Falmouth, Cornwall. 20 January 1912.
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:
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.