Victor Lustig: A con man who sold the Eiffel Tower

Early in his criminal career, Lustig, born in 1890 in Austria-Hungary, met wealthy passengers on ocean liners and convinced them to buy money-printing machines. By the time the travelers realized the devices didn’t work and they’d been swindled, the con man had fled. He moved on to other scams, including selling the Eiffel Tower in the mid-1920s. Lustig developed this scheme after reading that the famous structure, erected for the 1889 World’s Fair and intended to last only 20 years, was in need of repairs and expensive to maintain. Claiming to be a government official, Lustig set up meetings with some of the city’s scrap-metal dealers to let them know the tower was slated to be demolished. One dealer bribed Lustig to secure the winning bid for the job and only after paying him a hefty sum to supposedly take possession of the tower did the dealer learn he’d been duped. Embarrassed he’d been bamboozled, the man didn’t press charges.

Lustig eventually made his way to America, where he adopted fake identities and continued to pull off a variety of scams, including persuading Al Capone to invest in a deal that would double his money. Instead, after a short period, Lustig told the mobster the scheme hadn’t worked out but he was returning all his money anyway. Impressed by Lustig’s supposed honesty, Capone paid him a reward, which might have been the con man’s end game all along. In 1935, law enforcement agents in New York finally caught up with Lustig, who had been running an extensive counterfeiting ring. After being convicted and sent to Alcatraz, Lustig died in 1947.

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