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How Third Richest Man in the World Went Missing From the Sky

When you are one of the richest men on the planet, you have no shortage of enemies waiting for their chance to take advantage of you. Check out what happened to the third richest man in the world while he was traveling with some "friends" in today's epic new story!

By Jayveer ValaPublished about a year ago 18 min read
Alfred Lowenstein

What goes up, doesn’t always come down. On a warm day in July, the third-richest man in the world boarded his private plane in the UK to make the short trip to Belgium. Six other people were on that plane, and yet this man somehow disappeared mid-flight. This is one of the most baffling mysteries in human history, about a man who was both loved and hated; a man whose great wealth generated acres of envy. He was tied to strange and questionable business deals, and he was about to work with one of the biggest names in organized crime to bring chaos and pain to Europe.

What happened to Alfred Lowenstein is a question for the ages. The farther you go down the rabbit hole in this story, the more dirt you’re exposed to. Prepare to get dirty. Long before Lowenstein became known as the man that went missing from the sky, he was making some serious money in Europe. In the 1920s, he was often cited as being the third-richest person on Earth, with a wealth close to that of names such as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford. To give you an idea of his fortune, you need to hear this. When World War I started, Belgium was neutral, but as Germany needed to go through Belgium to get to France and complete its Schlieffen Plan, Belgium was invaded and occupied. That’s why Britain joined the war. This was a tough time for Belgium. It’s also the time that Mr Lowenstein told the Belgian government he’d give the country a $50 million interest-free loan to help stabilize its currency but under one condition. He asked for the ability to print his Belgian francs. The government didn’t take him up on the offer, but what’s important here is that $50 million back then is about $1.5 billion in today’s money. This was a powerful man, and he was willing to make many enemies to become even more powerful. His objective was to become the main player on the world’s stage of finance. He didn’t mind flashing his cash, too, or being shrewd to the point of cruelty, which was another reason he didn’t exactly make many friends.

Lowenstein was greedy as they come, and if you look at the mafia connection in this story, you’ll start to understand that he was prepared to make large parts of society suffer just to put more money in his already bulging bank account. Lowenstein was born on March 11, 1877, to a long line of wealthy Jewish-German bankers. He was destined to be rich, and he didn’t waste much time getting there. He started making extreme amounts of money when he created the Société Internationale d’Énergie Hydro-Électrique. With this company, he promised to deliver electricity to many of the underdeveloped nations of the world. This is why he made a fortune at the start of the 20th century. Excuse the pun, but his electricity business made him one of the world’s most powerful men. He has been given the name the “flying financier” since he was very fond of his private planes – a big luxury back then. After the Belgium government snubbed his $50 million loan offer, Lowenstein moved to England and became Captain Lowenstein in the military where he’d make a large chunk of money selling military supplies to the British army. After the war, he stayed in England, and in 1926 he started his investment firm. Various ventures made him tons of cash and he was soon one of the biggest names in Europe. The Brits liked his wealth, and so bestowed on him the title of “Companion of The Most Honorable Order of the Bath.” You don’t need to know what that means except for it’s a kind of title the Brits give to rich people. With his firm, “International Holdings and Investments Limited”, Lowenstein told other rich folks that if they invested their money with him, through building infrastructure around the world, he’d make them incredibly rich, too. They invested, and they did so big time. This firm combined with Lowenstein’s involvement in the silk trade is what made him his millions. You also need to know something about his personality. As we said, he wasn’t one to hold back when it came to spending. How he spent his cash, though, is not always clear, and that’s why he was sometimes called the “Mystery Man of Europe.” His big spending sprees also got him the moniker, “The Belgian Santa Claus.” When he wasn’t watching his finances grow, he was at the races watching one of his thoroughbreds compete. His horses won the 1926 and 1928 Runnings of the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris. This is a man that had his fingers in as many pies as all the bakers in Belgium.

