As long as there is something worth stealing it is probably the case with the human race that what that something is won’t be, and will be stolen.
This has been the case forever, and as vigilant as an owner of property might be–whether that bit that stood for labor exchange units was a cow or land or gold or money itself–there will be someone else out there in the anti-vigilant world tempting fate and chance and skill at taking someone else’s belongings away.
We have a little window that has opened to reveal a piece of that world–an unusual one, for the 19th century, anyway.
That is what I saw when breezing through the memoirs of George Washington Wallace (1823-1891), Recollections of a Chief of Police, which was published in 1887.
Wallace was police chief of New York City, making him the police chief (sorry, Chicago), and he had some pretty good recollections to recollect.
(Which is a good thing he recorded this book when he did, because he would be dead four years later.
On a Sunday night in May 1935, Victor Lustig was strolling down Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. At first, the Secret Service agents couldn’t be sure it was him. They’d been shadowing him for seven months, painstakingly trying to learn more about this mysterious and dapper man, but his newly grown mustache had thrown them off momentarily.
As he turned up the velvet collar on his Chesterfield coat and quickened his pace, the agents swooped in.
Surrounded, Lustig smiled and calmly handed over his suitcase. “Smooth,” was how one of the agents described him, noting a “livid scar” on his left cheekbone and “dark, burning eyes.” After chasing him for years, they’d gotten a close-up view of the man known as “the Count,” a nicknamed he’d earned for his suave and worldly demeanor.
He had long sideburns, agents observed, and “perfectly manicured nails.” Under questioning he was serene and poised. Agents expected the suitcase to contain freshly printed bank notes from various Federal Reserve series, or perhaps other tools of Lustig’s million-dollar counterfeiting trade. But all they found were expensive clothes.
At last, they pulled a wallet from his coat and found a key. They tried to get Lustig to say what it was for, but the Count shrugged and shook his head. The key led agents to the Times Square subway station, where it opened a dusty locker, and inside it agents found $51,000 in counterfeit bills and the plates from which they had been printed.
It was the beginning of the end for the man described by the New York Times as an “E. Phillips Oppenheim character in the flesh,” a nod to the popular English novelist best known for The Great Impersonation.
Secret Service agents finally had one of the world’s greatest imposters, wanted throughout Europe as well as in the United States. He’d amassed a fortune in schemes that were so grand and outlandish, few thought any of his victims could ever be so gullible.
He’d sold the Eiffel Tower to a French scrap-metal dealer. He’d sold a “money box” to countless greedy victims who believed that Lustig’s contraption was capable of printing perfectly replicated $100 bills. (Police noted that some “smart” New York gamblers had paid $46,000 for one.)
He had even duped some of the wealthiest and most dangerous mobsters—men like Al Capone, who never knew he’d been swindled.
Now the authorities were eager to question him about all of these activities, plus his possible role in several recent murders in New York and the shooting of Jack “Legs” Diamond, who was staying in a hotel room down the hall from Lustig’s on the night he was attacked.
“Count,” one of the Secret Service agents said, “you’re the smoothest con man that ever lived.”
The Count politely demurred with a smile. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “After all, you have conned me.”
Despite being charged with multiple counts of possession of counterfeit currency and plates, Victor Lustig wasn’t done with the con game quite yet.
He was held at the Federal Detention Headquarters in New York, believed to be “escape proof” at the time, and scheduled to stand trial on September 2, 1935. But prison officials arrived at his cell on the third floor that day and were stunned. The Count had vanished in broad daylight.
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1890, Lustig, became fluent in several languages, and when he decided to see the world he thought: Where better to make money than aboard ocean liners packed with wealthy travelers?
Charming and poised at a young age, Lustig spent time making small talk with successful businessmen—and sizing up potential marks. Eventually, talk turned to the source of the Austrian’s wealth, and reluctantly he would reveal—in the utmost confidence—that he had been using a “money box.”
Eventually, he would agree to show the contraption privately. He just happened to be traveling with it. It resembled a steamer trunk, crafted of mahogany but fitted with sophisticated-looking printing machinery within.
Lustig would demonstrate the money box by inserting an authentic hundred-dollar bill, and after a few hours of “chemical processing,” he’d extract two seemingly authentic hundred-dollar bills.
