Built in 1889 for the Paris World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower was meant to be torn down in 1909. But it became a popular cultural symbol, and its height made it a valuable radio tower in WWI. For these reasons, it stood tall for years after 1909. Though by 1925, a period of economic hardship after WWI, the tower needed costly maintenance. Some wondered if it was finally time to take down the tower.
Introducing Victor Lustig
When career con artist Victor Lustig read about this in the newspaper, he was inspired! He came up with what would arguably become the biggest con in history.
Lustig told so many lies and had so many aliases across the world, it’s hard to tell truth from fiction about his early life. Most sources agree he was born and raised in Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic) and fluently spoke five languages. He was very clever. He had the opportunity for higher education, but found a life of crime to be more satisfying. Lustig spent years conning rich passengers aboard Atlantic cruise ships. He also ran several jobs across Europe and America before the Eiffel Tower Con that would make him infamous.
He began by calling up the top five representatives in the Parisian metal industry. He claimed to be a government worker auctioning off the Eiffel Tower for scrap. Of course, the tower wasn’t actually being sold for scrap, so he told them that this was a controversial decision, and not to tell anyone about it for now.
They all met at the famous Hôtel de Crillon, where Lustig took them to lunch, and went to see the tower he would ‘sell’ them. Coincidentally, there were maintenance crews there, and Lustig told the businessmen that they were preparing the tower for demolition.
One born every minute!
The representatives thought it had been a business meeting, but Lustig had been looking for his mark. And after that very first meeting, he found a perfectly gullible candidate: André Poisson, an ambitious man desperate to make his mark in the Paris industry.
Lustig approached him, and Poisson admitted he was a little skeptical about the purchase. So Lustig took young Poisson into his confidence and told him he was merely an underpaid employee of the government. Lustig told Poisson that, for a little extra cash, he’d guarantee Poisson would win the auction.
This won Poisson over. No one would imagine a con man would ask for a bribe, but a dirty government worker might. He paid Lustig’s price for the tower in addition to the bribe.
As soon as Lustig had the money, he boarded a train to Vienna. He hid there and waited for his scam to be found out.
But as the days turned into weeks, he still hadn’t heard news of a scam involving the Eiffel Tower. He then realized he would never be discovered.
It turned out that when Poisson realized he was conned; he was so embarrassed he kept it to himself, and no one knew about Lustig’s clever scam.
And about a month later, Lustig pulled the scam again. He spoke to five more businessmen and gave the same pitch.
But this time his mark did some homework and discovered the tower wasn’t actually for sale.
Lustig didn’t get away with the money. However, he didn’t get caught then, and French officials never caught up with him.
The law catches up
American law, however, caught up with him eventually. He had run many scams in the States before, even conning Al Capone, and had been arrested over 50 times. But there was never quite enough evidence to hold him.
Yet, over time, he had circulated so many counterfeit bills that the US economy was beginning to feel the effects. This made officials hunt for him even harder.
As with most con artists, it was greed that got him in the end. It wasn’t greed for money that got him into trouble, though. His girlfriend found out that she was being cheated on and left an anonymous tip with the authorities. That was enough to get Lustig locked up in Alcatraz.