|This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!|
As I walk along the Bois Boolong
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
“He must be a Millionaire.”
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
The words of the musical hall song that made a celebrity of Charles Deville Wells, the man who inspired the song and who was also dubbed ‘the biggest swindler living’.
Wells was born in Hertfordshire in 1841, the son of Charles Jeremiah Wells, the poet who was a contemporary and friend of John Keats.
Little is known of the early life of Wells Junior, but appears later in life describing himself variously as a ‘naval architect’ and ‘civil engineer’, although there is no trace that he ever made any designs on anything other than other people’s money.
By the late 1880s, Wells could be found in rather grand offices in Great Portland Street and he was a regular visitor to the London Patent Office where he took out patents on 192 of his inventions, none of which worked apart from a musical skipping rope that played a tune while the children played.
That didn’t stop him making money hand over fist though which he managed to do by swindling the gullible investors who answered his many newspaper advertisements guaranteeing a large return for the backers of his ‘important proved inventions’.
Wells didn’t sign the ads but used pseudonyms like ‘Bonus’, ‘Discovery’, ‘Genuine’ or ‘Investigation’ and people flocked to invest in his genius to the tune of £50,000 which Wells spent on himself almost immediately.
His backers were rather put out when the promised returns did not appear and when their disappointment turned to suspicion, Wells decided it was time to skip the country and took himself off to Monte Carlo. And it was there that he made his name at the gaming tables, becoming famous along the Riviera.
Wells placed a complicated bet at the roulette table that netted him a total of 90,000 francs and ‘broke the bank’. That’s the bank at that table, not the whole casino, and as was the custom, the croupier dutifully laid a black cloth over the green baize.
Wherever Wells went, people would touch his clothes for luck and try to copy his complicated bet, most just telling the baffled croupier to ‘do the same as Wells.’
The man himself was unmoved by all this attention and continued to arrive at the casino at noon, staying until it closed at 11pm and not stopping to eat or drink. Wells said it was the hardest work he had ever done!
If Wells had a system, he never revealed it, but it seemed that it mostly involved holding his nerve. One approach was the ‘coup de trios’ where he would bet on red or black. If he won he would let his winnings stand for a second and third time before reverting back to his original small wager.
The casinos loved the publicity and didn’t object to their losses. They knew it would return a hundredfold as word spread and they likes of Sarah Bernhardt gambled away her entire wealth before attempting suicide.
Wells returned to London and his usual line of work – fleecing the gullible. He also held a dinner for 35 guests at the Savoy to celebrate his gambling success. He had the walls and ceiling painted red, a red carpet was laid, the waiters were dressed in suits, ties and gloves of red, there were red flowers on the table only red foods were served – prawns, lobster tails, ham mousse, red cabbage and strawberries.
But things got hot again for Wells and he left the country once more, this time in some style aboard the 291 foot yacht he had bought and which he had renamed the Palais Royal.
Arriving in Monte Carlo, the casino did not believe that lightning could strike twice, but strike it did. On his first day back, Wells turned a tiny 120 franc stake into 98,000 francs and in those first few days of November 1891 he had cleaned up a quarter of a million francs.
It was around this time that the headlines of Wells’ winnings that inspired Fred Gilbert to write The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. It was first sung by Charles Coburn and wasn’t an immediate hit with the public. When his audience refused to join in the chorus, he told them ‘I am engaged here for twelve weeks and I am going to sing this song every night and repeat the chorus till you join in with me’.
The song was soon being sung across the country, but by 1892 Wells was not enjoying such success. His third visit to Monte Carlo in 1892 saw him losing money hand over fist as his system, whatever it was, began to fail him. Soon he had lost everything, his yacht was mortgaged to the hilt and he was reduced to selling the coal from its hold to raise some cash.
Meanwhile, the duped investors had complained to the police and Scotland Yard had investigated his fraudulent business practices. A warrant was issued and Wells was arrested in Le Havre aboard the Palais Royal.
In March 1893 he was convicted on 30 charges of obtaining £50,000 by false pretences and sentenced to eight years imprisonment at Dartmoor and the prison governor later said that ‘he was the pleasantest and the most unselfish of all the rascals that passed through my hands’.
On his release, Wells emigrated to France where he was to serve another five years after another scam went wrong for him and he died penniless in Paris in 1922.
But the song that made his name lived on and below is Charles Coburn performing The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.