In 1945, the world-travelling impresario of the odd, Robert Ripley announced to the world that he was going to buy a volcano.
His sights were set on the recently discovered volcano, Paricutin in the country of Mexico.
When Paricutin piqued Robert Ripley’s interest, it was just a baby. The mountain of magma had only just recently made its appearance on the world stage.
Farmers had felt the ground shake and heard thunder when there were no clouds around. In the corner of a small corn field, a geyser of steam eventually appeared.
Farmer Dionisio Pulido was moving some branches to burn when he saw the steam vent open up. It smelled like rotten eggs, as sulfurous gas poured into the air. Within a matter of moments, the ground swelled 5-feet high, and a fissure opened up.
Townsfolk thought the devil himself was clawing his way out of hell. In just 24 hours, the volcano had grown 160-feet high.
Most people reading that article would have said, “C’est la vie,” and moved on. But Victor Lustig was not most people. He was the world’s most notorious con artist. And when he read it, he heard the ka-ching of inspiration for what would become his greatest caper.
Fluent in five different languages, with over 22 aliases, a quick intelligence, and an almost hypnotizing charm, the Czech-born Lustig had been swindling people out of money and property for years. He began by plying his shady trade on cruise ships full of wealthy travelers. One of his favorite ruses was to pose as a producer of Broadway musicals, then prey on people’s secret desires to be in show business by getting them to invest in non-existent productions. By 1925, Lustig had racked up over 40 arrests, and was wanted by law enforcement agencies around the world.
The Eiffel Tower Con
Lustig never went into a con without research and careful preparation. In Paris, his first move was to have a counterfeiter of documents make him official government stationery, with his name listed as the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He then wrote letters to the five most prominent scrap iron dealers in the city. The letters, vague but official-sounding, invited the five men to meet with Lustig in the suite of a fancy hotel, to discuss an urgent matter.
After Lustig wined and dined his marks, he announced that the government had decided to tear down the Eiffel Tower, and the resulting 7000 tons of metal would be for sale to the highest bidder among them. As part of his pitch, he reminded his guests that the Tower was built as an entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair and was never meant to be permanent. He quoted Alexander Dumas, who had once called the Tower “a loathsome construction,” and writer Guy de Maupassant, who said, “What will be thought of our generation if we do not smash this lanky pyramid.” Lustig gave an emotional performance, and then in a resigned tone, explained that the costs to maintain the Tower were simply too high. Of course, the government’s decision to tear it down was controversial and so must remain hush-hush. The scrap dealers swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.
A few days later, they submitted their bids. But Lustig had already chosen his mark—André Poisson. Lustig informed Poisson that he had won the right to the Eiffel Tower’s metal. But there was a small problem. Lustig said that while public servants like himself were expected to dress well and entertain lavishly, they made a meager salary. Poisson understood that he was being asked for a bribe to secure the deal, and he obliged.
Money in hand, Lustig fled for Austria. There, as was his custom, he lived the high life, at the expense of yet another unsuspecting victim. For weeks, Lustig checked the French newspapers for reports of his Eiffel Tower con, but there was nothing. He had a hunch that Poisson would be too embarrassed by how easily he fell for the ruse to go to the authorities, and he was right.
Six months later, Lustig returned to Paris and pulled the exact same stunt with five different scrap iron dealers. Amazingly, he sold the Eiffel Tower again. This time though, his mark went to the police, and the story hit the papers. Lustig soon fled Europe for the United States.
"If you believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you." Everyone has heard this sarcastic comeback, and its origins have been traced to New York's Brooklyn Bridge, which, since its completion in 1883, has been "sold" by a variety of scam artists.
Its most notorious salesman is George C. Parker. His method was to target immigrants and tourists with an opportunity to build tollbooths and collect tolls. Parker could extract payments for as much as $50,000 or as little as $50 from his victims. He claimed to have fooled a couple of people a week into taking the deals he offered.
He later broadened his market, with ruses to sell the Statue of Liberty, Grant's Tomb, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a series of arrests for fraud, he was sent to prison and died there in 1936.
Awesome Dress Code Protests
S. Korea ruling party splits over president's impeachment
Dozens Die From Tainted Liquor In Pakistan
In 1946, this Arctic island looked like red-hot real estate to Pentagon strategists. From her shores, spies could safely monitor Atlantic-bound Soviet vessels. Plus, stationed troops would likely spot any incoming missiles and warn the mainland from afar. Clearly, America needed to set up a few bases there.
