Charles Wells (gambler)

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Charles Deville Wells, the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo

Charles Deville 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. Subsequently he was often referred to, especially in the press, as ‘Monte Carlo Wells’.[1] He was also a fraudster who used several aliases[2] and who served four prison sentences (two in Britain and two in France).[3] He was possibly the first criminal to set up a Ponzi scheme and his activities in this respect pre-date those of Charles Ponzi himself by ten years.

Family and early life[edit]

His father was Charles Jeremiah Wells (1799-1879), poet and lawyer, to whom John Keats once addressed a sonnet.[4] His mother was Emily Jane Hill, the daughter of a Hertfordshire school teacher.[5] Charles was the youngest of four surviving children, and the only son.[6] When he was a few weeks old the family moved from their home in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, to France, where they lived initially at Quimper ,[7] and later at Marseille .[8]

Career[edit]

Charles Wells found employment as an engineer at the shipyards and docks of Marseille in the 1860s. There is evidence that he also worked at a sugar beet processing plant in the Ukraine and at a lead mine in Spain.[9] 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 (Pas-de-Calais).[10] He disappeared with his clients’ money and was convicted in his absence by a Paris court.[11] 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).[12]

Breaking the bank[edit]

Wells visited the Monte Carlo Casino in late July to early August 1891, and again in November of that year. With initial stake money of £4,000, he won approximately £60,000 (equivalent to £6m) over these two visits, and broke the bank several times.[13]

An interior view of the casino at Monte Carlo c. 1900

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 out 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 re-opened and play continued.[14] (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,[15] but Wells himself claimed to have used an ‘infallible system’ he had perfected.[16] 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 unlikely, is that he was exceptionally lucky.

Later career[edit]

Steam yacht Palais Royal (formerly Tycho Brahe)

He used some of the money he had won to purchase a ship, the Tycho Brahe, which he renamed Palais Royal.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

In late 1892 he was arrested at Le Havre on board his yacht, 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 twenty-three counts of fraud, and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.[20] He was then imprisoned twice more — once in Britain and once in France — for swindles which he initiated.[21]

Major fraud in Paris[edit]

In 1910, under the alias of ‘Lucien Rivier’, he set up a private bank in Paris, and promised to pay interest at 365 per cent per annum (1 per cent per day).[22] Some 6,000 investors deposited a total of 2m francs (about £7m today).[23] Existing customers were paid out of the new investments which ‘Rivier’ had begun to receive 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 per cent 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 size 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.[24] As a direct result of his crime, the French government introduced controls on private banks, with a strict vetting procedure for their owners.[25]

Death[edit]

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.

Fame[edit]

Wells’ exploits inspired Fred Gilbert to write a popular song, 'The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo'.[26]

Sheet music for Fred Gilbert's music hall song, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

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’, a sobriquet which outlived Wells himself.

In culture[edit]

In 1935, there was a film called The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,[27] and in 1983, Michael Butterworth wrote a book of the same name.[28] 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 Charles Wells' exploits. Wells is the subject of a factual biography: The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo: Charles Deville Wells, Gambler and Fraudster Extraordinaire, by British author Robin Quinn, to be published by The History Press (Stroud, Gloucestershire) with a scheduled release date of 3 August 2016. ISBN 0750961775

References[edit]

  1. ^ Yorkshire Evening Post, 31 March 1892
  2. ^ While some sources claim that he used more than forty aliases, the actual number was about ten. See: The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  3. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ London Parish Records (ancestry.co.uk); and Hertfordshire Directory, 1838 (Publication details unknown)
  6. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  7. ^ Quimper censuses, 1841 and 1846
  8. ^ Marseille census, 1876
  9. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  10. ^ Le Figaro, 15 December 1892
  11. ^ Le Figaro, 21 December 1892
  12. ^ The Times (London), 25 January 1893
  13. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  14. ^ Herald, G. W. and Radin, E. D.: The Big Wheel (London: Robert Hale, 1965)
  15. ^ Pittsburgh Dispatch, 2 August 1891 and 6 August 1891
  16. ^ The Times (London), 13 July 1893
  17. ^ www.tynebuiltships.co.uk
  18. ^ The Times (London), 11 January 1892
  19. ^ Evening News (Sydney), 4 January 1913
  20. ^ The Times (London), 15 March 1893
  21. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  22. ^ Le Temps, (advertisement), 1 October 1910
  23. ^ La Lanterne, 16 September 1912
  24. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Quinn, R.
  25. ^ Financial Times, 19 March 1912
  26. ^ Coborn, C.: The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (pp. 227-8): (London: Hutchinson, c. 1928)
  27. ^ The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935) at the Internet Movie Database
  28. ^ http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/b/michael-butterworth/man-who-broke-bank-at-monte-carlo.htm
General references