Man who sold the Eiffel Tower twice

In 1989 Thai national Chamoy Thipyaso received the longest prison sentence ever, 141,078 years. Her crime? She ran a Ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 16,000 people of $204 million. You've heard of a Ponzi scheme but do you know where the phrase came from? Meet the con man that gave conning its very own name, the suave Charles Ponzi. Born in Italy, he moved to America and by the age of forty he had earned a reputation for being one of the world's most infamous swindlers. He arrived in America with just $2.50 in his pocket. He setup an investment company called the "Securities Exchange Company". He promised anyone who invested, a 50% return on their investment within a month. In the first month, 18 people invested a total of $1,800 into the company. And sure enough Ponzi delivered on his promise of a 50% return. But how? Well, he wasn't actually investing any money at all. He simply took the money from new investors and gave it to old investors. This is essentially the idea of what we now know as a Ponzi scheme. Whilst the idea sounds great for investors who got in there early, Ponzi schemes are not sustainable and all of them will eventually collapse. At which point, the schemer will take everyone's money and do a runner. Just 6 months after Charles Ponzi setup his company he was earning a staggering one million dollars per day. Of course, the scheme inevitably collapsed. By this point a whopping 75% of Boston's police force had already been investigating Ponzi for a while, suspecting his miraculous investment scheme had a few legal holes. A short while later he was sentenced to just five years in prison. Investors lost millions of dollars. And so the infamous Ponzi scheme had been born. Many such schemes still go on to this very day around the world. Charles Ponzi was a confident man, he was a con-man. But one would have to be immensely confident to achieve what Czech-Republic born Count Victor Lustig did; he sold the Eiffel tower, twice. The Eiffel tower wasn't always the gleaming beacon of Parisian culture that we know it as today. In 1925 the Eiffel Tower was becoming rundown, the costs to maintain it were far too great. Newspapers were soon reporting about how derelict the tower had become and there were even rumours that it was soon to be demolished. Victor Lustig saw opportunity. He had a professional forger create fake government stationary and gathered together six scrap metal dealers at a confidential meeting in one of Paris' most prestigious hotels, Hôtel de Crillon. Under the guise of a government employee he told the scrap dealers that due to the overwhelming expense of maintaining the Eiffel tower, the city wanted to sell it for scrap metal. Lustig even took the men in a limousine tour around the Tower. One of the scrap dealers, a Mr Andre Poisson, fell for the grand show that Lustig had cleverly curated. I mean, if your name is literally Mr. Fish, you're going to be rather gullible, aren't you. Poisson made a bid for the tower and later handed Lustig a briefcase full of cash. Lustig then swiftly hopped on a train to Vienna. So did Poisson go to the police after he realised he had bought absolutely nothing? Nope, he was far too embarrassed and said nothing to anyone. No more than a month later and Lustig returned to Paris and was once again in a hotel with six more scrap dealers and yes, for a second time, he managed to fraudulently sell the Eiffel tower. This time the police were informed, but by that point Lustig had already fled. Lustig was so confident that he later went on to scam infamous gangster Al Capone out of $50,000 in a fraudulent stock deal. Lustig isn't the only confidence trickster that has successfully sold a national icon. An Indian man simply known as "Natwarlal" sold the Taj Mahal, not once, not twice, but three times. Natwarlal was the stereotypical con man, he used more than 50 aliases and was said to be a master of disguises. He was also highly skilled at forging signatures, it is said that with a single glance at any signature, he could instantaneously replicate it like a pro. Natwarlal would pose as a government official and approach wealthy tourists offering to sell them famous Indian monuments for thousands of rupees. Most people would find this incredibly suspicious, yet despite this, Natwarlal managed to successfully sell the Taj Mahal three times. He also sold the Red Fort and even the President of India's very own home, the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The prolific con man was wanted in 8 states for over 100 different cases of theft and fraud. He was eventually caught and sentenced to 113 years in prison. But astonishingly he was locked up eight times and all eight times he managed to escape. It's said that he only served 20 of the 113 years he was sentenced to. He was last seen in 1996 at the age of 84. The police managed to find him once again and arrested him, but sure enough he gave them the slip and he was never seen again. His brother claims he died later that year, but his lawyer claims he didn't die until 2009. Nobody knows for sure. Although some say he may even still be alive today, out there, somewhere. Now, there's pretending to sell the Eiffel tower and the Taj Mahal and then there's pretending to sell something that doesn't exist, can't be seen and nobody has ever heard of. This actually happened, several times. In the early 19th century Scottish native Gregor MacGregor told all his acquaintances that he was prince of a land called Poyais along Hondura's Black River. He claimed his mysterious land was a little larger than Wales and bragged about its incredible maize harvests. He said that the water is the purest and most refreshing in all the world. The riverbeds are lined with chunks of gold, he said. The forest full of rare game and the trees grow the most exotic fruits. This edenic vision of a rich, fertile land, full of treasures was a stark contrast to the wet, bleakness of the rugged Scottish landscape. So then it's no surprise that when MacGregor asked investors to contribute money to help him gather resources from his homeland, promising to return the investors' initial investments many times over, that they snapped up the offer in their droves. At the time, Central and South America where upcoming regions and were already popular with investors. MacGregor even drew up maps of the island and commissioned artists to draw pictures of his made-up homeland, which he could use as further proof to investors. MacGregor gathered together £1.3 million of investments, the equivalent of £3.6 billion today. In September 1822, seven ships set sail with 250 settlers and some of MacGregor's investors, so that they could set foot upon Poyais and see the mystical land they had ploughed so much money into, with their very own eyes. Of course the co-ordinates they were given were pulled out of thin air and after a two month's voyage at sea they did find a random desolate part of Honduras, but it certainly wasn't anything like the beautiful, edenic paradise of Poyais that had been described to them. They attempted to settle there anyway, since they had little choice, but within a few weeks, the vast majority of them had died. Word soon returned to Scotland of the investor's demise and MacGregor skipped town. He fled to France and he felt so guilty about sending 250 Scottish people to perish at sea in search of a made up island, that he did it all again. Within just a few months he had swindled a group of French investors out of their hard earned cash. And he assembled a new group of French settlers and investors ready to embark on another long sea voyage to setup their new home on Poyais. But the French authorities weren't quite as laid back as the Scottish and they created a commission to investigate whether Poyais actually existed. Of course when the French authorities discovered the rather enormous and glaring holes in MacGregor's story they swiftly threw him in jail. But did that stop him? No, even after he was convicted and everyone knew his fairytale island was a lie, MacGregor continued to sell non-existent land to the various gullible and stupid European nobility.

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