Count Victor Lustig (1890-1947) was an Austro-Hungarian nobleman in the early 1900s. A brilliant businessman who was fluent in several languages, he lived a life of leisure on ocean liners, traveling back and forth between France and the United States. He made his fortune on these ships, selling his most famous invention: the money box. It was a device, the size of a large suitcase, that printed out a fresh new $100 bill each and every day – and Lustig was its proud inventor.
Do I even need to say it this time? Except he wasn’t.
There is no such thing as a money box, and Lustig wasn’t even a real Count. He was born as Robert V. Miller in Hostinné, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic). Lustig was just one of his many aliases, but it was his favorite, and is the name by which he has gone down in history – as the greatest con man who ever lived.
First class on a transatlantic ocean liner is the perfect place to run a confidence trick, or con. Fabulously wealthy complete strangers were thrown together for exactly one week, with nothing to do but try to impress each other with their fabulous wealth – and then they were almost sure to never see each other again.
And the money box was the perfect con to run in such a setting. It looked complicated, full of gears and levers and whirring noises, but its secret was its simplicity. In an unassuming unmarked box on the side of the machine, Lustig has pre-loaded around ten $100 bills, on top of a stack of bill-sized blank paper. Each day, on schedule, the money box printed out a $100 bill with great fanfare (corrected for inflation, that would be about $1,200 today).
Lustig would make small talk with marks (the con artist’s term for the person they are in the process of swindling) at the beginning of the voyage. He would gain their trust, then swear them to secrecy while showing his greatest invention.
When the mark inevitably asked where they could get their own money box, Lustig would initially refuse to disclose anything more. But as the week went on, he would relent, and say, well maybe I could sell this money box, if the price were right. Sometimes he would get two or more marks to engage in a bidding war, driving up the price.
Ultimately, he would sell the machine for $10,000 or more. He would wish a fond farewell to the mark, promising to write and to totally look them up next time he was in America. By the time the mark noticed that the money box was now a blank paper box, Lustig would be on the return voyage, running the same con on a new mark.
His record sale came in the 1920s, when he sold a money box to New York City gambling ring for $46,000. Subtracting the $1,000 in preloaded bills and corrected for inflation into 2018 dollars, he made a nice profit of half a million dollars.
But this is just part one of the story of Victor Lustig. We haven’t even gotten to the part where he vanished a jail cell on the third floor in Manhattan, in broad daylight. Or the time Al Capone called him the most honest man he ever met, while handing him a check for $5,000. Or his most famous con.
Coming on Monday: Count Victor Lustig, the man who sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice.
Update: In the original version of this post, I had corrected for inflation using 1900 dollars, when Count Lustig was 10 years old. I’ve updated the estimates to use 1920 values.