He Really Did Break the Bank at Monte Carlo - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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He Really Did Break the Bank at Monte Carlo

Paunchy and middle-aged, Charles Deville Wells was not quite as debonair as the old song about him suggests, but for a while anyway he did succeed in outwitting the odds

...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.

In 1892 and succeeding years, these words, first sung to a lilting tune by the famed Charles Coborn, were the hit of variety halls all over the world. The Man Who Broke the Bank climbed promptly to the top of the turn-of-the-century hit parade not only because it was a sprightly melody but because it gave substance to the dream of every ribbon clerk in the world who hoped to strike it rich with some lucky throws of the dice or the right turn of the wheel. For the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo was a real person and he really did it.

His name was Charles Deville Wells; he was 50 years old, paunchy, bald and of such an ordinary appearance that even French journalists remarked on his plebeian look and vulgar accent. On the other side of the Channel, The Times, with masterly understatement, described him as a "not very fascinating personage." What The Times failed to note was that Wells, a few years before, had been attacked in the scandal magazine Truth as "the biggest swindler living."

Charles Wells was born at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire in 1841. No record of his schooling or early career survives; but when it suited him, he described himself as a "naval architect" or, alternatively, "civil engineer." He worked briefly at making sugar in Russia and paper in France, but as far as can be traced, he designed no ships and engineered no works. By the end of the 1880s his regular place of business was a palatial office in Great Portland Street. From there he made frequent visits to the Patent Office in London, where over a period of years he took out provisional patents (at a cost of only ¬£1 each) for a record 192 different inventions, 191 of which, according to the best authority, didn't work. Only one Wells idea was any good—a musical skipping rope whose handle tinkled a jolly tune while the children twirled. He sold the rights for ¬£50.

How, then, did Charles Wells amass enough capital to stake himself at Monte Carlo? His method was simple enough. Almost daily, throughout the British newspapers, he advertised for backers to finance his gadgets:


The advertisements were signed with pseudonyms such as "Bonus," "Discovery," "Genuine" or "Investigation." His investors paid ¬£5 down to Wells, which enabled him to take out his patent. The sucker was then asked to get up the balance of the investment, ¬£345, and was given the patent as security. Wells probably took the public for well over ¬£50,000—an amount the swindler spent almost as fast as he took it in.

In the 1880s, however, several disappointed shareholders were beginning to ask what had happened to their money, and Wells deemed it prudent to leave the country for a while. He had heard that Monte Carlo was a fine place to go—so he went. As now, the resort was a gathering place for Europe's kings, princes, archdukes and millionaires who came to enjoy the climate, the sea bathing, the luxurious hotels, and, not least, the games of baccarat, trenle-et-quarante and roulette. By the end of his first three-day visit, peers of the realm were offering Wells hospitality; lavish dinners were given in his honor—all by new friends hoping the newcomer would reveal the secret of an apparently infallible system he had for winning money.

In virtually no time Wells became famous all along the Riviera, and his daily winnings at roulette were printed in newspapers throughout the world. The climax of his visit came one day when he successfully backed No. 5 for the maximum permitted stake of 180 francs ($35). He had backed red, impair (odd numbers) and manque (under 19), each for the maximum of 6,000 francs, and went to the limit on every other possible bet involving the No. 5: 360 francs √† cheval, 760 carré, 560 transversale, 1,500 on the column, and many others. The bewildered croupier calculated the complicated payoff: 180 francs on No. 5, at 35 to 1—6,300 francs. Three even-money bets at 6,000 francs—a further 18,000. The stakes √† cheval, carré, transversale, and on the column and the dozen, would each need payment of another 6,000 francs or thereabouts. It all came to a total of about 90,000 francs, or $18,000. Charles Deville Wells had succeeded in breaking the bank.

According to the custom of the Casino, play was stopped, and the croupiers dolefully stretched a black cloth over the green baize. The chef de parti tinkled a little hand bell to summon more money, and Wells, who had arrived in Monte with only £400, felt his pockets bulge with £40,000.

As his fame grew after that, wherever Wells walked crowds surged around him to touch his clothes for luck. Those who could copied Wells' betting and stakes; hundreds of thousands of francs were showered down to bewildered croupiers with hasty instructions to "do the same as Wells."

Wells, seemingly, was quite unperturbed by all the hullabaloo. He arrived calmly each morning at the unfashionable hour of 12, the moment the Casino opened. He did not leave until it closed, an hour before midnight, and did not stop to eat or drink. He later confessed that it was the hardest work he had ever done. If he had a system, he never revealed it—although he did comment once that the average bettor was usually lacking in courage.

One of his plans—the coup des trois—was to bet on an even chance: if he won, he let his winnings stand; a third win would increase his original stake eightfold. He then reverted to a small stake again.

