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CONNING CAPONE

COUNT VICTOR LUSTIG was the greatest con man of the 20th century. I cannot say “of all time” because implications of recent events have yet to play out.

Count Victor Lustig, born Robert V. Miller, 1890–1947, Austro-Hungarian con artist extraordinaire.

Lustig’s credentials as a con man are impressive indeed. His trips on transatlantic ocean liners included conning people into backing non-existent Broadway shows. His Rumanian Box was a currency reproducing machine, one of this gadget’s purchasers being a Texas sheriff. Lustig managed to sell the Eiffel Tower to scrap merchants—twice. And, my favorite, he conned Al Capone.

Several Sources. I refer you to Wikipedia for details of these confidence games. There are books and articles on Lustig: One, perhaps not free of bias, is written by his daughter: From Paris to Alcatraz: The True, Untold Story of One of the Most Notorious Con-artists of the Twentieth Century – Count Victor Lustig, by Betty Jean Lustig, Xlibris, 2011.

For a likely more accurate assessment, I recommend Smithsonian magazine, August 22, 2012, and Gilbert King’s article, “The Smoothest Con Man That Ever Lived.”

There’s also a charming book, Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, by Greg Pizzoli, Viking Books for Young Readers, 2015.

Tricky Vic was selected by The New York Times as one of the ten Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2015. Don’t be put off by the book’s “Grade 2 to 4” level. I could imagine one adult in particular for whom it might be appropriate.

Lustig’s Philosophy. Like other confidence men and confidence women, Lustig depended upon charm while identifying his marks. In fact, it’s said he even composed a Ten Commandments for Con Men. These include “Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups),” “Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually),” and “Never boast—just let your importance be quietly obvious.”

Geez, these criteria may need updating for the 21st century con.

The Rumanian Box. Lustig’s Rumanian Box had two slots, into which were inserted a real bill and a suitably sized piece of paper. After cranks and levers were worked and a time elapsed, the box would eject the original bill and another genuine one. Who’d ever think the second bill had already been secreted in the box?

A Texas sheriff paid Lustig thousands of dollars for the box, only to find it didn’t work. When the sheriff complained, Lustig convinced him that he’d been operating the box incorrectly and offered him a large sum of cash as compensation. Who’d ever think the compensated cash was counterfeit?

Eiffel Tower Sales. In 1925, Lustig exploited the notion that the Eiffel Tower had been built specifically for Paris’s 1899 World’s Fair, not for permanent competition with the city’s other wonders. He encouraged carefully selected scrap merchants to bid on the job of its dismantlement.

Once identifying his mark, Lustig closed the deal with a wonderful gambit: Ostensibly only an impoverished government official, Lustig was not unprepared to accept an additional bribe to seal the deal. Who’d ever think there was a straight bureaucrat?

Lustig’s first mark was too humiliated to report matters to the police. His second mark thought otherwise: Police were informed and Lustig lit out for the United States. Who’d ever think a con man would be successful here?

Conning Capone. My favorite Lustig con was the most elegant and simplest: He first convinced Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a scam he had fashioned. Capone bit. Lustig put the 50 Large in the bank for two months. He then returned it to Capone with the claim that, lamentably, the deal had fallen through, leaving Lustig temporarily financially embarrassed.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, 1899–1947, American gangster, co-founder of the Chicago Outfit.

Capone, impressed with Lustig’s forthrightness, gave him $5000. Which was the point of the whole con. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

One comment on “CONNING CAPONE

  1. jlalbrecht64
    November 15, 2018

    As far as I know, I have only met one real “con man.” He tried a similar type of con with me as Lustig did with Capone, but I didn’t bite. I only lent him (not invested) a sum small enough for me to not be put out if I didn’t get it back. I asked for the loan repayment at the agreed time, and after a few days of grumbling about the agreed date my lack of faith or something like that, I got my money back.

    A few weeks later he tried for the next round. I pointed out that if he was needing to regularly borrow sums of that magnitude, he had some issues to work out that I didn’t want to be a part of. I declined that as well as a couple other requests from him.

    I found out some months later when everything came out that I was only one of two people in our circle of friends who didn’t get fleeced. Quite a life lesson.

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