Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 9, 1893 --- "Monte Carlo" Wells

But a year after he was the toast of all Europe, Charles Wells - "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" - stands trial in London, accused of obtaining money by false pretenses.

A self-proclaimed inventor, Wells had been arrested aboard his yacht at Le Havre.  The notoriety attracted by his £40,000 take at the tables in Monaco was his undoing. 

The news brought forward more than two dozen angry investors who claimed they had been bilked over the years in his various schemes. Wells had promised investors tenfold returns, claiming to have come up with a "revolution in the propelling of steamboats." The prosecution contends that Wells' "laboratory" was nothing more than his Great Portland Street living room staffed by "scientists" hired by the day to fool the curious. The monies gleaned, argues the Crown, went towards outfitting his sumptuous yacht, Palais Royale, which -- ironically - was equipped with engines "of the most antiquated description."

The defense depicts Wells as a man of "considerable mechanical skill and inventive genius" and holder of 28 patents (among them, an automatic fog horn and a musical jump rope). The yacht is merely his floating salesroom for Wells to visit the various naval powers to demonstrate his fuel-saving gimmicks. Experienced investors, Wells assured the jury, if patient, would have received their promised windfalls. His lawyers dismiss the lead witness against Wells, Miss Phillimore - spinster sister of one of England's most prominent judges, who invested and lost £20,000 - as a woman of "great carelessness and credulity."

The jury quickly convicted Wells who was sentenced to eight years in prison. The Times cheered the verdict but wondered "whether expensive legal machinery ought to be maintained to protect people who voluntarily give away their money to the first stranger who says he would like it."  Although 51, Wells was not done yet; in 1906, he served more time for bilking investors in a life-jacket scheme and, relocating to France, he later disappeared after absconding with two million francs from a bank he had opened in Paris. 

[The Penny Illustrated Paper]

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