The Devon fraudster who took on the world's most exclusive casino - and won
Sunday 22nd March 2020
Inventor, gambler and master criminal, the eccentric Charles de Ville Wells led an astonishing life which culminated in him winning a fortune during a famous visit to a casino. But did he really beat the house, or was it just one of his many frauds?
Shortly after 11pm on Tuesday, July 28, 1891, a short, balding man shuffled out of the exclusive Casino de Monte-Carlo and back towards his hotel.
Stuffed in every pocket and in the bags he was carrying was money - lots of money. British inventor, fraudster and gambler Charles de Ville Wells had just taken the casino to the cleaners.
He slept with his winnings under his pillow. And then went back the very next day.
For five days solid - until 11 every night - Wells played a combination of roulette and cards with such aggressive recklessness he seemed certain to lose.
Throngs of people huddled around his table to watch him place huge sums of money - and he kept on winning. By the end of his five-day trip in Monaco, detectives were tracking him and experts were monitoring his every move to try and work out his secret.
But they could only watch on in amazement as he cashed in his winnings and strolled off into the Mediterranean sunset.
He had arrived with £4,000 - about £400,000 in today's money. He left with the equivalent of £4m.
As he departed, a black cloth was placed over the table - a tradition which occurs when someone 'breaks the bank', meaning he had cleared the table out of all its cash reserves.
His exploits soon became so legendary that a popular song called 'The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo' became a popular refrain across Britain.
In gambling, they say that the house always wins, but not on this occasion.
Who was Charles de Ville Wells?
Monte Carlo Wells, as he became known after his gambling success, was born in Hertfordshire. At just a few weeks of age, his family moved to France.
Initially they lived in Quimper, but they later moved to Marseilles where a young Charles spent most of his childhood.
He started working as an engineer in the dockyards of the French port - and soon found success after designing a device which controlled the speed of a ship's propeller.
He sold it for 5,000 francs - roughly five times his annual salary - before moving to Paris.
But it was here that he started encountering problems with the law.
After convincing a number of wealthy investors to put money into a railway scheme in northern France, he fled with their cash to England.
A court in Paris tried him in his absence, finding him guilty.
Links with Devon
It was then he moved to Plymouth with dreams of becoming a wealthy inventor.
He applied for patents for all sorts of bizarre creations, including an olive oil purifier, mustard preserver, an actuating foghorn and even a new type of torpedo.
The only one which achieved any measure of success was a musical skipping rope - which he sold for £50.
It was then he claimed to have invented a type of steam engine to be used on ships which used only half the coal of modern engines.
After talking investors around into pumping in huge sums of money, he purchased six ships in Plymouth before spending colossal amounts of cash into having them opulently refurbished.
The pride of this ludicrous fleet was the luxurious Palais Royal, which even had a ballroom, music room and space for 60 guests.
Wells convinced the investors that such luxury was needed to highlight the new, super-efficient engine.
It was then that he boarded the yacht for a test run, taking it to the millionaires' playground of Monaco with his French mistress Jean Paris - a model 30 years his junior - and enjoyed his astonishing run at the casino.
His spectacular success - Wells claimed to have broken the bank not just once but 12 times in total - made him an overnight celebrity.
The tune of The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo could be heard in pubs, restaurants and theatres across Britain.
It was said that as soon as he walked into an establishment, someone would immediately start singing it.
The authorities remained convinced he had cheated- how could a man win 23 out of 30 consecutive spins on a roulette wheel?
Given Wells' subsequent criminality, the may have been right - but Wells always protested his innocence.
His astonishing winnings, he insisted, were down to studying gambling for six years and his courage to ride a winning streak.
"Anyone is free to watch me play and imitate me," he once said. "But the general defect of the ordinary casino gambler is that he lacks courage."
Later that year, he enjoyed more success at the table.
It is said he he placed his very first bet on the number five at odds of 35 to one - and won. He had quickly won £20,000 - and broke the bank six times.
Despite having more money than he knew what to do with, he returned to the tables again a year later.
But this time his luck had deserted him as he squandered every penny he had.
To compound matters, he convinced his investors that one of the yachts had caught fire - only to immediately lose the money they had stumped up for the 'immediate repairs' it apparently needed.
By the time he returned to Plymouth, he was a wanted man.
Wells managed to evade the authorities and mortgage five of his six ships before fleeing to France in his final vessel.
There, he worked briefly shovelling coal to make ends meet, only to be arrested by French authrities.
They had not forgotten his fraud over the false railway scheme years earlier, so he was arrested and exchanged with British authorities in exchange for his Palais Royal yacht.
His trial at the Old Bailey just two years after his incredible feats at the roulette wheel caused a sensation.
Incredibly, public opinion was on his side as people revelled in the details of his fraud. He had made some of Britain's wealthiest individuals who invested in his scheme look like utter fools - particularly when it was revealed he had not designed a new engine for ships at all.
Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to eight years behind bars, some of which which he served at Portland Prison.
Apparently crowds would gather outside the walls at certain times to sing his famous song at him.
It was also here he reportedly became acquainted with John 'Babbacombe' Lee - a murderer who survived three attempts to hang him for his crimes.
A new life - but up to his old tricks
Wells was released in 1899, and he moved to Cork in Ireland with his faithful mistress, Ms Paris.
By 1905 he was back in front of the courts, this time having swindled £6,000 from a bogus fishing company he had set up under the name of Charles Davenport.
It was one of 12 aliases he apparently had throughout his life.
Sentenced to three years inside, he served half his sentence before being released.
He then married Ms Paris, before adopting the name Lucien Rivier. He opened a bank in Paris where he promised investors a ludicrous annual return of 365 per cent.
There was no shortage of takers, and they had soon accrued £120,000 which they then spent on a luxury yacht named Harbinger before suddenly closing the bank and fleeing.
They were soon moored up at Falmouth and enjoying a life of luxury - and it took a further two years before police finally caught up with them.
After numerous legal objections, Wells was finally extradited to France to face the music.
Now 70, he was sentenced to another five years behind bars.
Did the house actually win after all?
Wells' luck at the table has intrigued gamblers for years.
Had he really devised a way to win at roulette? Was he just lucky? Given his track record, many think he must have cheated.
Given his engineering knowledge, some feel he must have known of mechanical defects in a roulette wheel. At the time, the machines were not infallible, and some feel he may have 'learned' the pattern of defects in this particular machine.
This is possible, but the casino made a point of regularly changing wheels to ensure no such thing could happen.
Another theory is that the director of the casino, a Mr Camille Blanc, knew Wells.
The casino was reportedly struggling financially, so did Blanc take a gamble of his own by colluding with Wells to ensure the eccentric Englishman won big?
This would generate huge publicity for the casino, enticing millionaires from around the world who felt he could match his winning streak.
Wells' exploits certainly helped keep the casino in business - it still runs to this very day.
The final act
When he was released, he returned to Paris with his wife, Jean.
But his days were numbered. With a defective heart and general ill-health, he finally passed away in 1922, aged 81.
All he left his wife was a debt of two weeks' rent he hadn't paid.
Jean could not afford a headstone so he was buried in an unmarked Parisian pauper's grave.
It was an ignominious end for a man who had taken on a casino and won enough money to last him - and his many aliases - a lifetime.