After increasing his original stake a hundredfold, Wells had transmitted a good portion of his winnings home to London and was ready to leave. But Monte Carlo didn't mind. "It is borrowed money—it will come back," forecast Camille Blanc, the illegitimate son of Francois, who was then in charge of the Casino. Actually the worldwide publicity of Wells' amazing wins had brought immediate dividends in the form of an inrush of new gamblers. Business had been falling off badly, and it reached a new low when actress Sarah Bernhardt gambled away her entire wealth—100,000 francs of it in one night—and then tried to commit suicide. A big and flamboyant winner was just what the Casino needed—and Wells gave it one. Within the year, the annual report showed the most profitable season ever, increasing the 500-franc Casino shares to a new peak of 2,250 francs. Wells benefited from that too—for he'd cunningly invested ¬£2,000 of his winnings in the shares.

Back in London, Wells took out a few more provisional patents and succeeded in extracting a good deal of fresh money from the gullible public. One evening, to celebrate his fame and success at Monte Carlo, he gave a dinner at the Savoy for exactly 35 guests; Wells himself sat at his lucky No. 5 and, for the occasion, the walls and ceiling were painted red; a red carpet was laid; the waiters were dressed in suits, ties and gloves of red; red flowers filled the vases; only red foods were served: prawns, lobster tails, ham mousse, red cabbage and strawberries.

But nothing lasts forever, and soon the inquiries of importunate investors were beginning to make Wells think it might be time to leave the country again. By then he had acquired a huge yacht that enabled him to live in a style befitting his station. It was a 24-year-old derelict—291 feet in length, 1,861 gross tonnage—and he got it as scrap for ¬£1,000, then spent a further ¬£20,000 on its reconstruction. Originally named for the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, the yacht—one of the biggest in the world—was renamed by Wells the Palais Royal.

It seemed impossible to the Casino authorities that he would be successful once more—but in a few days of the first week of November 1891 he cleaned up a further quarter million francs. He made a spectacular start: with a tiny stake of 120 francs, he worked up to 98,000 francs in his first sitting, aided by a phenomenal run on No. 5.

It was about this time that Fred Gilbert first conceived his song. Walking down The Strand, it was said, his eye was caught by a newspaper poster headline, THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO, that set a rhythm beating through his brain.

Coborn first sang the song at London's Oxford Music Hall in April 1892. It met a poor response. At its first performance in the Trocadero, the audience response, too, was terrible, and no one would join the chorus at all. Coborn walked firmly to front of the stage. "I am engaged here for 12 weeks," he announced, "and I am going to sing this song every night and repeat the chorus till you join in with me." By the end of his engagement, the song was all over the country.

But by the time the song was published, its hero was far less happy. His third visit to Monte Carlo came in January 1892; this time Camille Blanc in person acted as chef de parti at Wells' table; and Wells' "system," if such it was, did not appear to stand up to prolonged trial. He started to lose heavily; applying his bold methods, he reinforced his losses with even larger bets; few of them worked. Soon he had run out of cash; to raise more, he cabled to the backers of his yacht fuel-saving system. Even fresh funds could not save him, and he retreated to the Palais Royal, his capital now shrunk to a fraction of its peak. By now. he heard, things were hotting up for him in England, and he cruised from place to place around France pondering schemes to get out of his difficulties.

In London, continued complaints from his investors made enough impression on Scotland Yard to force it to act. The Fraud Squad built up an impressive dossier on the way Wells acquired his capital, and since they were unable to find that he had repaid the public, a warrant was issued for his arrest. With the cooperation of the French S√ªreté, he was arrested in December aboard the Palais Royal at Le Havre. By now the yacht was heavily mortgaged—at an interest rate of 20%—as were his smaller vessels, Kettledrum and Kathalinda; the Isabella and the Ituria had been repossessed by the mortgagees. The Man Who Broke the Bank was himself so broke that he was selling coal from the bunkers of the Palais Royal.

On March 14, 1893 he was convicted on 30 charges of obtaining £50,000 by false pretenses. During the trial, when he wished to pass notes to Edward Abinger, his counsel, he sent them via the usher, whose attention he attracted by tickling his bald head with a feather pen. Abinger, a notable but successful ham, electrified the court during his closing address: How could Wells be a fraud? he asked. Would a man capable of making £8,000 a day at roulette need to stoop to dishonesty? "Gentlemen of the jury, I am going to tell you what his system is."

"And now we will adjourn for lunch," said the judge.

During the lunch recess the judge asked Abinger if he really knew the system. He didn't. Abinger continued his address later:

"Gentlemen of the jury, during the luncheon adjournment I have made up my mind I will not tell you what the system is. If I did, you would desert your wives and families, learned counsel would sell their wigs and gowns, and even his lordship would forsake the judicial bench for Monte Carlo, and English justice cannot afford to lose its greatest figure...."

Wells was sentenced to eight years' penal servitude; he left jail only once, to attend his own bankruptcy proceedings. Years later Dartmoor's governor reminisced: "He was the pleasantest and the most unselfish of all the rascals that passed through my hands."