I’m delighted to welcome Robin Quinn to my blog today. Robin is a fellow historian of the Monte Carlo bank breakers and is an expert on Charles Deville Wells the man who inspired the famous song. Wells could not have been more different from Joseph Hobson Jagger. He was a fraudster and a conman but his life was extraordinary as Robin’s gripping book reveals.
Like many readers of this blog I’ve been fascinated by Anne Fletcher’s account of her great-great-great uncle, Joseph Hobson Jagger, and his extraordinary success at the gaming tables of Monte Carlo. I confess to a professional interest in the subject, having written a book about another famous Monte Carlo bank-breaker, Charles Deville Wells. While Jagger was said to be the only person who ‘completely defeated the Bank at Monte Carlo by fair means, and won and kept a large sum of money’, Charles Wells was a different sort of person altogether.
Wells was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1841, but when he was only a few weeks old the whole family emigrated to France. He was educated there, and was bilingual in English and French. In his twenties he worked in Marseille as an engineer specialising in marine steam engines. He invented an instrument for regulating the speed of ships’ propellers and sold the patent for a substantial sum. He and his wife moved to Paris in the late 1870s, and settled in an up-market district. He patented several further inventions but failed to sustain his earlier success.
Desperate to fuel his extravagant lifestyle, Charles turned to crime. He set up a bogus company, advertised for investors and then disappeared with their money. When victims of the scam called in the police he fled to England with his wife and daughter, and moved into a small house near the docks in Plymouth. From there, Charles produced a veritable deluge of inventions including a contraption for cleaning ships’ bottoms, a new way to package mustard and – perhaps most alarmingly – a ‘Combination Fire Extinguishing Grenade with Lamp and Chandelier’.
His wife’s patience finally ran out and she returned to France with their daughter. Now alone, Charles relocated to London, and continued to register many more patents, but with little or no reward. Undaunted, he then began to advertise for investors to buy ‘shares’ in his inventions. Many people sent him money but few, if any, received anything in return.
Around 1890 – when he was almost 50 years of age – he became completely infatuated with a young French woman he had met in London – Jeannette Pairis. The fact that he was old enough to be her father – and was actually older than her father – seems to have been no barrier to their romance. But Jeannette had expensive tastes and Wells soon found that, despite the income from the patent scam, he was once again sinking into insolvency. His thoughts now turned to Monte Carlo, where from time to time the press reported that some lucky gambler had “broken the bank” – meaning that an unusually large sum had been won, and that the casino was compelled to replenish the funds at that particular table by bringing up more cash from its extensive vaults.
Joseph Jagger had broken the bank several years earlier and had walked away with the incredible sum of £80,000 – equivalent to about £8 million today. Since then, the casino’s fame had spread, and visitor numbers had soared. In late July 1891 Wells went to Monte Carlo and began to play ‘with a recklessness that suggested a mad millionaire endeavouring to get rid of his capital’, as one writer put it. These extraordinary tactics appeared to work and Wells left Monte Carlo after a few days having won the equivalent of some £4 million. Later that year he returned and won a further large sum. His adventures were a major talking point in Britain and around the globe, and a songwriter named Fred Gilbert was inspired to write the song, The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, which remained a music-hall favourite for half a century.
Was Wells incredibly lucky? Or was there some secret behind his extraordinary feat? The mystery seemed to defy explanation – though I was determined to solve the puzzle if I could.
I began by looking at the casino’s own website, where I found a long and detailed history. (This was around 2014 and the site has since been substantially altered). Interestingly, out of the hundreds of thousands of gamblers who must have passed through the doors of the casino over the years, Wells was the only individual to be mentioned by name. However, there was no clue as to how he had broken the bank. Instead, the casino simply said that the means by which he consistently won had never been elucidated.
So it was “back to the drawing board”. I considered several possible scenarios.
To begin with, Wells himself later claimed that he had invented an “infallible system” for winning at roulette, and that the idea had come to him while he was working on a device to reduce coal consumption in steam engines. His claim does have a certain ring of truth because even a small improvement in steam engines might result in enormous cost savings globally; likewise, if the odds in a casino could be skewed in favour of the player – even by a small percentage – it could make all the difference between winning and losing in the long run. However, many people over the years have made similar claims which have subsequently been disproved, and it seems unlikely that Wells was an exception.
I then asked myself whether Wells might have emulated Jagger by noting the numbers which most often came up on a particular roulette wheel, and then betting on those numbers. I was not entirely convinced that Wells would have adopted this technique, though. Joseph Jagger had employed assistants to take down the numbers, whereas Wells always preferred to work alone and avoided having to rely on other people. And he seems to have started his winning streak immediately on arrival, which suggests that he would have had no time to collect the numbers.
I also toyed with the idea that Wells, with his record as a fraudster, might somehow have scammed the casino. This, too, seemed implausible. The casino had been trading for almost thirty years, and during this time sophisticated security measures had been put in place by the management. Besides, Wells returned more than once and was allowed to enter each time – something that surely would not have happened if the owners had even the slightest suspicion that he was cheating.
It was only after months of research that I was able to compile a credible sequence of events backed by compelling evidence. My findings – including the complete life-story of Wells, his adventures in Monte Carlo and his subsequent life as an infamous fraudster – can all be found in my book, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo : Charles Deville Wells, gambler and fraudster extraordinaire (The History Press, 2016. ISBN 9 780750 961776).