for some time afterwards as journalists speculated on the reasons for his good fortune.  Wells himself always claimed to have developed an infallible system: but since he was trying to tempt wealthy investors to back him it was vital to convince them that he had a winning formula.  His claims were ridiculed by certain newspapers:

‘…what has been said about Mr. Wells’ “system” is all rubbish.  Mr Wells played no system worthy the name, and his good fortune was simply the result of his luck.’

Other journalists referrred to a “put-up-job”, insinuating that Wells and his winnings were a fiction created by the Casino:

‘There are a good many ways of advertising, and for such a concern as that which flourishes at Monaco nothing could be more effectual than the stories of colossal winnings which from time to time issue from Monte Carlo, and make the round of the European press.’

While rumours and theories swirled around the pages of the newspapers, one fact was beyond dispute.  Other people flocked to the principality en masse to try their luck:

THE “WELLS” BOOM

A telegram from Monte Carlo reports that ‘swarms of visitors’ have recently arrived at Monte Carlo, most of them possessed of the one idea of ‘breaking the bank’…

Whatever his secret, Charles Wells was one of the main topics of conversation in Britain and elsewhere.  Following the lead of the popular press, people began to call him ‘Monte Carlo Wells’.  The name stuck, and for the rest of his life – and beyond – he was frequently referred to by this nickname.

For a detailed discussion of how Wells broke the bank, please see my book, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, especially pages 227-238.

Other sources for this blog post: Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 18 and 19 November 1891; Aberdeen Free Press, 19 November 1891; Bridport News, 20 November 1891.  These newspapers can be accessed online via the British Newspaper Archive, which I thoroughly recommend: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/  The site offers a free trial initially.  Various subscription packages are then available.  Having subscribed, if you do not renew you will sooner or later be offered one month of access to the site for just £1 to tempt you back!  This is unbeatable value.  (Please note that this is an unsolicited testimonial – I am a satisfied user of the site, but have no connection whatsoever with it).

125 Years ago: a song propels Charles Wells to lasting fame

The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo Charles Coborn Fred Gilbert
Sheet music for The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, written by songwriter Fred Gilbert. The photograph (inset) is of Charles Coborn.

According to popular legend, songwriter Fred Gilbert was walking along The Strand one day when he spotted a news vendor’s placard bearing the immortal phrase:

THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO

After Charles Deville Wells had won further large sums of money at Monte Carlo, lengthy articles had appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, based on an interview with Wells (see blog post for 7 November).  If the legend is true, it was probably at the time of this conspicuous press coverage that Gilbert might have seen a poster such as this.

Gilbert immediately turned the headline into a song, and sold it to the famous music-hall singer Charles Coborn.  It was published in late 1891 and was probably first performed in February 1892 when Coborn sang it as part of his act at a London music-hall.  It subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring songs of all time, and undoubtedly turned Wells into a lasting legend.  Coborn later said that he must have sung it at least a quarter of a million times, and as his career lasted almost until his death in 1945, this is perhaps not such an exaggeration as it might seem.

Click here to see and hear a Youtube clip of Coborn performing this number in the 1934 film Say it with Flowers.  This appears to capture the atmosphere of a Victorian music-hall to perfection.  (In fact the era of the music-hall had not yet ended at this date, and Coborn was still performing the song on stage – probably on a daily basis).  An alternative Youtube video can be seen here.  In my opinion, however, this performance lacks the atmosphere of the previous one, having been filmed without an audience present.  Watch them both and see which you prefer!

On this day 125 years ago – 9 November 1891

The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo Charles Deville wells gambler fraudster extraordinaire Robin Quinnobin Quinn
A view of the famous Monte Carlo Casino from the south-western side, overlooking the harbour.

This was the day when The Times and The Daily Telegraph published their respective accounts of the interview they had conducted with Charles Wells two days earlier.  The report from the Telegraph is reproduced in full in my previous blog post of 7 November.  The Times published a similar version, but went into rather more detail on his gambling ‘system’, which Wells claimed to be ‘as nearly infallible as human ingenuity can make it’.

