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Smooth Operator: How Victor Lustig Sold The Eiffel Tower

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In May 1925, an article appeared in a Paris newspaper about the decaying condition of the Eiffel Tower. Thirty-some years after it had been erected, the city’s signature piece of architecture was in need of extensive repair. There was a passing comment in the piece about how the French government had considered that it might be cheaper to tear down the Eiffel Tower than to fix it.

Most people reading that article would have said, “C’est la vie,” and moved on. But Victor Lustig was not most people. He was the world’s most notorious con artist. And when he read it, he heard the ka-ching of inspiration for what would become his greatest caper.

Fluent in five different languages, with over 22 aliases, a quick intelligence, and an almost hypnotizing charm, the Czech-born Lustig had been swindling people out of money and property for years. He began by plying his shady trade on cruise ships full of wealthy travelers. One of his favorite ruses was to pose as a producer of Broadway musicals, then prey on people’s secret desires to be in show business by getting them to invest in non-existent productions. By 1925, Lustig had racked up over 40 arrests, and was wanted by law enforcement agencies around the world.

The Eiffel Tower Con

Lustig never went into a con without research and careful preparation. In Paris, his first move was to have a counterfeiter of documents make him official government stationery, with his name listed as the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He then wrote letters to the five most prominent scrap iron dealers in the city. The letters, vague but official-sounding, invited the five men to meet with Lustig in the suite of a fancy hotel, to discuss an urgent matter.

After Lustig wined and dined his marks, he announced that the government had decided to tear down the Eiffel Tower, and the resulting 7000 tons of metal would be for sale to the highest bidder among them. As part of his pitch, he reminded his guests that the Tower was built as an entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair and was never meant to be permanent. He quoted Alexander Dumas, who had once called the Tower “a loathsome construction,” and writer Guy de Maupassant, who said, “What will be thought of our generation if we do not smash this lanky pyramid.” Lustig gave an emotional performance, and then in a resigned tone, explained that the costs to maintain the Tower were simply too high. Of course, the government’s decision to tear it down was controversial and so must remain hush-hush. The scrap dealers swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.

A few days later, they submitted their bids. But Lustig had already chosen his mark—André Poisson. Lustig informed Poisson that he had won the right to the Eiffel Tower’s metal. But there was a small problem. Lustig said that while public servants like himself were expected to dress well and entertain lavishly, they made a meager salary. Poisson understood that he was being asked for a bribe to secure the deal, and he obliged.

Money in hand, Lustig fled for Austria. There, as was his custom, he lived the high life, at the expense of yet another unsuspecting victim. For weeks, Lustig checked the French newspapers for reports of his Eiffel Tower con, but there was nothing. He had a hunch that Poisson would be too embarrassed by how easily he fell for the ruse to go to the authorities, and he was right.

Six months later, Lustig returned to Paris and pulled the exact same stunt with five different scrap iron dealers. Amazingly, he sold the Eiffel Tower again. This time though, his mark went to the police, and the story hit the papers. Lustig soon fled Europe for the United States.

International Swindler

There Lustig continued his life as an elegant scoundrel, with cons like selling a miracle box that could supposedly print flawless counterfeit money. He also famously swindled Chicago crime boss Al Capone. Lustig got Capone to invest $50,000 in a con he was working on. Lustig let the money sit for two months, then went back to Capone to say his plan had fallen through. Just as Capone was about to get violent, Lustig handed him back his $50,000. Capone was so impressed that he gave Lustig a $1000 reward, which was exactly what Lustig anticipated.

Lustig was finally arrested in 1936, on a counterfeiting charge, and served 11 years in jail before dying behind bars in 1947.

Before his death, Lustig wrote down the Ten Commandments for aspiring con men:

1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).
2. Never look bored.
3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.
6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
8. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
9. Never be untidy.
10. Never get drunk.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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