...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:
LARGE YEARLY INCOME AND ALMOST IMMEDIATELY A BIG SUM DOWN, OFFERED FOR A FEW HUNDRED POUNDS REQUIRED TO DEMONSTRATE IMPORTANT PROVED INVENTIONS. A SAFE AND SURE INVESTMENT.
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 carr�, 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, carr�, 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.