If he should somehow die, there’d be a lot of money left behind. There’d be a lot of upset investors, too. And while for the most part, he’d made money in Europe, people knew that he was about to come to America, but with another goal in mind. He didn’t just want to be wealthier; he wanted to stand on top of the world. Speaking about the US and his plans for the country, he once said: “I have always made use of what is called American methods. I like American energy and American efficiency. In many ways, my point of view is similar to that of the American businessman.” Even though his business in America wasn’t purely about the money he made some strange acquaintances such as Arnold Rothstein, a person many historians call the world’s first-ever drug trafficker. Rothstein, a Jewish-American who was the architect of numerous ways to make money through crime, was sometimes called “The Brain.” He was an exceptional businessman and gambler and even fixed huge sporting events such as the 1919 World Series. Rothstein was smart, and while he wasn’t often violent himself, the word on the street was that if you did cross him you WILL end up dead. He feared no one, not even the most brutal mafia bosses such as Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Rather, they were probably scared of him. For Rothstein, crime was just another business in the game of capitalism, and if you wanted to run a criminal empire, you should do it as you would a legal one. So, when he first understood the addictive qualities of heroin, he knew that he just had to bring that stuff to the US. Heroin had been legal and controlled at the time, and there weren’t many addicts, but that was changing.

He’d seen how much cash prohibition generated, and he knew that drugs were the next big thing. Rothstein once had a meeting about this new drug business and told the other criminals in attendance, “Prohibition is going to last a long time and then one day it’ll be abandoned. But it’s going to be with us for quite a while, that’s for sure…We can make a fortune.” But how does Lowenstein, a wealthy financier, come into this? Well, we told you that he liked to have his fingers in many pies, and even though he may not have been a gangster, he knew that a highly addictive drug being used all over Europe and the rest of the world had the potential to make him millions. Rothstein might not have been as rich as him, but he wasn’t far off. He respected Rothstein. The connection between these two men was talked about briefly in the anti-drug-war book, “Chasing the Scream.” It was written by the journalist Johann Hari, whose research shows that when the war on drugs kicked off some of the cops were in cahoots with the mafia to ensure more drugs got into the country. So, as the new drug acts were written up, Mr Rothstein was rubbing his hands together so much that they almost caught on fire. Then the US, through Anslinger, told other countries that they should also start their war on drugs. Many said that it wouldn’t really work, and anyway, they had the matter of drugs under control... They didn’t. The US then warned them if they didn’t start to actively fight against drug use, they’d institute sanctions, so, one by one, most of the world jumped on the war on drugs train. Now Europe was a marketplace for illegal drugs, including the UK, where Lowenstein was based. We should also say that heroin was being legally produced in factories across Europe.

This is where Rothstein sourced his heroin. He wanted to start a massive industrial drug manufacturing and smuggling business, but he needed help. We’ll now give the floor to Harari, who wrote in his book: “One day, Arnold met in a hotel on East Forty-Second Street with Captain Alfred Lowenstein. With Rothstein, the captain signed the biggest drug deal in history up to that point, a plan to mass-market a range of opiates to a growing new market.” At this point, we should also remember that Lowenstein was involved in government dealings in Europe. He was one of the richest people in the world and was pretty much helped develop part of the poorer world, leading him to a lot of political influence. He also had a lot of powerful and rich investors backing him, and some of them stood to make huge amounts of money off this new scheme. One of his many reasons for being this greedy? Maintaining his extravagant lifestyle. Staying with that Times article, the journalist said Lowenstein’s spending habits were out of this world, with his weekly budget for all his requirements at his many mansions being $100,000 ($1.5 million in today’s money). He was once having a dinner party at his luxury house in Biarritz in France, and he flew a private plane to Moscow just to pick up some caviar. The article also suggests his ridiculous spending had led to secret financial problems. His dealings with Rothstein escalated during a meeting in New York where they discussed the finer details of their operation to fill the streets of Europe with now-illegal heroin. Pietrusza’s research shows that Lowenstein went to New York with 20 people in tow, including his four secretaries, two typists, his masseur, chauffeur, and of course his pilot. They met on East 42nd Street. Rothstein had about as many people around him as Lowenstein did.