He had no trouble passing them aboard the ship. It wasn’t long before his wealthy new friends would inquire as to how they too might be able to come into possession of a money box.
Reluctantly again, the Count would consider parting with it if the price was right, and it wasn’t uncommon for several potential buyers to bid against one another over several days at sea. Lustig was, if nothing else, patient and cautious.
He would usually end up parting (at the end of the voyages) with the device for the sum of $10,000—sometimes two and three times that amount. He would pack the machine with several hundred-dollar bills, and after any last-minute suspicions had been allayed through successful test runs, the Count would disappear.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand is best known as the man whose assassination is widely believed to have led to the outbreak of World War I.
But behind that figure lies a story of forbidden love, an obsession with hunting, and a near-miss that could have killed the archduke months before he was shot dead with his wife Sophie in Sarajevo 100 years ago.
His life was one of privilege and self-indulgent pleasure, growing up in the Habsburg royal family which ruled an area once known as the Holy Roman Empire.
“Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was a vain, impulsive man, of limited intelligence, given to unrealistic ideas about the future of the empire,” wrote Paul Ham in his book about the assassination.
Groomed to inherit the title of emperor from his uncle, Franz Joseph, Ferdinand began a military career but spent most of his time travelling or hunting.
Franz Ferdinand in Australia
In May 1893 he visited Australia on the cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth, the pride of the Austro-Hungarian navy.
After a 21-gun salute on arrival, the party paid a visit to the Australian Museum before spending the rest of the trip in relative seclusion, The Argus newspaper reported at the time.
“There was no ceremony of any kind, the Archduke having expressed his desire to land incognito,” reported The Argus.
“The party, dressed as ordinary tourists, seated themselves in two cabs which had been waiting about, and drove off without there having been as much as a cheer or the waving of a single handkerchief.”
During the visit, Ferdinand traveled by train to the country town of Narromine for some shooting, stopping at Wentworth Falls, Blackheath and Bathurst in western New South Wales to enjoy the scenery.
He was also the guest of a Mr Badgery in Moss Vale, who introduced the archduke to koalas. Ferdinand managed to shoot at least eight.
Eleven days after arriving, the archduke left Australia, his ship laden with dead wildlife, including a platypus he had added to his trophy collection.
After a Petty Sessions hearing at Beechworth in August, Ned Kelly was taken to Melbourne, passing through streets thronged with gaping people.
He was deemed fit to stand trial for murder at Melbourne’s Supreme Court on 28 October, 1880.
The judge, Sir Redmond Barry, who had once made the grim promise that he would see Ned Kelly hang, wanted to dispose of the trial in a single day, in order to have it finished before the Melbourne Cup.
The inexperienced barrister defending Ned was no match for an expert prosecutor, a determined judge and a chief Crown witness — the constable who escaped at Stringybark Creek — and who committed perjury.
Barry also misdirected the jury on a vital point of law concerning self-defence.
Inevitably, a guilty verdict was announced. Barry sentenced Ned to hang, concluding with: ‘And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.’ Ned famously retorted: ‘I will see you there, where I go.’
Twelve days after Ned was executed, Judge Barry dropped dead in his chambers on 23 November, 1880.
Ned Kelly’s execution was scheduled for Thursday 11 November, 1880 — only thirteen days after his trial.
A massive movement was launched to save his life. There were huge public meetings, torch-lit marches, a deputation to the Governor, and a petition for Ned’s reprieve from execution.
Three days before the planned hanging, the petition was presented to the Governor with more than 32,000 signatures.
An hour later, the Executive Council announced that the execution would go ahead.
Image of Ned Kelly taken on November 10, 1880, the day before his execution.
At 9 am on the morning of 11 November, 1880, as a crowd of 5,000 gathered outside the Melbourne Gaol, Ned was transferred to the condemned cell.
Just before 10am, he was led out onto the scaffold.
As the hangman adjusted the hood to cover his face, Kelly’s last words were: ‘Arr well, I suppose it has to come to this. Such… (is life?)’.
At four minutes past ten, the executioner pulled the lever and Ned Kelly plunged into immortality.
His headless body was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the Old Melbourne Gaol.
In the 1920s it was then removed to the Pentridge Prison cemetery.