There are con artists, and then there are con artists. Some scam people out of a few bucks on the street, while others aim high, dream big, and sell national monuments under false pretenses.
Like many of the most successful flimflammers, Victor Lustig was sophisticated and charming—except for the whole ripping-people-off part. His story could easily have come out of fiction: uncertain origins, multiple identities, and a daring prison escape with a bed sheet rope are just the beginning. Lustig’s greatest hits include counterfeiting money and scamming Al Capone, but his most infamous enterprise was selling the Eiffel Tower. This criminal mastermind did this not only once, but twice.
The Eiffel Tower was originally built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Several years after the occasion, maintenance costs were high, and the monument didn’t yet have the prestige and symbolic value it has today. In 1925, it actually would have been easy for anyone to believe the local government was willing to get rid of it. Always looking for new endeavors, 35-year-old Lustig saw an opportunity and seized it.
Our antihero created counterfeit credentials and sent letters on fake official stationery to five of the leading scrap metal companies in the city. He invited representatives to a private meeting in a luxurious hotel, and after treating his marks to dinner and drinks (such a gentleman!) Lustig announced that the city administration was planning on dismantling the Tower. Though the project hadn’t been publicly announced yet and must remain a secret, Lustig lied, he was looking for a bidder to buy the iron—all 7000 tons of it. A big, profitable deal for any savvy businessman.
The attendants sent their bids the next day, but Lustig’s victim had already been designated. Rather than taking the most attractive offer, he accepted the deal from the most gullible bidder. Lusting got the money for the deal, accepted a handsome bribe (what a gentleman!), and promptly fled the country. (An unofficial source, i.e. the internet, informs me that the deal might have been closed for 100,000 1925 French francs, roughly equivalent to 55,000 2016 US dollars.)
The fraud was never reported to the police, probably due to the undesirable public attention (read: shame) it would bring. Aware of this key fact, Lusting returned to town only a few weeks later intending to repeat the ruse. And repeat the ruse he did!
This time, however, the unfortunate winner of the bid researched the project, found out about the scam, and contacted the authorities. Lustig didn’t get his money, but the police didn’t get to lock him up either. At least not yet.
Although Lusting’s criminal career spanned many years after the Eiffel Tower feat, he spent his final days in prison—his long track record sent him straight to Alcatraz. He was transferred to a medical facility in Missouri and died of pneumonia in 1947. His death certificate listed his occupation as apprentice salesman.
Oh, the irony!
Even today, nearly a century after his death, Harry Houdini doesn’t need an introduction. Houdini’s success came not only from his extraordinary skill and showmanship, but also from his mastery in the art of self-promotion. His life was full of intriguing anecdotes, and today I would love to share one of my personal favorites with you.
Houdini was an international celebrity—even in those pre-internet days when being a celebrity actually involved hard work and dedication. By 1914 (the year this narrative takes place) the escape artist was “as famous as any man on the planet. That June, when he played the Nottingham Empire […] he could have dined with any local celebrity, aristocrat, or business mogul of his choice”, tell us William Kalush and Larry Sloman, authors of the New York Times Bestseller The Secret Life of Harry Houdini.
Only a few weeks before World War I broke out, our hero found himself aboard the German steamship Imperator traveling back to America for an engagement in New York City. Among other elite passengers on the vessel was Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States and namesake of the Teddy Bear. [Disclaimer: to all you lovely Houdini nerds out there rolling your eyes, I’m aware this was not the first meeting between these two characters. The idea for the title of this piece was simply too tempting to let go.]
During the transatlantic travel, a picture was taken of Theodore Roosevelt surrounded by a group of passengers. One of those passengers was Harry Houdini. As mentioned before, by this point the escape artist was already a world-renowned celebrity. However, on this particular occasion, the focus of the photography was clearly the former president.
No problem. Houdini fixed the image by vanishing the other passengers, as well as replacing Roosevelt’s left arm, reconstructing the background, and centering the image on its new protagonists. The result was no longer a photo of Roosevelt with others, but a delightful portrait of Harry & Teddy—excellent promotional material for Houdini’s future enterprises!
Remember, dear reader, that our story takes place 76 years before the release of Photoshop 1.0 for Macintosh in 1990.
I can still remember the astonishment—the absolute and overwhelming wonder—I experienced the first time I found out what those twinkly little dots in the night sky really are. They are stars, of course, but what came as a real surprise to me was that each one of them is a massive burning ball of hot gas, just like the one we call the Sun. The only difference is that the ones we call stars are so unfathomably far away that they look to us like tiny white-yellowish specks in the sky.
Just a few months ago I heard about the far side of the Moon, and my world was rocked again. In my 29 years on this planet, nobody had told me about it! I learned history, mathematics, and physics in school… but a little more astronomy to shed some light on the beauty and elegance of our universe would also have been appreciated.
I wondered if other people had also missed out on the big news, so I did what any sensible inhabitant of the 21st century would do at a pivotal moment in his existence… I went on social media. Rather than spilling the metaphorical beans right away, I posed a question:
1: Have you heard about the “far side of the Moon?”
2: Do you know what that originally means?
Post yes/no answers only. Thanks!
There was an overwhelming surplus of yeses, but I realized some people might have been somewhat misled. This sentiment was voiced by my friend Joe Skilton, who tactfully pointed out:
Yes. But most people think they know and don’t 😉
My lovely sister sent me a text message inquiring:
What is that about? I’ve heard about the dark side of the moon, but I don’t know specifics. I know it’s the title of an album, but I’m not a fan of The Doors.
Sister apparently isn’t a fan of Pink Floyd either. However, all this led me to believe that many might not know about the astronomical implications (and the grandeur!) of the far side of the Moon. As I recently discovered, this refers to the hemisphere of the Moon we never see from planet Earth. Yes, there is such a thing.
Earth rotates around its own axis while concurrently revolving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. It takes us (that is, Planet Earth) 24 hours to spin a full revolution and 365 days to travel a complete lap around the Sun. As result of this difference in duration, we experience day and night 365 times every year.
The Moon also rotates at the same time that she revolves around the Earth. However, there is a fundamental difference. It takes the Moon 27 days to make a full turn around her axis, which is the same amount of time it takes her to travel around the Earth—a peculiar and lovely phenomenon known as synchronous rotation. As a result, only one hemisphere of the Moon is ever visible from Earth… and it’s always the same one.
Let’s imagine it’s January 1, and the Moon is at point A on her journey around our planet. By January 8 (which happens to be my birthday!), our satellite has traveled ¼ of the path around her orbit, and rotated ¼ of a revolution. As a result, the Moon is displaying to us the same hemisphere we saw 7 days ago. The same math applies at every single step along the way.
Every tiny displacement is compensated by a proportionally tiny rotation, until the cycle is completed 27 days later. Then it begins all over again. As a result, only one hemisphere of the Moon is ever visible from Earth… and it’s always the same one. This hemisphere is referred to as the near side of the Moon. Its counterpart, which we never ever see from Earth, is known as the dark side.
As fantastic as this sounds, it is no cosmic coincidence. At the beginning (that is, when the Moon was formed some 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a few million years) her motion was more accelerated. The omnipresent effect of Earth’s gravity on the Moon has slowed her rotation down to its current pace. Nowadays the Moon moves in perfect synchrony around the Earth, a graceful dance that has taken millions of years to refine.