The Irish gangster and close associate/bodyguard of Rothstein, a man nicknamed Legs Diamond, was also in attendance at the meeting. It was Diamond that later said this historic meeting was “probably the biggest drug transaction in the country up to that time.” Negotiations took hours, with Lowenstein as usual being very shrewd. At one point, Diamond says he stormed out in a huff only for Rothstein to calm things down. Nat Ferber, a New York American reporter, knew about the meeting and questioned Rothstein about it. He asked Rothstein, “What are you and that bird Lowenstein up to? I saw you at Grand Central.” This put the usually calm and collected Rothstein on edge. He didn’t answer the question and the conversation ended with Rothstein telling Ferber, “You'll get yours.” Meaning his comeuppance. We also know that Lowenstein flew to Montreal right after the meeting and Rothstein followed him there by train. They talked again, and then Lowenstein sailed to France on the ship, the Ile de France. It was springtime, and Lowenstein told Rothstein he’d be back to meet him in America in November. That meeting did not take place. That’s because on July 4, not long after he’d returned to Europe, he would go on his final plane ride. Now you know all the most important details about his life, it’s time to tell you the strange tale of that plane journey. It was 6 pm when he boarded the plane at Croydon airport in the south of England. The weather was mild and he was in a cheerful mood. He could sometimes have quite the temper, but on this day, according to later testimonies, he was laughing and joking. He was focused on business, but he was in a good mood at the airport. The plane taking Lowenstein was a Fokker FVII, an aircraft he was well acquainted with. The pilot, Donald Drew, told him it would be a very smooth flight. It was a very smooth flight, just not a smooth landing, for Lowenstein anyway. The others on the flight were Fred Baxter, his valet, Arthur Hodgson, his secretary, and two stenographers, Eileen Clarke and Paula Bidalon. There was also the pilot and a mechanic named Robert Little.

They took off and were soon 4,000 feet in the air peering down at the Kent coastline, and a few minutes later they were flying over the English Channel. An important detail about the plane layout is that there were two doors in a separate part of the plane at the rear of the cabin. One of them led to a bathroom. The opposite was the door marked EXIT. Unlike many planes, if you went to the bathroom you had to leave the cabin. Lowenstein had designed the plane himself to make the cabin quiet so he could hold business meetings in the air. We should also say that no one in their right mind could mistake the bathroom door for the exit door, and anyway, as you’ll see, to open it in mid-air would be hard. You’d need a couple of bodybuilders to even shift the door, and Lowenstein was no bodybuilder. At one point, he stopped reading, stood up and headed to the toilet. He walked through the door, and that was it. He was never seen again. It was his valet who first became suspicious, saying he went to check on Lowenstein after he’d been gone for about 10 minutes. The valet thought Lowenstein must have been in the toilet. But as he didn’t answer the valet’s calls, the door was pushed open. The toilet was empty. Just a few minutes ago Lowenstein had been laughing and joking and now he was gone. Nothing made sense. Where did Lowenstein go? He wasn’t in the cockpit. When the captain was told about what had happened, he landed the plane on a beach close to where an army company was stationed. This wasn’t too far from Dunkirk. Soldiers saw the plane land and started running towards it. By the time they got there, all six passengers and crew were out on the beach. Lieutenant Marquailles, was told about what had just happened and why they had to perform an emergency landing. Marquailles later said he couldn’t make sense of the situation but remarked that the pilot was acting strange and not answering all of his questions.

The plane was soon in the hands of the British Air Ministry. After a few tests, they announced that it would have been impossible to open the rear door during the flight. At the time, an aviation expert told the Times, “When a plane is flying it takes more than an ordinary push to open the door. Moreover, Captain Lowenstein was more than familiar with the plane.” Also, even if he had been able to perform the impossible, the plane would have experienced turbulence from the change in cross-section. How come everyone said they felt nothing? It was believed by some that if Lowenstein had gone out of that door, then would’ve had to be pushed by someone. Remember, his vast wealth was now up for grabs. His many, many properties were also up for grabs, as were many of his businesses, so there were many reasons to assassinate the business magnate. This is why the people on the plane were interrogated numerous times. One of the detectives was Inspector Bonnot, who later concluded, “A most unusual and mysterious case. We have not yet made up our minds to any definite theory, but anything is possible.” He could hardly keep those people in custody because he didn’t have anything to go on in terms of evidence. Journalist, Nat Ferber soon heard about the death. Then in November, he was told that Arnold Rothstein was murdered. For Ferber, the fact that two men who were doing business together had just been killed rang some alarm bells. This is one theory on what could’ve happened: Rothstein needed to raise some money to create a drug empire as the world had never seen. Lowenstein, who had plenty of money, was willing to invest.