Thirty thousand pounds
During September and October 1891, Wells placed classified advertisements in The Times; The Standard; The Morning Post; St. James’s Gazette; and the Pall Mall Gazette.

In an effort to find wealthy investors to finance his gambling activities, Wells had embarked on an intensive advertising campaign.  He already had a reputation as “king of the classifieds”, having placed hundreds of small-ads over the last few years in connection with a scam involving inventions and patents.  In the first half of September 1891, he placed ads – similar to the one shown here – in almost every edition of the Morning Post, Pall Mall Gazette, St. James’s Gazette, and some other papers, including The Times itself.  With its headline of ‘Thirty Thousand Pounds Monthly’ the advertisement strongly resembled an earlier one that Wells had used for his patents fraud (‘Thirty Thousand Pounds in Three Months, and probably more yearly, is the certain product of a share in a patent …’).  For some reason he stopped advertising, but started again a month later, on 12 October.  Perhaps he needed this respite to evaluate the replies he had received.

This attempt to interest financiers to back his gambling at Monte Carlo had no chance of succeeding unless Wells could convince his prospects that he had developed an infallible system.  The Times correspondent was clearly not convinced that this was the case.  Describing his own interpretation of Wells’ approach, the journalist gives us a rare insight into Wells’ character:

‘It does not seem to me that he has made any very novel discovery in the science of playing roulette and trente-et-quarante …  The secret of his success rather seems to be in the courageous way in which he attacks the tables and his cool-headed manner of treating either great success or any rebuff which might be encountered.  Most men get excited in either event and lose control over their play, and then the table has its turn.  But Mr. Wells keeps on steadily with his double stakes, which in total range from 6,000f. to 24,000f., … following up the table assiduously with the maximum when a series is running, and dropping the stakes to smaller amounts when the cards are persistently intermittent.  All this has been done thousands of times before, but few have had the courage to risk repeatedly for 11 hours a day close upon a thousand pounds [£100,000 in today’s values] at almost every coup.  In the long series for which all old hands are ever on the alert he would make five or six thousand pounds [£500,000 – £600,000] in a few minutes, and accomplish the feat of breaking the table several times a day’.

(Updated 10 November)

USEFUL REFERENCES:

The Times Digital Archive: http://www.gale.com/the-times-digital-archive/  (Available on subscription only.  However, access is available through membership of many local libraries).

British Newspaper Archive: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/  (This is a fantastic research tool which is being expanded all the time.  A free trial is available)

 

On this day 125 years ago – 7 November 1891

The "Salle Mauresque" (Moorish Room, so-called because of the style of decoration used). In this room Charles Deville Wells broke the bank several times.
Charles Deville Wells broke the bank several times in 1891.

 

Having arrived back in Monte Carlo a few days earlier [see recent blog posts], Charles Deville Wells had gone on to win yet another fortune at the gaming tables.  By 7 November, 1891, public interest in his exploits had reached fever pitch.  The Times and The Daily Telegraph each sent a journalist out to Monaco to watch him gamble.  This was the first time that London-based reporters had been in a position to give a first-hand account of Wells’ activities.   It was also the occasion when he gave his first-ever ‘press conference’, with the two newspaper men hanging on to his every word.

In The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, I include some short extracts from this coverage, but here, in its entirety, is the Telegraph article dated 8 November – the day after the interview – and printed in the following day’s edition.

Mr. Wells, the lucky Englishman, closed his campaign against the Monte Carlo gambling tables last night, and left for England, the winner of £28,000.  This, added to the £32,000 won in July, makes a sum total of £60,000 winnings [equivalent to £6 million today].  On Friday last he cleared £10,000, and broke the bank five times in the evening.  He had before him a pile of thousand-franc notes a foot and a half high, but he never lost his head at play, and afterwards slept soundly with them under his pillow in a room at the Hotel de Paris, overlooking the Place du Casino.

monte carlo casino exterior
The Casino viewed from the Hotel de Paris.  Charles Wells crossed the square (right foreground) to the hotel, staggering under the weight of a million francs in banknotes, and slept with them under his pillow.

