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
- Partners in Crime – Charles Deville Wells and his accomplices October 1, 2016
In this short series of blog posts I investigate some associates of Charles Wells who participated in his crimes, or at least knew of them. It’s quite a short list because Wells usually preferred to act on his own. In fact, when the French police contacted their British counterparts for information, a Scotland Yard detective had replied, ‘Wells was an exceptionally reserved man, frugal and simple in his habits. He appeared to have no friends or relatives.’ It is stated in the same letter that he had only ever worked with one accomplice. But this was not strictly true.
Around 1891, when Wells broke the bank at Monte Carlo, he was in close contact with a man named Aristides Vergis, who had already experienced at least one brush with the law.
A few years previously, Vergis had taken a job with a jeweller as a kind of freelance salesman. He went to his employer with what purported to be orders from various customers for expensive items. These were to be delivered to the clients, who would subsequently be invoiced. But there was one little snag in this arrangement. Most of the ‘customers’ had not really ordered anything; and some of them did not even exist.
For example, Vergis had told his employer that a Mr. Frederick Kaye had ordered jewellery as a wedding present for his daughter, and a stylish pin for his son. The goods were duly sent to Kaye with an invoice. But Kaye later testified: ‘I have no daughter … [and] I did not order a horse-shoe pin for my son. He is only seven years old. The first I heard of this matter was receiving the invoice …’
All of the goods – to the value of about £400 (£40,000 in present-day terms) had finished up in the hands of Vergis himself. He went on trial at the Old Bailey and was sentenced in 1887 to 12 months hard labour.
Shortly after being released from prison, Vergis set himself up as a yacht-broker, and opened a plush office in a fashionable part of London – an enterprise that was no doubt funded by his haul from the jewellery scam. His business address – 37 Sloane Square – was situated within the Chelsea-Fulham-Brompton area of London which Charles Wells seemed to frequent: in fact, it was almost next door to the bank which Wells used.
Wells bought several yachts in the space of a few years, almost certainly through Vergis. They included: Kettledrum (a 55ft. steam-yacht); Ituna (a 137ft. steam yacht); Wyvern (a 60ft. steam yacht which was wrecked while in Wells’ ownership), Flyer (a small steam launch) and another yacht, Kathlinda. And in 1891 he purchased the Tycho Brahe – a former cargo ship, nearly 300 feet in length, with a displacement of 1,633 tons. This he converted, at great expense, into one of the largest pleasure yachts in the world, and renamed her Palais Royal. He appointed Vergis as his agent, and gave him a wide range of responsibilities, including selecting and appointing officers to command the ship.
When it seemed likely that Wells would be arrested on fraud charges, Vergis bribed an official with the sum of £5 (about £500 in today’s value) to find out whether there a warrant against Wells. This gave Wells an opportunity to flee the country before the net closed on him. Subsequently, having crossed the Channel in a bid to escape the British police, Wells was arrested on board Palais Royal. In a letter from the local jail he asked Vergis to look after his mistress, Jeannette, while he was in captivity. He also requested Vergis to arrange a defence lawyer for when he was brought to England to stand trial. Their association ceased, however, when Vergis died in early 1895, at a time when Wells was part-way through an 8-year jail sentence.
Vergis has proved to be a most elusive character to research. A factor which complicates matters somewhat is the spelling of his name, which appears in various records as Vergis, Verges, Vergie, and even Burgess.
I had long suspected that he was the man recorded in the 1891 census as ‘Arthur Vergis’, commission agent, living at 77 Bramber Road, Fulham. This individual’s place and date of birth are quoted as Newcastle in 1838. On noticing that Bramber Road was named during the court hearing on the jewellery case, I was convinced that this was indeed the same person.
However, all of my efforts to trace the earlier history of the elusive Mr. Vergis have failed – probably because ‘Vergis’ – like Wells – changed his identity when it suited him to do so.
In my next post in this series, I’ll be on the trail of the elusive “Lizzie Ritchie”.
Sources for the above:
- The Falmouth Connection September 12, 2016
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 World’s Longest Book Title? September 12, 2016
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
By the way, I checked and there really is a catalogue entry for this on the British Library’s online catalogue
- A case of mistaken identity? September 10, 2016
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”!
- Family History Research in France September 9, 2016
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.