But now Lowenstein was dead, Rothstein didn’t have enough money to start the businesses to a scale that satisfied the expectations of other less dangerous investors, so he was killed. He was shot at a business meeting in New York and was sent to the hospital. Cops turned up and asked him who did it, to which he replied, “You stick to your trade. I'll stick to mine.” People also started talking about other reasons such as Lowenstein's business worries, his extravagant spending, or his possibly letting down his investors, but when the New York Times investigated this, they found that his shares in one company alone were worth $25 million. As you now know, that’s hundreds of millions in today’s money. Lowenstein, said the Times, did not have money problems, although he certainly had some of his investors worried. The Times wrote, “So wide were his interests, involving many billions, that it is impossible to estimate the effect of his death.” His death led to a significant downturn in the world’s economy. Was all of this part of a larger conspiracy? People were asking this when his body was found. At least, a body the cop claimed was him. It was found floating in the sea near Boulogne on July 19, just over two weeks after he went missing. The corpse was taken to Calais on a fishing boat, where police confirmed it was Lowenstein due to the wristwatch on the man’s arm. Notably, forensic scientists said that Lowenstein had been alive when he hit the water. This wasn’t a murder in the air, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been thrown out of the plane.

You can only imagine what would happen if say, Bill Gates, mysteriously fell out of an aircraft and died. So, back then this was a huge story. Some people then started saying that his wife Madeleine had told his male secretary and perhaps another man to throw him out. They said that everyone on that plane was in on it. They all stood to get very rich if they kept their mouths shut. One investigator came to this conclusion, “One thing is clear: all six people on board were almost certainly privy to the murder. Indeed, they had probably planned it carefully in advance.” What’s more, Madeline didn’t even go to his funeral! She was, after all, very busy playing with her new fortune. She also didn’t seem too concerned that his name wasn’t etched into his headstone, as he was effectively buried in an unmarked grave. As people enjoyed their windfall, he was resting for eternity in complete anonymity. It’s also worth noting that two of his business partners, Albert Pam and Frederick Szarvasy, got very rich after his death, adding another 2 suspects to this conspiracy. In a book about Lowenstein called “The Man Who Fell From The Sky”, the author William Norris investigated the death and he too said Madeline had paid the people on that plane to throw her husband out. He said the entire door was thrown out with the body. The reason the plane landed on that beach and not on a nearby airstrip was that the door needed to be secretly replaced. Many people stuck with the story of it being an accidental death, which to us sounds implausible.

How could a man have pulled open a door that was pretty much impossible to open, by accident? It’s just not possible. The vast majority of people said it must have been a murder, and many people still think that now. But was Madeline behind it or was it someone else? Could something have gone wrong with the deal between Rothstein and Lowenstein? Had Rothstein somehow engineered the murder? Let’s remind you again that Rothstein often broke bread with US politicians and some of the most powerful people in finance, people who may have profited from the death of a man who was planning on taking over the world. Rothstein could have been involved with the murder, and once it was done, some people in high places could have had Rothstein killed to ensure nothing about his involvement with the Lowenstein murder ever came out. Rothstein’s death remains a mystery today. One thing William Norris also discovered during his investigations in the 1990s is that after Lowenstein died, the stock for his International Holdings company mysteriously went through the roof. 13 million dollars (over $200 million today), seemed to just appear out of nowhere. So yes, there were a million reasons why someone might have wanted him dead, from business partners to his wife, to his investors, to America’s richest organized criminal, and possibly even the US government.

Still, the story the public heard in most newspapers was the implausible theory that Lowenstein had somehow accidentally walked out of the wrong door mid-flight. A door with a large EXIT sign above it, a door that was virtually impossible to open on a plane Lowenstein was very familiar with. There is another theory that might make more sense to you. Imagine if Lowenstein wanted to go missing. Imagine if he had paid the people on the plane to help him go missing. He had so much money he could have lived the rest of his secret life in luxury. This is a scenario some crime writers have put forward over the years. With those insurance policies and his now rich wife, perhaps together they lived this secret life far from prying eyes. Is this why she didn’t bother turning up to his funeral? Is this why he was buried in an unmarked grave?

Was anyone even in that grave? Most people familiar with the case say there is no way he just accidentally stepped out of that plane. But what do you think?


About the Creator

Jayveer Vala

I write.

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