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Biography of Victor Lustig

         

Victor Lustig, one of the greatest con-artists of all times, was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia on January 4, 1890 to a respectable middle class family.  He is best known as “the man who sold the Eiffel Tower”.

He grew up learning Czech and German and studied English, French and Italian.  He continued his studies at the University of Paris where he diverted his time to the non-academic study of card gambling and playing billiards.  After leaving school, he spent time in prison for petty crimes in several European countries.  He was arrested 45 times throughout Europe using 22 different aliases for escape and profit.

He then turned to the cruising crowd who traveled between Paris and New York.  As he sailed on the great transatlantic ships of the time, Victor refined his gambling by playing cards with wealthy passengers and rubbing elbows with professional gamblers such as Nicky Arnstein.  This set the stage for the greater schemes that the Count, as he called himself, would become infamous for.

WWI put an end to pleasure cruises and to Lustig’s gambling career.  Later, he worked for a syndicate of gamblers and got caught holding out on them. In 1920, with the gang hot on his trail, he fled to America.  He arrived in the U.S. at the height of Prohibition at a time when the stock market was very bullish.  This gave the illusion that everyone was getting rich, and Lustig wanted a piece of the action.

In 1925 Lustig and a fellow con-man sold the Eiffel Tower to a greedy scrap metal businessman called Andre Poisson.  The sucker even paid a bribe to secure the deal from those he thought were crooked government officials.  Count Lustig continued his schemes to make a fast buck: selling a hoax miracle box he claimed could print flawless counterfeit money. But, his greatest success on his personal ladder was making an impression on the most famous gangster of all time - the great Al Capone.

Lustig then got into counterfeiting himself and eventually was caught.  In 1934, the Secret Service found $51,000 in phony currency which Lustig kept in a locker in Times Square.  He was arraigned and sent to prison from where he escaped the day before his trial.  Lustig had hidden 9 sheets in a slit in his mattress, which he tore and fashioned into a crude rope.  He secured his rope to a third floor window and, acting as a window cleaner, lowered himself to the street below.  He was recaptured in Pittsburgh and on December 5, 1935 stood trial for his crimes.

Lustig was sentenced to 15 years and sent to Alcatraz to serve out his time.  He contracted pneumonia and died at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri on March 11, 1947. On his death certificate, his occupation was listed as salesman.

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