Charles Wells (gambler)
Charles De Ville Wells (1841–1922) is one of the men who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, in a series of successful gambles in 1891, made famous by the song "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo". Subsequently, he was often referred to, especially in the press, as "Monte Carlo Wells".
Family and early life
Charles De Ville Wells was born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. His father was Charles Jeremiah Wells (1799-1879), poet and lawyer, to whom John Keats once addressed a sonnet. His mother was Emily Jane Hill, the daughter of a Hertfordshire school teacher. When he was a few weeks old, the family moved from their home in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, to France, where they lived initially at Quimper, and later at Marseille.
Wells found employment as an engineer at the shipyards and docks of Marseille in the 1860s. In 1868, he invented a device for regulating the speed of ships’ propellers and sold the patent for 5,000 francs (approximately five times his annual salary). In about 1879, he moved to Paris, where he persuaded members of the public to invest in a fraudulent scheme to build a railway at Berck-sur-Mer in Pas-de-Calais. He disappeared with his clients’ money and was convicted in his absence by a Paris court. He relocated to Britain, where, from 1885 onwards, he persuaded members of the public to invest in what he claimed were valuable inventions of his own devising. Although he promised substantial profits, there is no evidence that any of his backers ever received a return on their outlay. One lost almost £19,000 (equivalent to £1.9m today, allowing for inflation).
Breaking the bank
Wells visited the Monte Carlo Casino in late July to early August 1891, and again in November of that year.
At the start of each day, every gaming table in the casino was funded with a cash reserve of 100,000 francs – known as "the bank". If a gambler won very large amounts, and this reserve was insufficient to pay the winnings, play at that table was suspended while extra funds were brought from the casino's vaults. In a ceremony devised by François Blanc, the former owner of the casino, a black cloth was laid over the table in question, and the successful player was said to have broken the bank. After an interval, the table was re-opened and play continued. (François Blanc had died in 1877 and his son, Camille Blanc, was head of the casino at the time of Charles Wells' 1891 visits).
Considerable speculation arose following Wells' achievements. Some newspapers dismissed his wins as a publicity stunt, but Wells claimed to have used an "infallible system" he had perfected. His past record as a fraudster, on the other hand, led many observers to believe that he had somehow found a way to cheat the casino. A further possibility, however, is that he was exceptionally lucky on these particular visits.
He used some of the money he had won to purchase a ship, the Tycho Brahe, which he renamed the Palais Royal. He converted this into an unusually large luxury yacht, with sumptuous accommodation which included a ballroom large enough for fifty guests. After his initial wins, he returned to Monte Carlo again in January 1892, but lost about 100,000 francs. No credible evidence can be found to suggest that he ever repeated his earlier wins, though he would later claim to have won a further £2,500 in August 1910.
In late 1892, he was arrested at Le Havre on board his yacht, the Palais Royal, and extradited to Britain to face charges in connection with his patent scheme. He was tried at the Old Bailey in March 1893, found guilty on 23 counts of fraud and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.
Major fraud in Paris
In 1910, under the alias of "Lucien Rivier", he set up a private bank in Paris, and promised to pay interest at 365% per annum (1% per day). Some 6,000 investors deposited a total of 2m francs (about £7m today). Existing customers were paid out of the new investments which "Rivier" received in ever-increasing amounts. (Charles Ponzi, after whom such schemes came to be known, perpetrated an almost identical fraud in the United States a decade later, offering a return of 100% every 90 days.)
When the French authorities began to investigate his affairs, Charles Wells fled to Britain with his clients’ money. The scam was remarkable for its scale, both in terms of the number of investors who lost money and the amount of their total losses, and the Sûreté accordingly mounted a determined operation to find out who "Lucien Rivier" was, and bring him to justice. He was finally traced to Britain and was arrested in January 1912. A Paris court sentenced him in November 1912 to five years in prison. As a direct result of his crime, the French government introduced controls on private banks, with a strict vetting procedure for their owners.
Some mystery surrounds Wells' death, since reports vary as to the location. Most reports state that he died in Paris, but no firm evidence for this has been found. Sources also differ in the year of his death, but the majority give this as 1922.
Other people had broken the bank before Wells, but it is probable that this song played a major part in making him famous. Subsequent reports in the press and even in the House of Commons refer to him as "Monte Carlo Wells".
In 1935, there was a film called The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, and in 1983, Michael Butterworth wrote a book of the same name. In 1988, a musical farce entitled Lucky Stiff, based on Mr. Butterworth's book, opened off-Broadway. However, these fictional accounts were only based in the loosest possible way on Wells' exploits.
- Yorkshire Evening Post, 31 March 1892
- "La Lanterne". 23 January 1912.
- Birth Certificate: General Register Office
- To a Friend Who Sent Me Some Roses, Keats, J.: The Poetical Works of John Keats: (Part 1) (New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1846), (p. 135)
- London Parish Records (ancestry.co.uk); and Hertfordshire Directory, 1838 (Publication details unknown)
- Quimper censuses, 1841 and 1846
- Marseille census, 1876
- Le Figaro, 15 December 1892
- Le Figaro, 21 December 1892
- The Times (London), 25 January 1893
- Herald, G. W. and Radin, E. D.: The Big Wheel (London: Robert Hale, 1965)
- Pittsburgh Dispatch, 2 August 1891 and 6 August 1891
- The Times (London), 13 July 1893
- The Times (London), 11 January 1892
- Evening News (Sydney), 4 January 1913
- The Times (London), 15 March 1893
- Le Temps, (advertisement), 1 October 1910
- La Lanterne, 16 September 1912
- Financial Times, 19 March 1912
- Coborn, C.: The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (pp. 227-8): (London: Hutchinson, c. 1928)
- The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935) on IMDb
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-10-01. Retrieved 2007-04-24.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)