I had a long talk with Mr. Wells last night when he rose from the gambling-table, and asked him for the secret of his success.  He replied that this was the result of a system of his own, which he had been working out for years, and after patiently watching the behaviour of the table.  He was now putting it into actual practice.  He thought its value had been fully tested during its trials of the past week and of July last.  [See blog posts ‘On this day 125 years ago’, 28 July – 3 August, 2016]  I then remarked: ‘If this system be infallible, why not go on and clear out the bank?’    ‘Because,’ replied Mr. Wells, ‘the physical strain is beyond my strength.  I have been sitting daily from twelve noon till eleven at night, playing without a break, and I am worn out.  But I have decided to come again shortly.  I have implicit faith in my system, and I am perfectly sure I can win again.’*

I then asked Mr. Wells if he cared to give to the world in general and players in particular the advantages of his system, but he declined.  Players, he said, had watched him and tried to do likewise, but the great majority had not pluck enough to follow him even when they saw him winning.  His system required £6,000 capital,**  as it must for the most part be played with the maximum stakes of 6,000 and 12,000 francs, so as to enable the player to withstand a considerable run of adverse luck.  He acknowledged that one of his principal points was to follow the table, and catch ‘runs’ or ‘series’ as on Thursday and Friday, when with 12,000 francs on each of the two chances he was able to clear the table of its capital several times.  Again, at one o’ clock yesterday, he had taken all of the 100 and the 1,000 franc banknotes supplied to the trente-et-quarante table, and the croupiers were obliged to pay one deal in small odd notes and rolls of gold*** until another £4,000 had been brought by the cashier.

All this naturally afforded splendid sport for the spectators, who rejoiced at so successful an attack upon the enemy.  Mr. Wells added that when the cards were running awkwardly he placed smaller stakes, but for ‘series’ he placed the maximum of 12,000f on each of his chances.  He always insured against a ‘refait’ (the bank’s odd chance); and though this cost him at the rate of 1 per cent. upon his stakes — over £1,000 a day — he believed it paid him.  Then he never tempted good Dame Fortune too far, and sent off his winnings to London daily, and left when his luck turned.  That, he admitted, was a great help even to this system of his, and finding yesterday that he was making no progress, he packed up his portmanteau.

(Daily Telegraph, 9 November 1891, p.5)

NOTES:

* Wells did in fact return two months later, in January 1892.  I’ll be recalling the events of that visit 125 years on.

** £6,000 was the sum which he wanted investors to provide in return for “Thirty thousand pounds a month”.  (See my blog post of 2 November, in which his actual newspaper advertisement is reproduced, and the post of 5 November, in which a magazine editor suggests that the proposition is fraudulent).

*** ‘Rolls of gold’: these were cylindrical paper packets wrapped around a small stack of coins of a certain total value.  On the continent of Europe this is a common way for banks to dispense quantities of small change.

On this day 125 years ago – 5 November 1891

charles deville wells gambler fraudster extraordinaire man broke bank monte carlo

On this day in 1891, Charles Wells was on a winning streak again at the Monte Carlo Casino.

But his past as a fraudster was already threatening to catch up with him.  Exactly 125 years ago, a London magazine called Truth ran an article on Wells – the latest of many.

A fortnight ago [the editor wrote] I hazarded the opinion that the recent advertisement offering a return of £30,000 per month for an investment of £6,000  was the work of this rascal, with whose modus operandi most readers of Truth must by this time be familiar.  It turns out that I was right.  Several persons who have had the curiosity to answer the advertisement, sent me Wells’s replies.  All are in identical terms, and actually promise that the amount of profits reaped (which, after a week, will be divided daily) will “far exceed” the fabulous sum named in the advertisement.  If it is worth while for a detective to hunt down an “astrologer” who advertises for shillings, why is this Wells left free to defraud the public year after year?  [Truth, 5 November 1891]

It is very clear that suspicions were already mounting, but at this point no-one was quite prepared to state that Wells, the fraudster, and Wells, the Monte Carlo bank breaker, were one and the same person.  Before long, though, an enterprising journalist from the Evening News would show that this was indeed the case.  The revelation would mark the beginning of turbulent times for Charles Deville Wells.

charles deville wells the man who broke the bank at monte carlo