But one minor problem presented itself: At the time, Greenland was a colony of Denmark and home to roughly 600 Danish citizens. Would the Danes mind parting with it?
Not if the price was right—or so thought the U.S. State Department.
“[There] are few people in Denmark who have any real interest in Greenland,” wrote European affairs official William C. Trimble. Future diplomat John Hickerson reported that “practically every single [department chief] … said that our real objective as regards to Greenland should be to acquire it by purchase from Denmark."
In the early 1980s, Hope, then unemployed for about a year, thought he'd be a good property owner and could make a living by managing real estate. He looked out the window and saw more unclaimed property than he could possibly fathom—the moon. He remembered a tidbit from a political science course he took in college—the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty said no country could own the moon, but it says nothing about individuals.
Hope wrote a letter to the United Nations saying the moon was his and asked the group to come up with a legal reason why an individual could not claim ownership of the moon.
He never heard back.
"I sent the United Nations a declaration of ownership detailing my intent to subdivide and sell the moon and have never heard back," he says. "There is a loophole in the treaty—it does not apply to individuals."
Since then, he's sold more than 611 million acres of land on the moon. Individual, one-acre lots sell for $19.95 ($36.50 after a "lunar tax" and shipping and handling of the deed) and there are discounts for larger plots. He once sold a "country-sized" plot of land—2.66 million acres—for $250,000. He's sold plots on the moon to three former presidents (George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan). He's president of the Galactic Government, a democratic republic that represents landowners on the moon and some of his other properties (he claimed Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter's moon Io, and Pluto while he was at it). Customers can buy the entirety of Pluto for $250,000.
According to Tanja Masson-Zwaan, president of the International Institute of Space Law, the United Nations never responded because the treaty applies to both countries and its citizens, she told National Geographic.
"What [Hope] is doing does not give people buying pieces of paper the right to ownership of the moon," she told the magazine in 2009. Nonetheless, Hope continues to sell acre plots on the moon seemingly unabated.
So far, his letters to both the Greek and Italian Prime Ministers have gone unacknowledged, but with the European Union nations having difficulties contending with the massive influx of migrants, Sawaris is holding out hope. "I know that the Greek government owns a lot of islands that are uninhabited and they need the money. It would be doing the EU a favor, that is giving [Greece] the money anyhow. So it would look good that they are helping a humanitarian idea. It would be saving the EU from a burden and helping to do something [about the refugee crisis]."
John in particular had been harbouring a dream of living communally with the rest of the Beatles and their entourage for a while, and decided to try and make it happen. Derek Taylor described John's vision in his autobiography, 20 Years Adrift: "The four Beatles would have their network at the centre of the compound: a dome of glass and iron tracery not unlike the old Crystal Palace over the mutual creative/play area, from which arbours and avenues would lead off like spokes from a wheel to four vast and incredibly beautiful separate living units. In the outer grounds, the houses of the inner clique: Neil, Mal, Terry and Derek, complete with partners, families and friends..."
Alexis Mardas (dubbed 'Magic Alex' by John due to his fantastical claims and ideas, like making a flying saucer powered by the engines from John and George's Ferraris) had recently come onto the scene, and he found John's idea to be the perfect way to get even more involved with the Beatles and their inner circle. He persuaded John that Greece (Magic Alex's homeland) was the perfect location for the Beatles' island and a trip was planned to find a suitable location.
Paul reminisces about the plan in his autobiography, Many Years From Now (if you don't have a copy, get one): "Alex invited John on a boat holiday in Greece, and we were all then invited. There was some story of buying a Greek island or something. It was all so sort of abstract but the first thing we had to do is go to Greece and see if we even liked it out there. The idea was get an island where you can just do what you want, a sort of hippie commune where nobody’d interfere with your lifestyle. I suppose the main motivation for that would probably be that no one could stop you smoking. Drugs was probably the main reason for getting some island, and then all the other community things that were around then... it was drug-induced ambition, we’d just be sitting around: 'Wouldn’t it be great? The lapping water, sunshine, we’d be playing. We’d get a studio there. Well, its possible these days with mobiles and...' We had lots of ideas like that. The whole Apple enterprise was the result of those ideas."
The Beatles left for Greece in July 1967. George, Pattie, Ringo (no Maureen, as she was in the latter stages of her pregnancy at the time) and Neil Aspinall left on 22nd July, while John, Cyn, Julian, Paul, Jane, Pattie's sister Paula, Magic Alex, Mal Evans and Alistair Taylor all left on 23 July.
