There’s a famous song about the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo that goes a little like this…
As I walk along the Bois Boolong
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
“He must be a Millionaire.”
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
When Fred Gilbert composed those jaunty lines in 1892, everyone wanted to be the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
But what most audiences didn’t realise, as they sang along with Charles Coburn in music halls up and down the land, was that the ‘man’ who broke the bank was actually ‘men’.
Two men, to be exact, and what very different men they were.
Where Is Monte Carlo?
Monte Carlo a tiny municipality in Monaco on the French Riviera. A world of yachts, millionaire playboys, and a gambler’s paradise.
But back in the 1850s, Monaco’s reigning royal family were almost broke after carelessly losing a few towns and the lemon, orange and olive crops that went with them.
Charles III of Monaco was facing a bleak situation until a brilliant idea struck him: build a casino and rake in some easy money from the nouvelle riche who flocked to the Riviera for sun and excitement.
Just as Las Vegas draws in today’s crypto millionaires, the Riviera was the place to be for money-rich, time-poor aristocrats.
Charles brought the best architects and designers from France, Italy and Germany to create a world-class casino complex. After a lengthy construction period, it opened on 14th July 1856 as the Casino de Monte Carlo.
Joseph Hobson Jagger – The Pioneer Who Outwitted the Casino
By the mid-1800s, the casino was thriving thanks to the building of Europe’s railway system.
Meet Joseph Hobson Jagger, a distant cousin of the iconic rocker Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones. He holds the title of the first person to shatter the bank at Monte Carlo’s renowned casino.
The year was 1875, and Jagger, a 45-year-old mechanic from Yorkshire, had come to the Beaux-Arts Casino in Monte Carlo to test a theory he’d worked on for years.
For most of his life, Joseph (Josh to close friends and family) had worked in the cotton mills as an engineer. From a boy, he’d been interested in how things worked, believing that machines were like people; they built habits, had patterns, and if you watched them closely for long enough, you could predict how they would behave.
A couple of years previously, Josh had paid six clerks to secretly watch the roulette tables in the Beaux-Arts Casino and record the outcomes of the six roulette wheels.
What they found didn’t really surprise Josh, but it did make him want to put their findings to the test.
Josh analysed their notebooks for months and discovered that one of the six wheels showed a habit – a clear bias for nine of its numbers (7, 8, 9, 17, 18, 19, 22, 28 and 29) which came up more frequently than the others.
He was taking a big risk, gambling his life’s savings, but he was sure he was right and sure that he could beat the table.
Breaking The Bank At Monte Carlo
Heart in his mouth, he placed his bets and quickly won over £14,000 (equivalent to £343,000 today).
Over the next three days, Josh won a further £60,000, and other gamblers began to follow his bets.
In response to Josh’s ‘luck’ the casino changed over the wheels, moving them around and throwing Josh into confusion – what had changed?
A disastrous losing streak followed, and it wasn’t until Josh remembered a tiny scratch on the biased wheel that his ‘luck’ returned.
Looking for the telltale mark, Josh found his wheel at another table and began winning hugely once more. Not to be beaten, the casino management moved the metal dividers between the numbers around daily and over the next two days, Josh began losing again – so he gave up.
He’d proved his theory and beaten the tables. He returned to Yorkshire two million francs, £65,000 (£1,146,000 in today’s money) richer and a happy man.
Josh never went back to the mill or the roulette tables. Instead, he invested his money in property and lived comfortably until he died in 1892.
Charles Deville Wells – The Second Man to Beat the Roulette Table
Upon discovering Josh’s extraordinary accomplishments, Charles Deville Wells became completely enthralled and found himself inspired to test his own luck at the tables. After all, if Josh could succeed, why couldn’t he?
Wells travelled to Monte Carlo and started playing in 1891. He was incredibly successful: between February and June of that year, he won over 1 million francs (£38,000 or £675,000 in today’s money).
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The second man to break the bank was an entirely different character. As his middle name implied, Charles Deville Wells was a bit of a devil. Charlie was the opposite of honest Josh: reckless, fraudulent, boastful, a liar, a cheat, and a jailbird.
In July 1891, Wells turned up in Monte Carlo with £4,000 that he’d defrauded from investors by inventing a bogus “musical skipping rope.”
In the next eleven hours, Wells ‘broke the bank’ no less than twelve times, winning over a million francs.
At one point, in an unbelievably lucky streak, he won 23 times from 30 successive spins of the wheel.
Wells returned to Monte Carlo later that same year and won again, making another million francs in just three days.
There was no science involved, Charlie Wells was playing a high-risk game, praying that his luck would hold, and it did. He still won even when he bet on the number five for five consecutive spins.
The Casino hired private detectives to discover Wells’ system, but there wasn’t one; he really did have the devil’s own luck.
When The Luck Runs Out
With the writing of the song ‘The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’ Wells became a celebrity almost overnight.
Claiming to be a brilliant engineer and with another fraudulent invention – this time a revolutionary fuel-saving device for steamships – he persuaded many of the rich and famous of the time to invest.
He used the money to make another trip to Monte Carlo with his mistress in 1892, hiring a large yacht and claiming that the yacht was to test his device.
Incredibly, Wells’ luck held, and he broke the bank an unbelievable six more times. Eventually, though, his luck ran out, and he lost his winnings and his investor’s money, some of whom had sent additional money to Wells for ‘repairs’ to the bogus fuel-saving device.
Wells absconded but was soon arrested at Le Havre and brought back to England. He was found guilty of fraud at the Old Bailey, sent down for eight years, and later served a further three-year sentence – again for fraud.
Quitting England, he emigrated to France, where another financial scam led to another five-year sentence. He died in Paris in 1922 – not a millionaire, but a pauper.
Gilbert and Wells, the men who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. One used science and observation; the other relied on blind luck.
One pulled out while he was ahead; the other destroyed himself and ruined others. One died in poverty; the other was happy and content. Despite them both breaking the bank, maybe there was just one winner after all.