The exploits of the man who invented the Rumanian box started a counterfeiting operation that almost wrecked the economy and sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal.
Between the beginning of his career at the turn of the century and his arrest in 1936, Victor Lustig was one of the most notorious con men on either side of the Atlantic. Throughout the course of his career, he invented the Rumanian box scam, sold the Eiffel Tower, and started a counterfeiting operation that shook the American economy. Here are some exploits of one of the twentieth century’s greatest con artists.
Nobody knows for sure where Lustig really came from. At various times during his long career, he used almost fifty different aliases and several foreign passports. Also, he told multiple stories about his own origins. He often claimed to be a Count in Austria, which lent him an air of class and nobility that came in handy when scamming people.
Lustig was most likely born in 1890, in Hostinne, which is a small town in what is now the Czech Republic. There are two versions of his childhood. One version claims that he was the mayor’s son. A bright boy who studied at the Sorbonne before dropping out to become a petty crook. The other version stated that his parents were extremely poor. He had to rely on theft and trickery to provide for himself throughout his childhood. This would make sense as an origin story for one of the world’s greatest conmen.
Wherever he came from, by the early 1900s Lustig had already made a name for himself as a conman. His main source of income during those years came from ocean liners traveling between Europe and America. These ships were full of rich, often naive people who were easy to scam, and it wouldn’t be hard to disappear once the ship came into the harbor.
The Rumanian Box
For several years at the beginning of the twentieth century, Lustig spent most of his time in transit between Europe and America. A few days on a crowded ocean liner was an ideal setting for a quick scam; he could find a mark, make their acquaintance, get what he wanted and disappear in less than a week. The Rumanian Box was the perfect instrument for a quick scam.
Aboard the liner, Lustig presented himself as a gentleman of extraordinary wealth and distinction. When he met a wealthy, gullible-seeming fellow, he would let him in on the secret of his wealth: a contraption he called the Rumanian Box, which produced impossibly accurate hundred dollar bills using a complicated chemical process. Or, in layman’s terms: a box full of hundred-dollar bills. The box spat out Benjamins to the amazement of the mark, and more often than not, Lustig would sell it for an astronomical price.
By the time the mark realized there was something wrong with their new moneymaking machine, the man who sold it was long gone. Soon enough, Lustig would be on the next liner out of the city with a new box. But while rich men on luxury liners were good for business, they weren’t very challenging marks. Lustig was getting bored, and he had bigger targets in mind.
The Eiffel Tower Scam
Probably the greatest scam of Lustig’s career happened in Paris in 1925. The Eiffel Tower had been built in 1889 for the Paris World’s Fair and used as a radio tower during World War One, but now it didn’t seem to do anything except take up space. In fact, the original plans for the tower intended for it to be taken down in 1909. Sixteen years after its expiration date, the tower was a useless, expensive thorn in the city’s side. Lustig saw this as a challenge.
First, he got his hands on a fake ID and some stationary from the Department of Post and sent invitations to five different iron salvage companies in Paris. Then he arranged to meet their representatives at the Hotel Crillon. At the meeting, he spoke about the tower’s deplorable condition and the ludicrous cost of repairs. The government had to sell the tower. However, this would be a very controversial decision, so it had to stay secret. Then he took the five men out for lunch, brought them to the tower for inspection, and told them he would be expecting their bids the next day. By that point, he had identified his mark – a nervous, gullible man named Andre Poisson.
The day after the meeting, Poisson met with Lustig and admitted that he was having second thoughts about the bid. Lustig put him at ease and offered him a deal. For a small fee, Lustig could ensure that he would get the contract. He was hiding in plain sight, conducting blatant fraud under the guise of a cash-strapped government employee. But Poisson fell for it, and soon Lustig was on his way to Vienna with a briefcase full of money. When Poisson tried to follow through with the demolition, he quickly found that he’d been tricked and he was so embarrassed that he didn’t even contact the police.
Sometime after the Eiffel Tower scam, Lustig returned to the United States. He revived the Rumanian box scam and swindled dozens, if not hundreds of people. Later, in 1930, he moved to Nebraska and partnered with William Watts and Tom Shaw to start a counterfeiting operation. Watts and Shaw manufactured counterfeit dollar bills, while Lustig created a distribution network and kept their distributors in the dark about the nature of the money. Within a few years, the three men were releasing thousands of counterfeit dollars into the American economy every month.
It wasn’t long before the government began to notice that something was off. Oddly enough, though, it was a messed-up love triangle that took the con man down. Lustig had a long-standing affair with Billie May, a brothel madam from New York City. Shaw had a young mistress, and Lustig soon began an affair with her as well. When May found out that Lustig had betrayed her, she turned him into the feds and the Eiffel Tower salesman was on his way to Alcatraz.
In 1935, Lustig was sentenced to fifteen years in Alcatraz. Five more years were added after his first escape attempt. However, he never did make it out: twelve years in, he contracted pneumonia and died on March 11th, 1947. His death certificate listed his occupation as “salesman” – which is not entirely inaccurate, but definitely an understatement.