The Beatles chartered a luxury yacht called MV Arvi. It had 24 berths and a crew of 8 including the captain, chef and 2 stewards. They spent the first few days island hopping, swimming and tripping their tits off, which turned out to be a bit too much for Paul: "We went on the boat and sat around and took acid. It was good fun being with everyone, with trippier moments. For me the pace was a bit wearing. I probably could have done with some straight windows occasionally, I’d have enjoyed it a bit more."
George had no such reservations: "It was a great trip. John and I were on acid all the time, sitting on the front of this ship playing ukeleles. Greece was on the left, a big island on the right. The sun was shining and we sang ‘Hare Krishna’ for hours and hours."
After all of that fun and merriment, the Beatles got down to serious island-buying business. They found the perfect place - an 80 acre island called Leslo. It had a small fishing village, four beaches and a large olive grove (so they could always move into the olive oil business if the tunes ever dried up). Four small neighbouring islands surrounded it and the grand plan was that each Beatle would have their own island, as Neil Aspinall (a bit dismissively) confirms: "There was talk of getting an island. I don’t know what it was all about - it was a bit silly really. The idea was that you’d have four houses with tunnels connecting them to a central dome”. John was very excited about the idea at the time: "We’re all going to live there, perhaps forever, just coming home for visits. Or it might just be six months a year. It’ll be fantastic, all on our own on this island. There’s some little huts which we’ll do up and knock together and live communally"
The Fabulous Foursome decided to buy the island there and then. They asked Alistair Taylor to tie up the deal. It cost them £90,000 and at the time it was difficult to get money out of Britain. The Beatles had to apply to the government for permission to spend £90,000 abroad, which was eventually given, but by this time they’d long since forgotten about Leslo."It came to nothing." said Ringo. "We didn’t buy the island, we came home. We were great at going on holiday with big ideas, but we never carried them out. We were also going to buy a village in England - one with rows of houses on four sides and a village green in the middle. We were going to have a side each." Paul said that they all thought "We’ve done it now. That was it for a couple of weeks. Great, wasn’t it? Now we don’t need it." He reflected that "Having been out there, I don’t think we needed to go back. Probably the best way not to buy a Greek island is to go out there for a bit. Its a good job we didn’t do it, because anyone who tried those ideas realised eventually there would always be arguments, there would always be who has to do the washing-up and whose turn is it to clean out the latrines. I don’t think any of us were thinking of that."
And so the Beatles returned to Blighty. Brian Epstein was to die a few weeks later. They were soon to start filming Magical Mystery Tour (their first taste of a critical bashing) and fractures would start to appear within the band. I think that's why this is one of my favourite Beatles stories. The band were still strong, their relationships were still firmly intact, creativity was still pouring out of them, they were still having wonderfully whimsical ideas like this one, and there was no sign of the doom on the horizon.
The Scam: His usual approach was to walk up to a "mark," introduce himself as the owner, and offer a job as tolltaker in the tollbooth he was about to build. Parker would then gently guide the conversation to the point where the mark would offer to buy the bridge, set up his own tollbooth, and keep all the toll money for himself. Parker, "more a bridge builder than a toll taker," was happy to have the bridge taken off his hands in exchange for anywhere from $50 to $50,000, depending on how wealthy the tourist looked. And he accepted payments installments when a sucker didn't have enough cash to buy the bridge outright. Some of his victims paid him regularly for months before they realized they'd been had; and more than once, police had to be called to the bridge to prevent its latest "owner" from erecting a toll barrier.
What Happened: Parker specialized in selling the Brooklyn Bridge, but also sold other prominent New York landmarks on the side, including Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant's Tomb, and even the Statute of Liberty. Amazingly, he remained in business form 1883 to 1928, when he was finally arrested on a swindling charge and sentenced to life in prison. He died in Sing Sing prison--where the other con men treated him like a king--in 1937.
When the wife of an English barrister sent her husband to buy a set of dining room chairs, she was understandably surprised when he returned as the owner of Britain's most iconic monument.
Salisbury resident and barrister Cecil Chubb snapped up the then-neglected ruin of Stonehenge 100 years ago today, for the sum of £6,600, only to gift it to the nation three years later.
Legend has it he purchase the monument as a spontaneous gift for his wife Mary, but she was less than enamoured with the jumbled collection of stones.
Despite a lacklustre description reading: 'Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland,' Chubb bid for the mysterious monument.
At the time he explained: 'I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it, and that is how it was done.'
There were suggestions the purchase was a romantic gesture to his wife, or equally an expression of patriotism. Newspaper articles at the time spread fear that the piece of British history could be acquired by a foreign buyer, much like old London Bridge.